The 19th Century Debate over Unlawful Marriages

Among the debates that became prominent during the 19th century American Presbyterian (and Reformed) churches was the debate over what restrictions the Bible taught concerning relations of affinity and consanguinity within marriage. 

The Westminster Confession (24:4., 1646) states: 

"IV. Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden in the Word; nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man, or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together, as man and wife. The man may not marry any of his wife's kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own, nor the woman of her husband's kindred nearer in blood than of her own."

The annotations of the Dutch Statenvertaling Bible, authorized by the Great Synod of Dort, on Leviticus 18:16, 18 also show the view of the Dutch Reformed Church, which was consistent with Westminster.

However, this particular understanding of the Levitical laws regarding marriage (the Westminster Assembly's proof-texts include New Testament passages as well as those from the book of Leviticus), has been often challenged in the years since. 

"When Samuel Miller was examined for licensure and ordination he took exception to the affinity sentence [WCF 24:4], but later in his ministry his view changed and he became convinced of the accuracy of the sentence." (Barry Waugh, The History of a Confessional Sentence: The Events Leading up to the Inclusion o f the Affinity Sentence in the Westminster Confession o f Faith, Chapter 24, Section 4, and the Judicial History Contributing to its Removal in the American Presbyterian Church, 2002 Ph.D., p. 274) Dr. Waugh notes the inclusion of two particular volumes contained in Samuel Miller's library after his death, which shed light on Miller's thinking on this matter. In a footnote on p. 111 of Dr. Waugh's most helpful dissertation, he writes: "Dr. Miller maintained some interest in the issues of marital affinity because the inventory of his library following his death revealed two near-kin titles. One book is Janeway’s, Unlawful Marriage, 1843, and the other is an 1816 work described as a Dissertation on Marrying a Wife's Sister, which may be Livingston’s A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man with His Sister in Law (New Brunswick: Deare & Myer, 1816). See: Samuel Miller, “Catalogue, As Found at his Death,” PTSEM 1:3, pp. 2, 35."

Jacob Jones Janeway (1774-1858), in fact, studied under John Henry Livingston (1746-1825), who was not strictly speaking a Presbyterian, but was a leader of the Dutch Reformed Church in America. Janeway notes in the introduction to his book that the Dutch Reformed Church rescinded the rule against marriage to a deceased wife's sister in 1842. Both men opposed the tide that was overtaking both the American Presbyterian Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in America. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) in his Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, pp. 413ff, and elsewhere, also argued likewise. 

Nevertheless, in 1886, the Presbyterian Church in the United States officially removed the affinity sentence from WCF 24:4. This revision was retained in the 1936 WCF by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and, later, by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 

The works touching on this topic highlighted above can be read online at Log College Press. They provide a window not only into Samuel Miller's library, but also into a controversy that occupied many 19th century Presbyterian General Assemblies, and, though decided in certain branches of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, continues to reverberate today. 

Jacob Jones Janeway's Study Guides on Romans and Hebrews

If you're teaching Romans or Hebrews in Sunday School or a Bible study right now, check out the catechetical expositions by Jacob Jones Janeway. Here is an example from the Hebrews study guide:

Q. 28. What great work has this Divine person done for us? v. 3.
A. By himself he purged our sins.

Q. 29. What does this presuppose?
A. It presupposes the assumption of human nature by the Son, into a personal union with his divine nature.

Q. 30. How did the Son by himself purge our sins? v. 3.
A. He accomplished this great work, " by the sacrifice of himself," (chap. ix. 26,) by "bearing our sins in his own body on the tree." 1 Pet. ii. 2.24. Thus he satisfied divine justice, and made atonement for our sins.

Q. 31. What signal honour was conferred on the Son for accomplishing this great work for sinful men ? v. 3.
A. He "sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high."

Q. 32. By whom was this infinite honour conferred?
A. By God the Father. See Ephes. i. 20—23. Phil. ii. 9-11.

Q. 33. Could the Son receive this honour as God? v. 3. 
A. He received it in his mediatorial person, as God and man in one person.

Q. 34. Could a mere creature be thus highly exalted?
A. No mere creature could be so highly exalted. The divinity of our Saviour's person qualified him to receive, in his mediatorial character, such infinite honour.

These questions continue for 140 pages, so there is a lot of material here for teachers to use in classroom settings or in 1-1 discipleship. 

Hope for the Jews: One 19th Century American Presbyterian Perspective on the Future State of the Jews

In 1853, the distinguished American Presbyterian Jacob Jones Janeway (1774-1858) wrote Hope for the Jews: or, The Jews Will Be Converted to the Christian Faith; and Settled and Reorganized as a Nation in the Land of Palestine. In this treatise, he argues that the prophecies of the New and Old Testament foretell a general conversion of the Jews to Christianity in the latter days, as well as a restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine. 

This topic has been a source of much intramural debate among Reformed theologians over the centuries. Yet in holding his view, not derived from Dispensationalism, Janeway followed a long tradition of American congregationalists such as John Cotton, Increase Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Ezra Stiles; American Presbyterians such as Asa McFarland, Charles Hodge (who preached Janeway's funeral sermon), A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield; and Presbyterians and Baptists from across the pond, such as R.M. M'Cheyne, Horatius and Andrew Bonar, David Brown, Charles Spurgeon and others; all of whom held to a future mass conversion of the Jews, and most of whom held to a future national restoration of the Jewish people. 

Janeway's treatise encourages prayer for the Jewish people and, particularly, for the conversion and restoration. He says: "Christians, true believers, are now, by adoption, Israelites; and doubtless, it is binding on them, as well as on Abraham's natural descendants, to offer continual and earnest, and importunate prayer to God, to hasten the accomplishment of His gracious purposes in favor of Israel, and to turn their hearts to Himself, that they may all become the spiritual seed of Abraham, and Israelites indeed." To study further how Janeway understood the apostolic expression "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved" (Rom. 10:1), read more here.

The next time you eat the Lord's Supper, prepare your heart with these meditations by J. J. Janeway.

The Lord Jesus tells us to prepare ourselves before we come to His Supper, by examining ourselves and remembering the meaning of the sacrament of His body and blood. Jacob Jones Janeway has written a marvelous guide, a Manual for Communicants, to help us in that task. These twenty-nine meditations (nineteen for before the Supper, one at the Supper, and nine after the Supper) are rich in Scriptural and theological meat. Followed by a prayer, they present us with a Christ-centered devotional guide that will reward reading and rereading. 

Here is the first meditation and prayer:


Again the administration of the Lord’s supper has been announced; and on the appointed day, it will be my privilege and that of other disciples of our Lord, to take our seats at his table. Invaluable ordinance! How powerful its influence in sustaining Christian character and deportment! The announcement of it has often found professing Christians slumbering and declining, if not backsliding. Aroused by it, in attending to the duties and meditations which preparation for it demands, they have discovered their slumbering and declension; and been by grace enabled to awake from sleep, and to recover what they had lost.

How precious this ordinance on various accounts! The consideration of its origin should endear it to our hearts. It did not take its rise from human wisdom. It is no appointment of man. No man, whatever may be his station and authority has a right to ordain a religious rite; nor has any assembly of men, whether civil or ecclesiastical, such a right. The exercise of such a right would be an invasion of the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Head of the Church. He alone has a right to prescribe her laws, and to ordain her rites. Were the supper a human appointment, it would be mere will worship; and, in partaking of it, we might justly apprehend his rebuke, instead of expecting his approbation.

The great Lawgiver and Head of the Church instituted this ordinance. He made the appointment in circumstances of peculiar endearment. The same night in which he was betrayed, when he had a full view of his approaching sufferings, then his love appointed this supper, designed for the edification and comfort of his disciples, till the end of time. In such circumstances he took bread and wine, as memorials of his broken body and shed blood; and commanded them to be used as such, in remembrance of his sufferings for us, and his love to us. Three Evangelists, and the apostle Paul, have certified us of these facts. Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19, 20; I Cor. 11:23-33.

This ordinance was first observed by the apostles of our Lord in a large upper room in Jerusalem; Mark 14:15; then by the Church in that city, after the Redeemer’s resurrection; and subsequently by the Church, wherever she was found in various parts of the world, in all succeeding ages; and now it is observed by the Church in these ends of the earth; and it will be observed by the Church till the end of the world. Let me then remember this great fact, of which not a doubt should exist, that this supper was appointed by the authority of Jesus Christ; and let me partake of it in obedience to his authority, and thus render it an act of acceptable worship.

How precious this ordinance, when we consider who are the invited guests, and by whose presence the supper will be graced and honored! Whom shall I see at the table of my Lord? The rich, the great, the nobles, the princes, and kings of the earth? Oh no! Seldom have such been found to obey the Savior’s dying command. They prefer sitting at tables, which wealth and pomp delight to provide, spread with costly viands, that gratify and pamper their bodily appetites; and slight a feast designed to meet the wants of an immortal mind, and nourish its spiritual life, and prepare it for heavenly happiness. There shall I meet the poor, the unlearned, the unknown. Yet let me lift the veil that conceals them, and look at them with the eye of faith; and whom do I see? How changed! They are the disciples of Christ, the ransomed of the Lord, the saints of God, his children, the sons and daughters of the Almighty, the heirs of heaven, the expectants of crowns and kingdoms there. What a privilege! what an honor to sit with them at the same table of our common Lord!

Nor is the Lord absent. He is indeed in heaven. His glorified body is there, far removed from mortal sight. But, in his divine nature, Jesus is everywhere; and he will not fail to meet, with his gracious presence, his disciples, when, in obedience to his dying command, they gather around his table, to feed upon the spiritual repast his love has prepared for them. Compared with such a feast, partaken of by such guests, and graced with the presence and enriched with the smiles of the King of kings and Lord of lords, what is the most sumptuous entertainment that was ever prepared by earthly riches, for the display of human grandeur and magnifi­cence!

How precious too this supper, when its spiritual nature is considered! Heresy will have it, that the words of the institution are to be understood literally; that, in the supper, we eat the real body and drink the real blood of our Redeemer; and that the elements are really changed into his body and blood. What absurdity! When the Savior said “I am the door;” “I am the vine;” are we to understand him as meaning, that he was really a door, and really a vine? Heresy itself is compelled to assign a figurative meaning to some words in the institution. She does not contend we are to drink the cup and not the wine, when the cup is given; nor that the cup is really the New Testament, and not a sign and seal of it. “It is the spirit, said Jesus, that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” John 6:53-56, 63.

The feast is not designed to satisfy our bodily appetites. It is a spiritual feast, intended to nourish our spiritual life, and strengthen all the faculties and graces of that life. A small portion of bread and wine, used as symbols of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord, is given to us, that we may feed on his body and blood, not carnally and corporally, but spiritually and mystically, by faith. We are to receive, and eat, and drink the elements, to signify that, as we live by eating and drinking appropriate food, so we live spiritually by feeding by faith on the spiritual food, which he furnishes for the life of our souls; or, in other words, that we are willing to accept that spiritual and eternal life he has purchased by his sufferings and death, and to depend on him for its preservation, increase here, and final expansion in the world to come. Such is the nature of this blessed feast.

The supper of our Lord is precious also on account of the covenant engagements it seals. “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” Luke 22:20. The covenant of grace was ratified and sealed by the blood of the great Mediator, and all its blessings were made sure to all for whom he undertook to satisfy divine justice; and the cup or wine, the symbol of this blood, seals the New Testament or covenant in this ordinance. Here I am invited to renew my covenant engagements with God. Here I am allowed the great privilege of taking God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost to be my covenant God; the Father to be my reconciled father and covenanted portion, through Christ; the Son to be my Savior, friend, master and Lord; and the Holy Ghost to be my guide and teacher, my sanc­tifier and comforter; and to give myself up to God as his servant and child; to Christ as his disciple and follower, and to the Holy Ghost as his temple, forever. The elements are seals to this covenant, for both parties. I seal my engagements to God; and God seals his promises to me.

Amazing transaction! What astonishing condescension and grace on the part of God! and how should I admire and adore him for such condescension and grace!

Is this the feast I am invited to partake of? so heavenly in its origin, and instituted in circumstances so interesting; its guests so noble and dignified; its nature so spiritual, so nourishing to my spiritual life, and so strengthening to every grace and virtue; and the transactions to which it invites so wonderful and sublime? How joyfully ought I then to embrace every opportunity of supping and communing with my blessed Lord! For such an ordinance doubtless a corresponding preparation is required. By solemn meditation on suitable topics, by self-examination, by renewing my covenant engagements, by the exercise of repentance and faith, and by earnest and importunate prayer, let me then, endeavor to prepare for a believing and profitable communion season.


Blessed Redeemer, I praise thee for the institution of thy holy supper. I thank thee that, in circumstances so distressing, when thou hadst before thee all that thou wast about to suffer in the garden, in the palace of the high priest, in the hall of Pilate, and on the cross, thou didst not forget thy disciples. Then thou didst provide this memorial of thy love, this feast for the welfare, comfort, and edification of thy Church, to the end of time.

May I highly prize this ordinance, and rightly appreciate the high honor conferred on me, and the precious privilege granted to me, in being permitted to commune with thy people, and with thee, my Lord and Master! May my heart rejoice at every announcement that this precious supper will be again administered in the church of which I am a member!

Surely it becomes me to make a suitable preparation for taking my seat at a table covered with so rich a feast. Grant, O Lord, that I may come, having on the wedding garment, that I may meet with thy approbation, my King and my God. Incline my heart to meditate seriously and solemnly on all those interesting topics that will claim my atten­tion; to examine myself; to recollect my sins and renew my repentance; to dedicate myself again to thee, my Savior; to exercise my faith in thy atoning blood and justifying righteousness; and to pour forth my supplications for pardoning mercy and sanctifying grace. May it be a sweet and refreshing season to my soul, and to the souls of all communicants! May we meet with the Lord our Redeemer at his table, and enjoy com­munion with him, and with one another! Grant my prayer, for thy name’s sake. Amen.