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Well, not exactly a ban…

It was the law in colonial Virginia, enacted in February 1631/32.

Marriage, in that colony, was almost always banned.1

It was the law in colonial Massachusetts, enacted as least as early as November of 1692.

Marriage, in that colony, was usually banned.2

Massachusetts banns

It was the law in colonial North Carolina as well, from at least 1715.

Marriage there, as a matter of course, was banned.3

Now The Legal Genealogist isn’t telling you people didn’t get married in those colonies.

This isn’t a matter of whether folks got hitched; it’s a matter of how they got hitched.

And, in the earliest days, part of that how were the marriage banns, usually spelled that way, though spelled marriage “bans” by my favorite law dictionary writer. Henry Campbell Black defined the term in his dictionary’s 1891 first edition:

BANS OF MATRIMONY. A public announcement of an intended marriage, required by the English law to be made in a church or chapel, during service, on three consecutive Sundays before the marriage is celebrated. The object is to afford an opportunity for any person to interpose an objection if he knows of any impediment or other just cause why the marriage should not take place. The publication of the bans may be dispensed with by procuring a special license to marry.4

Well, yeah, English law as of 1891 — but certainly American law for many years before that.

And it’s why there aren’t marriage licenses and returns for so many early marriages here in the United States and, for that matter, anywhere in the world that the banns system was followed.

The way it worked, an official announcement of a couple’s intent to marry was read from the pulpit or posted at the door of the local church. Usually, banns were read on three consecutive Sundays or posted for three weeks. Some laws allowed the banns to be posted at the courthouse or some other public place.

That notice had one purpose and one purpose only: to make sure folks knew there was a wedding in the offing so that they had a chance to come forward and object if there was some legal reason why the marriage couldn’t take place.5 In general, that meant one of the couple was (or both were) too young, one of them was (or both were) already married, or the law prohibited the marriage because they were too closely related.

The system changed over time as a more mobile population was less and less likely to know every couple planning to marry and their circumstances, and as government wanted more control over who got married. Most early American jurisdictions switched first to a system of marriage bonds — promises backed up by financial penalties that there wasn’t any legal reason why the marriage couldn’t take place6 — and then by roughly the middle of the 19th century to marriage licenses.7

So we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t find a marriage license for an early ancestor.

It’s more likely that ancestor’s marriage was banned than licensed.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Banning the marriage,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 19 Jan 2022).


  1. See Act VI, Laws of February 1631/2, in William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, vol. I (New York: p.p., 1823), 156.
  2. See “An Act for the Orderly Consummating of Marriages,” Chapter 25 in Acts and Resolves of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, Vol. I, 1682-1714 (Boston: By Authority, 1869), 61; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 19 Jan 2022).
  3. North Carolina Laws of 1715, chapter 8, in William Saunders, compiler, Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. 2 (Raleigh, N.C. : P.M. Hale, State Printer, 1886), 212-213; online version, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South ( : accessed 19 Jan 2022).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 120, “bans of matrimony.”
  5. See e.g. Susan Scouras, “Early Marriage Laws in Virginia/West Virginia,” West Virginia Archives & History News, vol. 5, no. 4 (June 2004), 1-3.
  6. See
    e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Bonding the bride and groom,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 17 Nov 2014 ( : accessed 19 Jan 2022).
  7. See generally Kimberly Powell, “Marriage Records: Types of Marriage Records for Family History Research,”, updated 14 Oct 2019 ( : accessed 19 Jan 2022).
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