The extraordinary importance of the wedding vow

Wedding vows are perhaps the most important element of any wedding ceremony, and certainly deserve close examination.

As you can imagine, after 15 years of officiating weddings, many, many weddings, I’ve heard a lot of vows spoken. Some funny, some surprising, some too long, some too short. How do you get the ‘goldilocks’ effect – just right?

The type of vows we’re most familiar with date back to The Book of Common Prayer  (England) which dates back to 1549, but it isn’t the first place that vows can be found. Like so many of our wedding customs, it can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire when the bride’s father would deliver her to the groom, and the couple agreed (with a vow) that they would wed. Remember that a vow is a promise or agreement. Wealthier Romans would sign documents listing property rights to publicly declare that their union was legal.  This was the beginning of the official recording of marriages.

In my celebrant practice, when a couple is writing their own vows I always request that each partner let me review them ahead of time – this is especially important when they are keeping them secret from each other. I want to be sure that there is a sense of equality between them and that one person doesn’t leave the ceremony feeling bad because they felt their vows weren’t good enough. When I explain this, most couples are very relieved. It can be harrowing to arrive at that important moment and be embarrassed in some way.

Some of the most interesting vows I’ve witnessed include a groom who had a guitar hidden at the altar, pulled it out, and SANG his vows to his bride! Another couple created vows as a back-and-forth style, like a jazz improvisation, trading solos so to speak. I had a couple who spoke their vows in unison. Bi-lingual vows always add something important.  Each partner can find the best way to incorporate different languages into their vows. But most often simply reading a heartfelt promise or more frequently, handling the situation with the classic ‘repeat after me.’

Another beautiful photo by Rhinehart Photography

It is perfectly ok to choose from vows that are already written, and I always provide lots of examples, from simple and classic to more involved.  Some have an eastern philosophical  influence, or a Celtic vibe. I have examples that would work better for couples with children. There are many circumstances that might inspire a specific point of view. There are plenty of examples easy to find on line. There is no need to reinvent this wheel.

When you think about what a vow actually is, choosing a classic one becomes easier. A vow is NOT your life story, it is NOT anecdotal, it is NOT a joke, it is your promise.A little fun in your vow is fine, just remember that a little goes a long way in this context.

We have all heard the phrase ‘for better or worse,’ and the most traditional vows include the phrases ‘in sickness and in health’ and maybe ‘til death do us part.’ I prefer ‘forever more’ but whatever you choose, you are promising to stick together until the end.

Most people are familiar with the phrase ‘to have and to hold’ and probably have not really thought about it too deeply. This is a holdover from a time when marriage meant possession of the bride, but in our modern times it simply has taken on the meaning of joining together. It might be outdated, but don’t sweat it. The ‘love, honor, and obey’ however, has really been (or should be) left on the trash heap of history. The obey part, that is!

The groom sings his vow

When we speak of traditional vows there really are lots of variations, especially within different religions. If you are leaving it up to your clergy person you will get different results from different faith leaders. Even within Christian denominations you will find variations. Protestant vows are the most familiar to most of us, with small differences between Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and the Catholic vows are also similar.

Jewish wedding vows can be very similar but often add: ‘hallowed by the faith of Israel’ or the Rabbi might say: ‘according to the traditions of the people of Israel in love and in respect’. Another popular phrase in Jewish weddings will reference Song of Solomon ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’ That is my favorite psalm.

The vow should follow the questions that elicit the ‘I do’ response. For this part of the wedding ceremony I prefer  the phrase: ‘do you welcome’ rather than ‘do you take’ this person as your spouse.

Looking at aHindu wedding vowas the bride and groom walk around a flame honoring Agni, the Hindu fire god, they recite the following:

Let us take the first step to provide for our household a nourishing and pure diet, avoiding those foods injurious to healthy living.

Let us take the second step to develop physical, mental, and spiritual powers.

Let us take the third step to increase our wealth by righteous means and proper use.

Let us take the fourth step to acquire knowledge, happiness, and harmony by mutual love and trust.

Let us take the fifth step so that we are blessed with strong, virtuous, and heroic children.

Let us take the sixth step for self-restraint and longevity.

Finally, let us take the seventh step and be true companions and remain lifelong partners by this wedlock.

I think it’s fine to borrow from other cultures, inspired by ideas that are not your tradition. Cultural appropriation is one thing, inspiration and respect another. I promise.


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