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The Canons of Courting

Tom and Dianne McMinn at the family ranch with their three youngest children
Troy Fields

Standing on the front porch of the McMinn family ranch in Hempstead, surrounded by 450 acres of quiet, rolling prairie, you might just wonder if you've drifted back into the 19th century.

There's a tire swing hanging from the big stout tree in the yard, a hundred head of cattle wandering the grassy fields in back, and wide open sky that seems to stretch from here to El Paso.

Tom, the patriarch of the McMinn clan, settles in on the couch near a crackling hearth in his living room. The 56-year-old, whose blue eyes and craggy visage evoke Robert Redford, runs a small company for oil and gas exploration. Dianne, 54, has on a Christmas sweater. She pulls out photos of their seven children and 12 grandchildren. A few minutes later, their ten-year-old little girl springs into the room, a flash of blond hair and blue eyes.

"This is our youngest daughter, Molly," Dianne says, hovering over her. "Some handsome young man'll have to wait a very long time for her…She's seen each one of her big sisters have their knight in shining armor come along."

Tom chuckles, but the thing is, Mom's not kidding. When Molly becomes of marriageable age, Tom will begin entertaining offers from young men who wish to woo his daughter along strict, old-fashioned lines. Until then, she will not date. The McMinns reject dating. They instead believe in and practice something called courtship, an underground movement among radically conservative Christians who seek to roll back romance to its antediluvian state.

You may one day meet a girl -- or boy -- like Molly, whose rules of engagement are dramatically different from your own. For young people who practice courtship, sexual abstinence is but a point of departure. They don't do dating, but they don't really do arranged marriages either. If you want to get in the game with them, you'd better learn the rules.

1. Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior

That's simple enough, isn't it? Christianity -- preferably of the evangelical, spread-the-Word, we're-on-fire-with-Jesus variety -- is a prerequisite for courtship candidates. It's non-negotiable. And while you're at it, read your Bible literally.

2. Remember, dating is practice for divorce

The McMinn family wandered into courtship before the subculture had a name. It was the late 1970s, and with two adolescent girls at home, Tom and Dianne watched with great concern what was considered a "normal" part of growing up: the evolution of boy-girl relationships.

"We saw the little heartbreaks that girls had," Tom explains. "So we just said, you know, we're gonna try not to do that and spare our kids. It developed into a concept of us really thinking about dating and going back and doing some historical research and finding out that dating is somewhat of a modern concept. And even if you go back to the 19th century, the concept of courtship is a real common idea…In order to preserve the purity and morality of our girls particularly, that we just weren't -- we were gonna step out of the culture a little bit and we weren't gonna date."

Dianne remembers a "red flag" moment that happened when her oldest daughter, Melissa, was five. She came home from Sunday school one day and asked, "Mommy, who is my boyfriend?" Other girls her age had boyfriends, so what did it mean, and who was hers?

It was a playfully precocious use of the term, but from that point on, Tom and Dianne taught the girls that, unlike kids from other families, they wouldn't have boyfriends until it was time to get married.

Courtship families -- especially the fathers -- consider it a God-given duty to protect their daughters. Tom says, "Dating is a hazardous occupation for kids in this country," adding, "I wanted to protect her from herself as well as any young man that might come along." Dating was not meant for entertainment, he concluded; not that romance couldn't be fun, but it shouldn't be for fun.

"As they got to be young teenage girls, the concept of -- you are a royal gem, you are a precious ruby -- and you don't want a jerk to come along, you know, and hurt you in any way," says Dianne. "It was just common knowledge among our acquaintances and everyone that the McMinn girls don't date. And so at the early age of 13, 14, 15 and 16, no one really approached them. So they were protected in that way."

The girls say they witnessed regular drama among their friends who did date, and that it only reinforced the courtship mentality that had been inculcated from an early age.

"I began to see more clearly the results of dating relationships with my friends. The main thing they learned was how to have their heart broken and get over it," says Sarah Starnes, the McMinns' third daughter. "They learned how to accept: 'I can break a commitment; he can break a commitment.' "

 

Which brings us to another precept of courtship, that dating is a "prescription for divorce." That's how Lori Crank termed it, though she was hardly the first to put it that way.

The Crank family lives just up the road in Hempstead in a log cabin that bespeaks Jane Austen values even more than the McMinn ranch. On a recent evening visit, David and Lori Crank's two youngest daughters scamper into the kitchen in long hair and long dresses as traditional and wholesome as the home-squeezed, farm-fresh milk they're about to fetch.

The Cranks heard about courtship from other families, including the McMinns, who speak about its virtues both formally and informally through religious and community networks. David read up on the practice and taught his six children from a young age that dating would be forbidden. He says courtship is necessary because by dating someone you might not eventually marry, you are, in a larger sense, cheating with someone else's eventual mate.

"It would be like coming into your house and seeing your wife sitting there, holding another man's hand," he says. "And at the younger ages, 99 percent of the time that's going to be the case."

3. Give my dad a call first

When the McMinn girls reached their late teens, Tom felt the time had come to begin thinking about marriage and, with it, courtship. He gave them a stack of his business cards to keep in their purses. When boys showed interest, they'd tell them first to contact their father.

Tom recalls his fourth daughter, Rebekah, getting asked out when she was in high school. When she finished playing basketball with a group of kids, a young man from the local Baptist church asked if she wanted to catch a movie on Saturday night. She gave him the rundown along with her father's digits. He gave her a look like What?

Tom dismisses his chances: "He wouldn't have been qualified anyway, you know. He [was] a high school senior -- he's not ready to get married."

Dianne jumps in. "If a young man is not even interested enough to contact the father, then that tells us something about his character right there," she says. But if a young man wants to marry Molly, the last daughter to leave the house, he'll have to muster the guts to dial Dad, and he can expect about a month's worth of meetings, in which Tom will size up his character and intentions.

"I'll go over some key issues with him," says Tom. "And I'll ask him some real hard questions. One, are you pure?"

If the guy isn't a virgin -- or has had serious girlfriends before -- he can forget about getting up to bat. Tom also expects that the suitor has "built his house," so to speak -- that he has the financial wherewithal to support a family. Melissa says that her father went over a detailed fiscal plan in the later stages with her eventual hubby.

David Crank, who writes and publishes Unless the Lord...Magazine, offered a checklist in one issue for assessing potential suitors. Mandatory requirements include suitable life goals, convictions and values, that he would make a good husband and father, and that he has scriptural maturity, along with wisdom (i.e., he "understands dangers of modern philosophies, wisdom concerning dangers from TV, movies, radio, music"). Preferences -- the main criteria for most teens and twentysomethings -- include appearance ("at least moderately handsome") and race and culture ("preferably of the same"), in addition to age, personality and interests.

If a guy makes it past Tom's initial checkpoint, he then sets about, in a way, wooing the entire family -- tagging along for church and supper and helping out with work at the ranch.

"Because in the process," Dianne says, "he's not just marrying our daughter, he's marrying the whole family -- he's taking on the whole family."

Of her second daughter's husband, Dianne later adds, "I remember Matt -- how many times we would be protesting abortion clinics or something. All of us standing up with a sign, you know, against abortion. Well, there's Matt, who's courting Maggie, right there with us."

After all, the family that pickets together stays together.

"Not that he would have to be a big activist in that," says Tom. "But that's who we are -- does it embarrass him?"

For boys, the process is the same, only reversed: A son can't think about courting until he is ready for marriage, and then he's expected to proceed in the same old-school fashion of contacting the girl's father first. That also means college, a career and the stable income that's required of the "breadwinner." The Cranks say that, of the siblings, their oldest son wanted to get married most.

 

"We told him it was okay to start thinking about it his second semester at college," says Lori.

A few months down the line, the children eventually have the opportunity to spend time together alone -- time they're expected to use talking about big issues and family plans.

If this sounds more like a business merger than two hearts becoming one, that's not far off. In the world of courtship, the coolly rational -- and the deeply spiritual -- trumps all else, especially the physical.

4. Then take a cold shower

Second base? Forget about it. When it comes to nookie with courtship kids, you're lucky to get out of the batter's box.

Rachel Celsor, a 19-year-old homeschool graduate and courtship adherent who lives with her family in Magnolia, says she plans to wait until her wedding day for her first kiss. Her interests are, admittedly, "varied and odd from most other people."

"I've always loved the Victorian period, and I tend to really take from that," she says. "I love the gentleman aspect. I really want them to not only do the opening the doors or walking on the street side of the sidewalk, but the chair and all of those things."

Through some family friends who also do courtship, she got into Civil War balls and practices the dance steps that accompany the era. It's a far cry from MTV's The Grind (about 130 years), but you wouldn't expect a precious courtship ruby to be thrusting and jiggling to Lil Jon beats on weekends. Central to the courtship mentality is a belief in absolute chastity. Opinions vary, though, on how much physical contact is allowed between a couple.

"It's kind of like a can of gas here and a match here," says Tom. "You don't see how close you can get that match to the gas, because it doesn't take much to fire it off."

The metaphor apparently rubbed off on Rebekah, who courted and eventually married a retreat director named Lee Bertram.

"All we did [before marriage] -- we sat real close to each other and we held hands. That was it," she says. Some of her older sisters did allow themselves a kiss at the time of their engagement. Rebekah opted not to. "It's kind of like, once you're in the fire, it's hard to not get burned."

5. We do the homeschool thing around here

You'd be hard-pressed to find a family practicing courtship that isn't in the homeschool community, and, of course, within that group they're a minority. The same forces that drive them to flee mainstream educational culture push them toward this alternative approach to dating.

Hank Tate, a Houston father who teaches workshops on courtship, says one of the biggest debates within the scene is over how you deal with the practical elements of boy-girl interaction. He says some more puritan-minded proponents argue that kids should never be alone with those of the opposite sex.

When his children were in their mid-teens, Tom McMinn put his foot down on certain coed activities like pizza parties and youth group events that, he thought, could've led to compromising situations.

"That's where my girls respected the authority of their dad enough to say, 'Well, if it was up to me, I'd go, but it's not,' " he says. How, then, did the girls take to this experience growing up?

Melissa, now 32, touts the positives: "At a young age, [courtship] totally took the pressure off of me," she says. "We just had friends, which was so freeing, 'cause it's like, we could be friends with a guy, because we knew they didn't have any kind of other ambitions, I guess you could say." Similarly, she says, they didn't have to worry about rejecting a guy and feeling bad about hurting his feelings.

"We always felt sorry for the kids who had to go to school; we always felt sorry for the kids that had to date," Melissa adds. "We were already homeschooling, so that was already weird enough, but we had a social circle that totally accepted us -- our homeschooling friends, people at church."

Sarah, 26, mentions difficulties that came with standing apart from the dating crowd. "I definitely felt that awkwardness when I was junior-high age. If somebody would've said to me -- if my dad would've said to me, 'Do you want to go back to school and date and all that stuff?' I would have been, like, the first to volunteer," she says. "And there were times that I did feel rebellious toward my dad. I remember real specifically when I was about 14, taking a walk and thinking to myself, I just wanna be normal. Is that too much to ask? I just wanna be normal.

 

"And then, really, just within a couple hours, I thought to myself, I was like, What am I saying? Who wants to be normal? Who wants to die and have their gravestone say, 'I was a normal person my whole life'?

"That moment when I was 14 was a real epiphany to me."

That doesn't mean it was easy. "When I was 17, 18, and all my friends were going to prom and I would see them with gifts from their boyfriends -- flowers, bracelets -- to say that wasn't tempting would be a lie," she says. "I wanted somebody to give me a bracelet or some flowers."

At times, Sarah resigned herself to never getting married. Her sister Rebekah, already naturally given to shyness, says she sometimes got depressed in her late teens, wondering if a guy would ever jump through all the hoops for her.

6. History -- and an underground movement -- is on our side

"Dating, in the form that we have it today, is a relatively modern phenomenon," says Sally Lloyd, a professor of Family Studies at Miami University in Ohio and co-author of Courtship, which maps the historical roots of dating in America. Courtship proponents like to point to these centuries of tradition -- especially when they show up in Scripture -- in their defense of an otherwise defunct social pattern.

"I think it's actually a revival," says Tim Lambert, president of the Lubbock-based Texas Homeschool Coalition. He has four children who follow courtship standards, one of whom has already been married that way. He notes that the automobile changed the way couples courted and, to a certain extent, gave birth to dating as we know it today.

Approaches to courtship vary widely. Some families go so far as to essentially arrange marriages for their children and then call it courtship. David Crank, in a magazine article on the diversity of courtship teachings, writes that some more radical advocates still encourage the use of a "bride price" or dowry.

It's difficult to ascertain just how many young people are involved with courtship and when exactly it began. Information about the practice gets around through the homeschool circuit, where at least one lecture per conference is usually devoted to it. Crank notes that some authors were writing about courtship 30 years ago, but most point to Joshua Harris and his 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye as the definitive start of the "revolution." Harris says that sales of his book are approaching one million copies, although he jokes, "Probably about half of those burnt the book."

Some courtship followers, like 34-year-old Eric Blievernicht, lead moderator of courtshipconnection.net, choose to opt out of dating and into a courtship approach.

"I had always struggled with the concept of dating -- there didn't seem to be any rules or guidelines," he says. "I'm an engineer. I like rules and systems." He had the unusual experience of asking his parents for permission to court his eventual wife -- a request they didn't expect, much less require. (And one that his younger brother never saw the need for.) He says that the majority of the hundreds of members of his online community are like him: kids not forced by their parents, just curious themselves.

"I think [courtship] may have been a belated reaction to the sexual revolution and the dating culture and the way America was becoming more secularized," says Blievernicht. "It was Christians going back to the blackboard and saying, 'We can't just take whatever the culture's giving us as an assumption.' "

7. Don't listen to those naysayers

"By and large, the churches don't embrace this concept," Tom McMinn acknowledges. "Most churches you're in, even as a Christian, you're a little bit on the outside of the mainstream. People look at you like" -- he scrunches up a skeptical face -- " 'Ah, it's okay for you, but, you know, don't try to impose that on us, 'cause we're not buying that.' "

Dennis Celsor, whose three children (including Rachel) will be doing courtship, says that at a Christmas party last year, he and his wife, Becky, were criticized for trying to push courtship on other families -- a rebuke they found surprising since they say they didn't realize they were pushing anything. Then again, he adds, "[We] don't really give a flying rip what others think about us."

 

Sarah Starnes says that, throughout her life, she heard all the counterarguments from her friends. "Probably the biggest argument for dating that I've heard is that you need practice in adult relationships," she says. But courtship advocates wonder how a teenage spat can in any way approximate the gravitas of a middle-aged crisis between mates.

Some might also wonder if, as an already isolated community, this method of matchmaking presents greater risk if a young man has problems with abuse or other troubles.

"I think that's not really a courtship issue," says Rebekah Bertram. "That's kind of an anything issue. Because you can date and marry somebody like that. And you can potentially court and marry somebody like that. But if you court and marry somebody like that, the guy is really concealing himself."

In fact, they argue, courtship is even safer than dating blindly, because the whole family evaluates the guy. Some fathers require more background checks than the Brady Bill. For example, Sarah says her dad contacted her husband's pastor and friends in the process of their courtship.

Yet some of the courtship foundations may be more spin than fact.

Sally Lloyd, co-author of Courtship and an expert on dating, says that the causative link between dating and divorce is mistaken -- it ignores the economic context that's enabled this social shift.

"When [marriage] is based on love, you have a higher divorce rate. When it's based on an alliance of two families or economics, or when you have really tight constraints against divorce -- you say, 'Divorce is against our religion' or whatever -- then, if love's not there, you stay together anyway," she says. "You stayed in loveless marriages or in bad marriages or in violent marriages."

Jeramy Clark, a youth pastor in San Diego and author of the Harris-rebuttal I Gave Dating a Chance: A Biblical Perspective to Balance the Extremes, says that rejecting dating altogether is "chucking out the baby with the bath water." He believes in dating -- a modest, Christian approach to dating -- and says he's seen two types of potential dangers with courtship.

One is that parental control can turn into a chokehold, driving courtship-bound children in the opposite direction. He notes one example of a closely guarded girl who veered toward extreme rebellion: hooking up, shacking up and getting knocked up by a boyfriend. The other extreme, he says, finds some girls involved with courtship deciding not to talk to guys at all anymore.

"Dating is a scary thing," says Clark. "It's letting go of your child in some ways into an unknown.

"My question all along," he asks, "is why do we think that going back a few hundred years and adapting that is the right thing?"

8. Congratulations, you may now (finally) kiss the bride

Interestingly, all of the four elder McMinn girls wound up marrying guys who attended public school and didn't come from courtship families. (Although they learned and adapted to Tom's rules.) The daughters now live in different cities around Texas, have kids of their own and, as Mom and Dad taught them growing up, uphold the role of homemaker without giving a thought to being working mothers.

"When they got married, one of the things I kinda symbolically did with my son-in-laws, besides collecting all my daughters' credit cards, was I kinda put her hand in his and said, 'She's your baby now,' " says Tom. "It was a total transfer of power. It was like one cell plant dividing...Your husband is your leader."

Most people see history as a zero-sum game. What is lost by tradition is gained by progress; what power loses, choice gains. In the culture wars of today's America, courtship is one more way to recover that lost ground.

Most of the parents consulted for this story themselves dated when they were younger. They see no apparent contradiction in depriving their children of a choice they had. They, of course, see it the opposite way: They're insulating their kids from the perils of freedom. And this, you see, is progress. The proof?

When Tom and Dianne's grandchildren become of marriageable age, they will go through courtship as well.

"We want to make sure we know what goes in [our son] Tommy," says Rebekah, "and what comes out."


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