An old-fashioned practice gains some new adherents

By Marybeth Hart
Stephen Ball is like most teen-agers -- he plays sports, hangs out at the mall, goes roller skating and bowling with his friends.
But the 16-year-old from Lincoln, Ill., is quite different from most other pubescent boys. He has never been on a date with a girl, and he has no intention of going on one any time soon. In fact, when girls are interested in going out with him, he politely turns them down.
     "I've watched a lot of people that have dated, who go from girl to girl and there have been a lot of broken hearts," Stephen says. "I can be friends with everybody and I have never had any bad experiences."
     Stephen has chosen to follow the 19th-century practice of courtship -- no dating, no flirting, no physical contact of any kind with the opposite sex.
     His parents have adopted courtship principles for their family, part of a growing trend across the country. Their teen-age sons Daniel, 18, Stephen, 16, and Joshua, 13, are following in the footsteps of their older brother, Andrew, 20, who abstained from dating during his adolescence and is now in a courtship relationship.
     "Andrew has gone his entire life without a girlfriend and now he has met someone," Stephen says. "One of the benefits of it is, I can wait for God to show me the time and what girl I am to marry without any pressure to impress girls and make people jealous," he says.
     The courtship process -- the traditional ritual between men and women in the 19th and early 20th century -- begins when a young man contacts the parents of the young lady he is interested in pursuing for marriage. The girl's father spends time with him and gathers references from the man's acquaintances.
     The parents then present the proposal to their daughter. If she accepts, the man may pursue a relationship with her in chaperoned environments, usually without any physical intimacy whatsoever.
     The practice is making a comeback, says Kathy Morrissey, founder of Courtship Connection in Temperance, Mich.
     "More people are interested in courtship as they become aware of it," she says. "Most parents, when you mention the dangers and problems with dating, are anxious to hear an alternative."
     Mrs. Morrissey says her organization has received more requests for information as the word gets out about life before dating.
     "There used to be no such thing as dating," says historian Michael Hill, formerly at the University of Alabama. "There was a covenantal standard by which a young man and woman came together."
     And that was a good thing, Mr. Hill says. Courtship, with its ban on physical contact before marriage, actually increases romance because it builds anticipation and mutual respect.
     The trend has stunned some in the media. Joshua Harris of Gaithersburg, Md., gained some notoriety and many interviews last year after he and his fiance announced they would not kiss before their October marriage. Outside of marriage, young people should be friends at most, says Mr. Harris, who wrote "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" when he was 17.
     The book got good play in home-schooling circles and among conservatives who suspect that the typical American dating scene arouses too much passion.
     "Dating leads to a pattern and lifestyle that increases fornication, disease and divorce," says the Rev. Paul Jehle, pastor of New Testament Church in Plymouth, Mass., and author of the 1993 book "Dating vs. Courtship."
     "Courtship helps young people determine whether they are right for each other before they are physically and emotionally attached," he says.
     This old-fashioned approach first attracted the attention of the mainstream press when former three-time Olympian Jim Ryun and his wife, Anne, published an article in the November 1995 Focus on the Family magazine extolling the courtship methods they recommended to their four children.
     "At this very first meeting or phone call," they write, "the father explains that the family believes in courtship, which means that the young man must be spiritually and financially prepared to marry her if they fall in love. Otherwise, don't even bother starting a relationship. There are no casual 'tryouts' in courtship."
     The Ryuns' two sons know they have to follow the same guidelines, the article says.
     "Since courtship is reserved only for young couples spiritually and financially ready for marriage," the Ryuns write, "this effectively means no courtship or dating during the high school years, and perhaps not until after college graduation."
     Mr. Ryun, a Republican, was ridiculed by his opponents for these convictions, but he was elected the next year by Kansans to the House of Representatives nevertheless.
     Today, people try out different dating partners as they would new cars, Mr. Jehle says.
     "[Courtship] is the safest and most healthy way to protect yourself for marriage," Mr. Jehle says. "The couple goes into the marriage with commitment and stability already established."
     While the young man goes through rigorous and expensive measures to ensure approval from the parents, the woman is encouraged to have no attachments with other men.
     The only problem with courtship is it treats girls as chattel to be passed from one person to the next, says Bernice Humphrey, director of the "Healthy Girls" initiative for the New York-based Girls, Inc.
     "Girls need to fulfill their role as an independent adult and be able to take care of themselves," she says. "If courtship doesn't result in marriage, then what is she going to do?"
     Along with courtship, some conservative families have even revived the antiquated custom of dowries. Women can contribute economically for marriage by bringing into it a dowry, or property, which could mean land, money or even a house, which is given to the groom.
     "I encourage young people to save and build up financial insurance so they can bring a blessing into the marriage and get married out of debt, rather than combining debts," Mr. Jehle says.
     The Rev. S.M. Davis, pastor of Park Meadows Baptist Church in Lincoln, Ill., advises fathers not to make it easy on prospective suitors. He turns the notion of a dowry around by saying men should be willing to pay whatever price the girl's father determines for his daughter.
     In dating, men can simply walk away scot-free.
     "She's cheap and he treats her cheap," says Mr. Davis, who has four daughters.
     But the process could be eliminated all together, Mr. Davis points out. "If parents establish a loving environment and open communication, young people will invite their parents' help in finding the proper marriage partner," says the pastor, whose daughters gave him a golden key to wear around his neck as a reminder of his role in finding them husbands.

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