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Children out of wedlock


Although churches worked hard to prevent the occurrence of out-of-wedlock births by various sanctions, these still did occur in colonial area and in the early history of the United States. One such case, involving some of my cousins from Woodbridge, New Jersey, was documented in the church records of the Presbyterian church of Woodbridge.


On March 12, 1791 Stephen Cutter brought a complaint against George Harriot during a session of the Presbyterian Church in Woodbridge. The gist of the complaint was that George Harriot was not doing enough to encourage his son to marry the daughter of Stephen Cutter. Stephen’s daughter Phebe and George’s son James had a relationship over the prior two years and already had a child although they were unmarried.


Mr. Cutter related that his “daughter had had a child, having been courted by him (Harriot’s son) for more than two years and deceived by frequent encouragement and promises of marriage.” Mr. Cutter went on that Mr. Harriot had behaved in an unchristian manner “particularly that instead of encouraging, he had discouraged his son marrying his daughter.” Mr. Cutter further charged that Mr. Harriot had contradicted himself on several occasions related to this matter and he provided evidence of this. The elders listened to both Mr. Cutter and Mr. Harriot and they were then asked to withdraw. After consideration, the elders concluded that the charges brought against Mr. Harriot were true, “that he had not done his duty.” Mr. Harriot should encourage his son’s marriage “with the woman he had thus used and abused.” They further suggested that Mr. Harriot could not do other than admit his wrongdoing, and that he should encourage his son seriously to fulfill his obligations to this young woman. Mr. Harriot was left to consider this matter until the next Saturday meeting.


The matter was brought up again on April 16. Mr. Harriot stated that acting on his conscience that he could not encourage his son to marry the young woman “because of his dislike for the young woman and his apprehension that his son had not an affection for her.” The elders, of course, were not satisfied with this response, but as Mr. Harriot was pleading his conscience, the matter was dropped “leaving him to answer to God.” It likely also helped that George Harriot was himself one of the elders.


Although a marriage record has not been found, Phebe and James did marry at some point and had a total of 11 children four of whom died in early childhood. The child who had been born prior to the marriage was daughter Effia who was born in early 1791 and died 17 Feb 1792.


James and Phebe were later welcomed into the church when on February, 1799 they “committed to give their children to God and to join in the communion of the church.”


George Harriot, the father in the case, and his wife Mary Ayers had their own issues with sexual impropriety and appeared at a session with the elders on April 3, 1756. “George Harriot’s and his wife’s case being considered, they both appear willing to acknowledge themselves guilty of fornication and to make satisfaction on which they were received and allowed to bring their children to baptism.” Fornication was sometimes a charge that was brought when a couple’s first child was born a little too soon after their marriage, but this does not seem to be the situation with George and Mary. They were married in December, 1750 and the first child was born August, 1751. In any case, that was several years before, so perhaps this was a case of sexual infidelity outside of the marriage.


Source: Information taken from the First Book of Record of the First Presbyterian Church of Woodbridge, N.J. as transcribed in 1896 by William Edgar, clerk of the session.


Family of Stephen Cutter and Tabitha (Fitz) Randolph:



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