The History Behind “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace”

ceremony

WHITNEY DARLING PHOTOGRAPHY  

Though the movies might make it seem like weddings objections happen on the reg, they’re actually quite rare. What’s even rarer? That an opportunity for objections would be even built into a ceremony in the first place. (Phew!) “Weddings are full of ritual,” says officiant Jill Magerman. “Fortunately, the phrase ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ is not really one that’s held onto anymore.”

Meet the Expert

Jill Magerman is a wedding officiant, life cycle celebrant, and interfaith minister based in the Philadelphia area. 

Which begs the question: Why was it incorporated into weddings, to begin with? Read on for an in-depth look at the “speak now or forever hold your peace” tradition—as well as meaningful (and fun!) alternatives you can add to your ceremony in its place. 

The History and Meaning of “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Piece” 

Like many Western wedding traditions, the phrase “speak now or forever hold your peace” is rooted in Christianity and European custom. The complete wording—“Should anyone present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace”—comes from the marriage liturgy section of the Book of Common Prayer. First published in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer provides guidelines for religious services, customs, and worship in the Church of England, or Anglican Church.

Today, variations of this tome are used by and referenced in churches in the Anglican Communion, which, after the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, is the third-largest community of Christian churches in the world. (Like the King James Bible—which was also published in England a few decades later—phrases from the Book of Common Prayer have worked their way into the canon of countries colonized or influenced by the British Empire.)

Still, the reason why the phrase was included in liturgy likely has less to do with God, and more to do with legal and practical concerns of the time. “In the Medieval Age, it was very hard to get the word out that someone was getting married,” explains Magerman. “There were no computers, no cell phones. So there was a tradition in most churches to announce upcoming marriages starting three consecutive Sundays before the wedding was to take place.” Known as “banns” or “banns of marriage,” these proclamations—typically read aloud by a priest and published in the parish bulletin—were a formal sort of “heads up” that a wedding was happening.

The last chance for objections would be on the wedding day, during the “speak now or forever hold your peace” portion of the ceremony. Why would someone go so far as to formally object to a union? It most often came down to law, not a last chance at true love. If someone knew a member of the couple to be already married, underage, unbaptized (church law), or forcefully coerced into the union, it was considered their duty to object. The same was true if they knew the couple to be too closely related by blood.

These days, these issues are sorted out long before a couple heads down the aisle—and are legally confirmed when the couple visits their local county clerk’s office to get their marriage license. This means, for practical purposes, the “speak now or forever hold your peace” phrase is pretty much null and void for modern wedding ceremonies, though some Christian denominations—Episcopalian, for example—do still incorporate the tradition.

“Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” FAQs

When is the phrase typically said in a ceremony? 

At the top or beginning, of the ceremony. “It may not be the first thing you say, but it should be early on,” says Magerman. “Because why go ahead with anything else if there is a legitimate objection to the wedding?” 

Are there other ways this phrase can be said? 

Variations of “If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully wed, speak now or forever hold your peace” are also common. 

Can I ask my officiant to remove the phrase from our ceremony? 

Absolutely! Though most secular officiants—and many religious ministers—already omit the phrase, there’s no harm in double-checking. What’s more: A wedding ceremony script should be heavily influenced by your relationship with your officiant. If they know this phrase feels antiquated to you or doesn’t represent your values, they should respect that decision. 

What do we do if someone actually objects? 

In her nine years of performing weddings, Magerman has never seen an objection. But if she were to experience one, she notes that couples should be comforted by the fact that most officiants are pros at commanding—and calming—a crowd, as well as ad-libbing. “First, I would need to find out what’s going on,” Magerman says, imagining the scenario. “Then, I’d ask the person who’s objecting to come forward with the couple, and I’d walk off to the side quietly and privately with the group and address what’s going on.”

Alternatives to “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace”  

While some couples opt to simply eschew the “speak now or forever hold your peace” portion of a wedding ceremony, many others choose to replace it with something more positive called a “declaration of consent” or a “community vow of support.” In this newer tradition, the officiant asks guests to vow to support the couple in their union. (It usually happens right after a couple recites their vows.) Magerman has performed declarations of consent in several ways, including:

Traditional Vow Structure 

Here, Magerman first asks guests to rise from their seats. Then, she says: Our [bride and groom/ brides/grooms] have asked all present to take vows as well—to pledge your support and love for them as they embark on this new path together. After I’ve spoken these vows, please answer with “we do.” 

Everyone gathered here today before you stand two people who love you very much. Do you promise to encourage and inspire their dreams, to accept them not only as individuals but as a couple, to be their friends, and to give your support today and every day to follow? 

After the crowd responds, Magerman invites them to be seated. “They really feel that sense of participation and investment in the couple,” she says of performing the ritual. 

Ring Warming Ceremony 

Though it’s largely gone by the wayside in the pandemic, this communal ritual is an especially poignant choice for smaller ceremonies. In a ring warming ceremony, the couples’ wedding bands are passed around to each guest, who are invited to take the rings in their hand and, for a brief moment, reflect on their wishes, hopes, and dreams for the marriage. When the bands make their way back to the altar, Magerman will then say: 

As the [bride and groom/brides/grooms] wear these rings throughout their lives, they’ll be reminded not only of their love and commitment to each other, but also of your love for them and theirs for you, and how their lives have been blessed by you, their friends and family. 

If you’re worried about the rings being misplaced, designate one guest to keep an eye on them as they’re passed. 

Seashell or Stone Ceremony

In this option—which works best for beach weddings or ceremonies taking place near a body of water—Magerman invites both guests and the couple to hold a small seashell or pebble in their hands, give it a wish or a blessing, and then drop it into the water. “I talk about the ripple effect of not only the rock or the seashell in the water, but of the couple’s love for each other and how it has a ripple effect on the entire group,” says Magerman. “It’s another way to get everyone invested.”

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