23 February 2011

Really Big Love and Bunhill Fields

Ziona Chana, a 66-year-old man in India's remote northeast who has 39 wives, 94 children and 33 grandchildren -- and wouldn't mind having more. They all live in a four storied building with 100 rooms in a mountainous village in Mizoram state, sharing borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, media reports said. "I once married 10 women in one year," he was quoted as saying.

His wives share a dormitory near Ziona's private bedroom and locals said he likes to have seven or eight of them by his side at all times. The sons and their wives, and all their children, live in different rooms in the same building, but share a common kitchen.

The wives take turns cooking, while his daughters clean the house and do washing. The men do outdoor jobs like farming and taking care of livestock. . . . They are supported by their own resources and occasional donations from followers.

From here.

The man leads a Christian polygamous sect (called "Chana Pawl" after the patriarch's late father) founded in 1942 with about four hundred families as members in a single village, "this industrious group manufactures wooden furniture and aluminium utensils."

A brief historical account of the Chana puts it in the context of the "fact that it took barely 50 years for the entire Mizo community to embrace Christianity, then a totally alien religion, [which] has been attributed to the revival movements. . . . The first European missionaries arrived at Aizawl (then Aijal) in 1894, and 12 years later, revival movements effecting mass conversions started. Wave upon wave of revival swept the land until the entire Mizo community abandoned its old religion, animism, for the new religion, Christianity before the end of World War II." Mizoram State is about 95% Christian (Wikipedia puts the figure at 90.5% based on a 2001 census), and the vast majority are adherents of more traditional forms of the Christian faith, predominantly as part of Presybeterian denominations. It was granted statehood in 1986, twenty years after an armed insurgency movement began there. Another sect that arose in the same period consists of people who moved to the jungle and stopped wearing clothes. The revival movement also gave rise to a Jewish sect known as "Bnei Manashe" which has now mostly migrated to Israel.

Islam limits a man to four wives and has canons of interpretation that discourage the practice on the grounds that the fairness to all wives demanded by Islamic law is difficult to manage, although serial polygamy can circumvent this limit to some extent. The limit in Islam was a reform from prior law that permitted more spouses.

The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, has numerous examples of polygamy, some of which involve political leaders with more than four wives, and neither the Christian Old Testament nor the Christian New Testament expressly prohibit polygamy (Reformation figure Martin Luther once wrote a letter privately acknowledging this in a case involving a minor European aristocrat, which his solus scriptura stance caused him to acknowledge was permitted).

Of course, Christian tradition from early on, in part due to the preachings of early church fathers such as Saint Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, has generally strongly disfavored polygamy in practice (with notable exceptions such as the early Mormons and some European Anabaptists). And, while polygamy has been banned by the main denomination of the Church of Latter Day Saints for more than a century and by Utah State law (as a condition imposed for it to receive statehood status), it has been quietly tolerated in communities like Hinsdale that are an open secret, and quietly practiced on a smaller scale in suburban Utah with only rare interruptions (usually for offenses other than polygamy itself) more of less continuously since it was legally banned.

I suspect, but do not know, that this arrangement in India is made possible legally by the facet of private law in India that assigns certain domains of the law, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance in same religion couples to religious authorities rather than secular legislatures and courts (a secular legal regime applies to mixed faith families):

Indian family law is complex, with each religion having its own specific laws which they adhere to. In most states, registering of marriages and divorces is not compulsory. There are separate laws governing Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and followers of other religions. The exception to this rule is in the state of Goa, where a Portuguese uniform civil code is in place, in which all religions have a common law regarding marriages, divorces and adoption.

The practice in India actually has roots in the laws of its British colonial rulers, and is rooted in the same freedom of religion concepts that developed into the First Amendment in the United States in a somewhat different manner at around the same time. "This system of distinct laws for each religion began during the British Raj when Warren Hastings in 1772 created provisions prescribing Hindu law for Hindus and Islamic law for Muslims, for litigation relating to personal matters." This was a natural concept for him because at that point in English history, marriage, divorce and inheritance of personal property (although not real estate) were governed by the clergy under canon law, rather than common law courts:

In the Church of England, the ecclesiastical courts that formerly decided many matters such as disputes relating to marriage, divorce, wills, and defamation, still have jurisdiction of certain church-related matters (e.g., discipline of clergy, alteration of church property, and issues related to churchyards).

Their separate status dates back to the 12th century when the Normans split them off from the mixed secular/religious county and local courts used by the Saxons. In contrast to the other courts of England the law used in ecclesiastical matters is at least partially a civil law system, not common law, although heavily governed by parliamentary statutes.

Since the Reformation, ecclesiastical courts in England have been royal courts. . . . practitioners in the ecclesiastical courts were trained in civil law, receiving a Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree from Oxford, or an LL.D. from Cambridge. Such lawyers (called "doctors" and "civilians") were centred at "Doctors Commons", a few streets south of St Paul's Cathedral in London, where they monopolized probate, matrimonial, and admiralty cases until their jurisdiction was removed to the common law courts in the mid-19th century. (Admiralty law was also based on civil law instead of common law, thus was handled by the civilians too.)

At the time Hastings made his decree, for example, cemetaries were also segregated by faith under applicable English law, with dissenting religions tolerated, but restricted to cemetaries such as the famous Bunhill Fields that was active at the time (and was elevated to the highest level of historical preservation in England on a par with sites like Number 10 Downing Street, this week as a legacy of the path taken by the British towards religious toleration) despite the fact that it had and continues to have an established chruch, the Anglican Church (prior to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church). Notable residents of Bunhill Fields, who would have been subject to persecution and punishment similar to that of political prisoners in authoritarian regimes today in most countries outside England included:

•William Blake (1757-1827), poet, and his wife Catherine (1762-1831)
•John Owen (1616-83), Congregational minister
•Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), mother of John and Charles Wesley
•Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe
•John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of The Pilgrim's Progress - his elaborate tomb includes an effigy of Bunyan and bas-reliefs of scenes from his great allegory
•Isaac Watts (1674-1748), hymnwriter
•George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) - in the Quaker Gardens, next to the Bunhill Fields Meeting House

Of course, if you weren't a King, the scope of matrimonial law at the time was pretty meager. For the most part, it consisted of granting women "separation from bed and board" in particularly dire cases (legal separations still exist today, I've litigated them, but are now chosen by parties due primarily to religious beliefs rather than because divorce in unavailable as an option for lack of proof of fault). Divorces were about as common as death row pardons are today, they happened, but were highly exceptional. Unlike the inheritance laws for real estate, in which the most senior male heir received everything in order to prevent the fragmentation of the estate, personal property inheritance in canon law was similar to that under modern inheritance laws that divided it amongst all of a person's closest living descendants.

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