To all the single ladies:

Last week Groupon offered a ticket to lasting love (at a 76% discount!) by way of your own personal "boudoir photo shoot." The ad proclaims:

The great Romantic painters had the same goal—to craft an image so beautiful that it would come to life and marry them. Increase your chances of turning images into love using the modern version of painting, photography

The sample photo suggests that the way to transform "images into love" to is throw on some kitschy lingerie, splay yourself in the most awkward position imaginable on a bed, and fork over $95.00 for the picture.

The image might have gone from G-rated to R-rated, but the sentiment in this marketing campaign is strikingly similar to those of the conduct books popular around the eighteenth century. Such literature offered young ladies not only moral and domestic instruction, but also tips on how to attract the best husband. If you've read any Jane Austen, then you've encountered her satirical treatment of these works: priggish Mr. Collins reads passages from one popular conduct book to the captive Bennet girls, and the heroine of Emma tries to make a love-match by painting an "enhanced" portrait of her friend in hopes a gentleman will fall in love with the woman in the painting.

Since reading (as opposed, perhaps, to seeing) is believing, here are some samples from the original sources:

In his 1765 Sermons to Young Women, Rev. James Fordyce wrote:

Your best emblem, beloved, is the smiling form of peace, robed in white, and bearing a branch of olive … in a female we wish nothing to reign but love and tenderness ….
A modest but animated mien, an air at once unaffected and noble, are doubtless circumstances of great attraction and delight.
Dr. John Gregory warns women in A Father's Legacy to his Daughters of 1774:
The power of a fine woman over the hearts of men, of men of the finest parts, is even beyond what he conceives. They are sensible of the pleasing illusion, but they cannot, nor do they wish to dissolve it. But if she is determined to dispel the charm, it certainly is in her power: she may soon reduce the angel to a very ordinary girl.

Centuries of advancements for women separate Emma and the conduct books from the Groupon boudoir photo offer, yet they all convey the notion that if a woman can project the desired image—angelic in the eighteenth century, erotic in the twenty-first—she will succeed in her quest to catch a man.

When the basis of marriage was economic or political—as it has been for nearly all of human history—it made sense for a woman to direct her wiles toward making "a good catch." Most times her very livelihood depended on it. But around the time these conduct books were being written, a major shift was taking place in the view of marriage, a shift that occurred through a newly emerging Christian understanding of marriage.

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With the rise of Methodism and Evangelicalism in the eighteenth century came an emphasis on individual, rather than institutional, faith. Since the choice of a marriage partner greatly shapes one's service to God, these eighteenth-century Christians promoted what is called the "companionate marriage" in place of the economically-motivated match. The companionate marriage stressed the importance of a spiritual and personal compatibility, which provides mutual support to each partner pursuing earthly ministry together.

The error of the materially-based marriage was dramatically portrayed in Samuel Richardson's 1748 masterpiece Clarissa. Attempts by the heroine's parents to force their daughter into an economically advantageous marriage result in a tragedy that moved readers to tears and significantly helped change attitudes about the basis for a good marriage match. The novel is a rare example in modern times of Christianity truly changing the culture rather than merely reacting to it.

Yet, the old models seem to lurk still, even beyond an inconsequential internet coupon. Consider The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Remember The Rules? And Christians are, sadly, not immune to this mindset. One Christian book on the topic sounds more like my husband's recent fishing expedition than a biblical view of marriage. Another popular Christian book reveals all in the title: If Men are Like Buses, How Do I Catch One?

When a husband is something to "catch," then a woman will employ all the traps and snares she can. In the eighteenth century, these were called "accomplishments"—skills in singing, drawing, dancing, painting—activities designed to draw a man's attention but rarely, if ever, employed after the wedding day. In contrast, if a husband is considered as a companion in one's lifelong service to God, then such wiles only work against an authentic foundation for marriage. The companionate marriage was the greatest shift in the view of marriage in all of human history and has extended well beyond the Christian context in which it started. Even so, there is no arena more in need now of an infusion of the Christian worldview than marriage. And I'm not talking about marriage roles here, or the irrelevant complementarian/egalitarian debate. I'm talking about something far more essential and transformative: the very foundation of the marriage partnership. The model of the companionate marriage is rooted in permanence, not performance and so sees a potential mate as a partner instead of prey. For the Christian, it's not about catching a man, but of being yoked together for life and the consequences of that yoking for eternity.