In 1904, The New York Times picked up an unusual story from Omaha. A wealthy Nebraska rancher named James Snell had requested the help of Omaha pastor Charles W. Savidge in finding a spouse. In exchange, Snell offered to finance a matchmaking agency that would be run and owned by the Rev. Savidge. According to the story, Savidge—a back-to-the-Bible revivalist and pastor of an independent holiness church—turned the offer down. Still, the details made for sensational type, and newspapers across the country printed the dispatch.
Despite rejecting Snell’s offer, Savidge received hundreds of letters expressing romantic interest in the wealthy rancher. Suddenly realizing the potential demand for a matchmaking agency, Savidge reconsidered. News of this development apparently spread across the Atlantic, leading London’s St James Gazette to report that Savidge “is thinking of inaugurating a matrimonial bureau for Christian men and women.” Eight years later the minister did launch a matchmaking service, complete with an office in downtown Omaha and a secretary. The oddity of having a preacher playing the role of Cupid made the rounds in newspapers for decades, with stories on Savidge’s matrimonial bureau and on-demand wedding services appearing in print from Spokane to New York. “I just simply bring the man who wants a wife and the woman who wants a husband together,” Savidge told the Boston Globe. “God and nature do the rest.”
A century after Savidge’s enterprise, faith-based matchmaking services are thriving—but online, where nearly a quarter of all couples now find each other. From Muslima.com to the Jewish dating site, J-Date, nearly all religious traditions have online dating sites marketed specifically to them. Sites for evangelical Protestants offer perhaps the greatest market for growth. With a large pool of adherents, combined with the common belief that one must not be “unequally yoked,” evangelicals provide a ready-made market for matchmaking entrepreneurs.
Currently the name most closely associated with Christian online dating is ChristianMingle.com. Launched by the Jewish founders of J-Date, it is one of the twenty-plus niche dating sites operated under the Spark Networks umbrella. Similar to its competitors like ChristianCafe.com, ChristianSingles.com, and EquallyYoked.com, it appeals largely to conservative evangelicals. One need only browse through the site’s endorsement section to see its audience: its proponents include Southern Baptist pastors, Concerned Women for America, and individuals connected to the evangelical mega-churches Willow Creek and Saddleback Church.
Christian Mingle has gained prominence by saturating television airwaves with testimonials promising to help “find God’s match for you.” Its ubiquitous presence on television makes the brand an easy punch line. “I have already found God’s match for me,” James Napoli wrote in a satirical open letter for the Huffington Post last year, “and it is pizza.” Likewise, in early 2012 “The Colbert Report” devoted a segment to lampooning Christian Mingle. “It’s a great site to find other singles who like long walks on the beach … where Jesus is carrying them,” the host said.
Products catered to the conservative Christian subculture are generally not promoted to a wide mainstream audience, which helps to explain why Colbert’s audience would have been amused by the Christian matchmaking site. There is also a sense of novelty in going national with a faith-based dating marketing campaign. That sense of novelty pervaded the responses to Charles Savidge’s bureau as well, but there are key differences between the two. Savidge’s enterprise, existing at a time of white, Protestant hegemony, was an interesting historical footnote without much of a lasting impact. Modern matchmaking services like Christian Mingle have the potential to be more than a punch line: they can also play a role in ensuring that conservative evangelicals marry within the faith, raise children in the faith, and maintain prominence on the national stage for generations to come.
THE HISTORY OF MATCHMAKING as a mass-marketed commercial enterprise stretches at least as far back as the late nineteenth century. The earliest matchmaking bureaus advertised their services in newspaper personals sections. They developed a reputation for fraud because they often exaggerated and embellished the number of single, wealthy clients on their rolls. As a result, few Americans held commercialized matchmaking bureaus in high esteem. And most Americans simply did not need additional matchmaking help—friends and family played the part just fine.
With many romantic relationships in the early twentieth century occurring under the watchful eye of family members, friends, and church leaders, marriages tended to be religiously and racially homogenous. Before the 1960s, under 20 percent of all marriages were interfaith marriages, while interracial marriages were even more miniscule, making up less than 3 percent of marriages. Yet, changes were under way by the early 1900s. New freedoms arising from improvements in transportation and communication allowed many young men and women to expand their social circles. Progressive Era reformers and radicals (studied by scholars like Christiana Simmons and Clare Virginia Eby) supported companionate marriage ideals that, theoretically at least, enhanced the autonomy of each individual in the marriage relationship. Regardless of how much Progressive Era notions of companionate marriage changed mainstream marriage power dynamics, there certainly was a shift in American conceptions of marriage. As historian Nancy Cott put it her book Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, “Where mid-nineteenth-century judges and other public spokesmen had hardly been able to speak of marriage without mentioning Christian morality, mid-twentieth-century discourse saw the hallmarks of the institution in liberty and privacy, consent and freedom.”
The changes in marriage were readily apparent in the 1960s. From the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, to anti-miscegenation laws being declared unconstitutional in 1967, to California enacting the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law in 1969, the liberalization and individualization of love and marriage accelerated. In the following decades Americans increasingly viewed marriage primarily as an expression of romantic love between two individuals, love that could cross boundaries of religion, race, and sex. Journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley points out in her 2013 book Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, “[O]ur cultural messages today seem to reinforce the idea that marriage is a purely individual choice.”
The romanticized individualization of the marriage relationship has also led to dramatic changes in how Americans find their future spouses. Compared to the early 1900s, the role of the family has decreased, now playing a part in only 10 percent of all matches. In its place, friends and college became more important. And, since the 1990s, the Internet has risen as the prime matchmaking power.
Evangelicals—a small core of them at least—were early adopters of the online dating trend, and Clark Sloan was one of the pioneers. Out of a job in the early 1990s, Sloan drew entrepreneurial inspiration from an ink-and-paper Christian singles periodical published by his father. “Classified ads back then didn’t seem to work very well,” Sloan recalled. “I thought, ‘why not take this into the computer stage?’” The ensuing company, Christian Computer Match, utilized a computer program created by Sloan to match people based on answers to a 50-question application. Sloan advertised his new service in the handful of Christian singles newspapers still in circulation. By 1994, he claimed to have 8,000 members in his database, which, as far as he knew, was the only Christian-oriented computer-matching program on the market. His program, already technologically advanced for its time, was a natural fit for the transition to the Internet. He made the move online in 1995 when he started the Single Christian Network at singleC.com, which launched around the same time as the first widely used, mainstream personals site, Match.com. Sloan’s website caught the eye of Sam Moorcroft, who cited singleC.com as one of the websites that inspired him to launch his own Christian matchmaking site, ChristianCafe.com, in 1999 (singleC.com is now a site affiliated with ChristianCafe.com).
By 2001, evangelical involvement in the online matchmaking trend was prominent enough to receive notice from Christianity Today. Just a year earlier, Neil Clark Warren had launched eHarmony, which at first catered to conservative Christians. Early marketing claimed that the site was “based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren.” By 2005, however, Warren decided that the conservative Christian niche market was not good for developing the brand. “We’re trying to reach the whole world—people of all spiritual orientations, all political philosophies, all racial backgrounds,” Warren told USA Today in 2005. “And if indeed, we have Focus on the Family on the top of our books, it is a killer.” Warren further eschewed his conservative Christian credentials in response to a lawsuit complaining that eHarmony did not provide services for LGBT couples. The company launched a separate site for gay and lesbian couples, finally merging it with eHarmony in 2010.
THAT WARREN HAD TO renounce his conservative Christian connections in order to reach a mainstream audience was a telling sign of the limits of conservative evangelical leverage in American culture. On the other hand, the success Spark Networks has achieved by catering its Christian Mingle brand to the same audience that Warren disavowed shows that evangelicals are still a numerical force worth reaching out to. Indeed, it is possible that dating sites like Christian Mingle—conservative Christian cul-de-sacs—may turn out to be one key to the continued influence of evangelicalism in the United States. After all, dating sites are increasingly a portal from which new Christian families can begin their existence. Sam Moorcroft emphasized this fact when he pitched a partnership with Focus on the Family for his site. “If you are not creating families, there’s nothing to focus on,” he recalled telling them, “and in twenty years you’re going to have a problem.”
Evangelical marriages provide a conducive setting for children to accept and remain followers of their parents’ faith. It’s a pressing concern: The religious retention rate for evangelicals has been dropping since the 1990s, according to David Campbell and Robert Putnam in American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. They also suggest “the most important factor predicting religious retention” is whether or not a person’s family was religiously homogenous and observant. Meanwhile, the rate of interfaith marriage has more than doubled since the 1950s, accounting today for 45 percent of all marriages. That trend, according to Riley, has had the unintended consequence of eroding the strength of some faith traditions, partly because “interfaith families are less likely to raise their children religiously.”
Given the reality of our increasingly online, increasingly digital world, Christian niche dating sites serve as an easily identifiable online companion to more traditional offline means used by evangelicals to find a spouse. They allow evangelicals to adopt the broader cultural turn towards individualism in the selection of romantic partners while still remaining true to conservative evangelical insistence on intrafaith marriage. “We want Christians to marry Christians,” Moorcroft said. “We don’t want Christians to marry nominal Christians or nonbelievers at all.” And once their customers are married, Christian dating sites claim to provide help on another account: they supposedly facilitate more compatible matches, which, according to ChristianCafe.com’s Fred Moesker, will help “to decrease divorce rates.” Moesker’s claim may seem dubious, but it does have at least the modest support of initial research from John T. Cacioppo and others for the National Academy of the Sciences. They conducted a recent study showing that marriages that began online were slightly less likely to end in divorce and were “associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction” than marriages that began offline.
Of course, not all evangelicals view Christian online dating in a positive light. In 2011, Christianity Today ran an opinion roundtable with the headline, “Is Online Dating for Christians?” Answers ranged from “With Gusto!” to “With Caution” to “No; Trust God.” More recently, Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist at Religion News Service, wondered if online dating websites actually served to undermine Christian values, concerns that were echoed from another corner of the evangelical world by the Gospel Coalition. For wary evangelicals, the turn to online matchmaking could carry the potential for further detachment from involvement in local church bodies at a time when more and more Americans are willing to shun affiliation with formal religious organizations.
That evangelicals would take opposing positions on an issue is no surprise; evangelicals have been a fluid and difficult-to-define group throughout their history, so making predictions for their future is tenuous at best. But while the scope and extent to which Christian online dating services affect evangelicals and American culture remains to be seen, we do know that more Americans are finding their spouses online and that Christian matchmaking services are growing. Christian Mingle’s membership rolls, for example, now total 13 million people, 4 million of whom have joined in the past year.* We also know that the combination of happy marriages (which online matchmaking sites claim to provide) and religiously homogenous marriages have led to higher rates of religious retention for children in the past. For evangelical supporters, these developments may suggest that sites like Christian Mingle and ChristianCafe.com, even if they appear to be just another expression of the oft-derided “Christian bubble,” have the potential to be key players in the continuing effort to “make disciples of all nations”—starting with the United States and with each evangelical family that is created online.
Paul Putz is a PhD candidate in history at Baylor University and a regular contributor at the Religion in American History blog. Research related to Charles Savidge in this article was originally produced with the partial support of a 2012 research grant provided by the Nebraska State Historical Society.
*This sentence has been updated to reflect the latest membership statistics for ChristianMingle.com; they had increased during the time between when the article was reported and when it was published.