One week in early May, Tyler Staten, a photographer based in American Fork, Utah, pulled up his schedule for the next few days on his laptop calendar—five engagement sessions, with evening shoots on Tuesday and Thursday, a morning shoot on Friday and Saturday booked on each end.
“That’s pretty typical,” he told me. Each session had been reserved by couples who attend Brigham Young University, the country’s foremost college associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (In 2018, Russel M. Nelson, current President of the Church, released a statement asking members to avoid using the previously adopted term “Mormon,” which BYU has honored.)
The evening we spoke, Staten would shoot a young, newly engaged couple at Tibble Fork Reservoir in the Utah Valley, where he often finds himself these days. The reservoir sits at the belly of the American Fork Canyon, with pines covering the mountain peaks year-round and freshwater that freezes over each winter. Staten draws out the saturation on the photos and blurs the background so that the snow and the sky melt together. It’s easy fodder for Instagram.
It’s rare, he said, that he has clients over the age of 25. Given American Fork’s proximity to Provo, the predominantly LDS city where BYU is based, it makes sense. Staten describes an annual cycle for his small business: Young LDS students will arrive at BYU in the fall, begin classes and start dating. They fall in love in time for Christmas break, when they will bring their partner home to meet the parents, and permission for marriage will be asked by the boyfriend and granted by his girlfriend’s father. Staten will start getting messages in early March from couples who intend to get married from late April to early August.
“They’re not the most playful,” Staten said of the young couples who come to him for engagement photos. “For lack of a better word, they’re awkward. They just haven’t been dating super long so they’re not comfortable with each other yet.”
Staten estimates that of the 22 wedding shoots he has planned for 2021, 18 are the weddings of BYU students. He finds that when he can get them to laugh, to relax for a moment, he gets the shots he needs.
Whitney and Max Oliver, both sophomores at BYU, are Staten’s prime clientele. They became engaged in January of this year and married on a bright Tuesday in April. They grant that the relationship moved fast, although they were one-time sweethearts at a high school in Orem, Utah. After graduating, both had been called as missionaries as part of the foundational LDS tradition of going out into the world and bringing converts into the faith. Whitney served 18 months in California; Max served two years in Canada.
During that time, they texted and sent videos back and forth, but it didn’t amount to much. They knew that when they returned, they would both be different people, shaped by the world in different ways. But the second Max saw Whitney, he said, he knew that things would work out for them, and that God had made it so. Within a few weeks, they went to design an engagement ring together.
“If we were to wait longer, people would be like ‘why are you waiting so long?’ and if it was faster, it would be crazy fast,” Whitney said. “But it’s up to us and we’re just spiritual people. It’s between us and God. I think you get skepticism from whatever choice you make. It just comes down to what you think is right.”
Life at BYU is designed to meet and uphold the tenets of the LDS faith. Students are required to observe the standards of the university’s Honor Code “at all times and in all things, and in all places,” a nod to scripture in the Book of Mormon. This means that they are dressed and groomed to be modest, neat and clean, abstain from substances like alcohol and tea and, in a principle shared by most Christian traditions, do not have sexual relationships outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.
Students are encouraged to refer their peers to the Honor Code Office for reported violations, even if the conduct occurred off campus. It is a system of pointed fingers that has come under fire in recent years, as has the university’s treatment of LGBTQ students. It is also a system that has been essential to BYU’s reputation as a school in which those who matriculate are children of God first and children of the world second.
There is a course all students are required to take, Whitney said, called “The Eternal Family.” The title stems from Elder Robert D. Hales’ message of the same name, in which he lauds the family unit as the most valued relationship of mortality. In the course, students learn to understand the role of the family in the path to salvation through knowing, feeling and doing. You will know the prophetic counsel on courtship; you will feel less anxiety regarding your abilities to recognize and be a worthy marriage companion; you will do whatever is necessary to prepare for or strengthen your eternal marriage.
BYU’s campus culture has laid the ground for these juvenile engagements to sprout up each year, on season, which is what people are referring to in the longstanding joke that students of Christian colleges—mostly women—are eager to get their ‘ring by spring.’
“It’s funny that you know what that is,” Whitney told me. “Have you spoken to other people from BYU?”
The legacy of ‘ring by spring’ did not begin at BYU, nor is it contained to one school or denomination. It operates under a sort of paradoxical secrecy—students of faith-based colleges in different corners of the country, with different creeds and expectations of devotion, offer the ‘ring by spring’ phrase when asked about the nature of romantic relationships on their campus. The joke is silly and well-worn. Oftentimes, it’s given a sense of fond ambivalence (“He was very ‘ring by spring,’” one student said about a classmate who began sending her photos of apartments after a week of dating). But the ambivalence is grounded in a theological weight and structure that many have anticipated from the time they could imagine their lives as college students: classes, mixers, chapel and courtship.
Most talk about it as though it is a particular quirk of their institution, a stubborn relic of tradition that the school hasn’t been able to kick, or put much effort into trying to. Rather than viewing it or themselves as a cog in a schismatic machine, current students sum it up to an “us” problem: our school has this custom, this habit, one that’s funny, taxing, and just who we are.
Marriage hasn’t always been tied to education. In the first decades of the 20th century, interest in marriage was largely the domain of families and communities, a private matter to sort out in the home. Then, marriage rates buckled in the wake of the Great Depression before booming in the war years to come, leaving the country with divorce rates double their pre-war norms. The institution itself seemed to be under threat.
There was reason, some thought, to move the cultivation of the family to something more formal, propped up by something resembling science. That was the original driver behind the marriage education movement, historian Beth L. Bailey wrote in her 1987 article on the subject. The “chaotic forces of modernization” felt too strong and the familial bond too sacred to leave the future of the family to chance.
“It is dangerous for females to go in with that mindset and think ‘my goal is to go to university and leave with a spouse.’”
In a 1938 American Magazine article, the sociologist Ernest Groves wrote that within a generation almost every U.S. college would have a course in marriage, a prediction that Bailey confirmed mostly held true. In 1961, Mademoiselle writer Mary Anne Guitar found that 1,200 American colleges of “academic rank ranging from Southern junior to Ivy League” offered “self-help” marriage courses. But soon after, marriage education came up against a culture that no longer had the same appetite for normative uprightness.
The movement fell apart in secular colleges. Personal matters didn’t seem fit for the classroom, and neither did prescriptive ideas about ultimate and eternal truths. The abstraction of an M.R.S. degree (the old term for women who go to college to become a Mrs., not a Dr.) became out of step with the scores of women preparing for life in the workforce. But at the same time, Bible colleges and faith-based universities were turning inward alongside the defensive hardening of fundamentalist belief in the 1960s.
“[In] the second half of the 20th century, any rumor that a [Christian] college had watered down its commitment to evangelical orthodoxy could spell the end of enrollments,” professor of education Adam Laats told Insider Higher Ed in 2018. “Students would simply go elsewhere.”
While nonreligious colleges relaxed their models of behavior, colleges that emphasized spiritual development doubled down on regiment. As Laats points out, there are “never-change” clauses in the founding charters of colleges like Bryan and Bob Jones, each named for men who recentered a conservative brand of Christianity in American public life. For a devout section of the population, the idea that a college would “never change,” particularly as it came to the understanding of goodness and social purity, was a comfort.
In 2001, Stacy Keogh George was a freshman at George Fox University, a small, private Christian college in Newberg, Oregon. At orientation, she remembers the president of the college giving earnest instructions to each wide-eyed student: “Look to your left. Look to your right. You could be looking at your future spouse.”
12 years later, she joined the sociology faculty of another Christian university, Whitworth, after a long stretch of time at a graduate school with no religious affiliation. Within a month, multiple students who were women turned up at her office, concerned about what an engagement, or lack of engagement, meant for their future.
“I just kept thinking, ‘this is still a thing?’ I can’t believe it,” George said.
She began conducting exploratory research on the pressure to marry at Christian colleges and found that it was a lonely academic pursuit—even though the sentiment was everywhere, particularly across the more than 150 colleges that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), no one felt the need to interrogate it in any real way. But, as George discovered, there are consequences to this type of marital churn, as reflected in the answers to surveys she received from 2,500 undergraduate students in 2014.
When asked directly if there was pressure to be married in college, at least 67 percent of respondents answered yes, that they felt at least a little bit of pressure. 84 percent of respondents said they heard conversations about ‘ring by spring’ at least occasionally. For George, a chief area of interest was the levels of unpreparedness reported by those who were already engaged or married—less than half reported enrolling in pre-marital counseling and less than a quarter reported purchasing any books or materials that would ready them for marriage. A recent study from MidAmerica Nazarene University suggests that these numbers are still considerably higher than the population at large, but that the latter group is also participating in relationships that look more like married life before an engagement is on the table.
There may be a correlation, George fears, between these young marriages and higher than average divorce rates within evangelical Protestant families. Even with the stigma among churchgoers, 17.2 percent of white conservative Protestants report currently being divorced, compared to the national average of 14.2 percent. And then there is the fear that the marriages remaining may not be the blessed unions they could have been with a few more years tacked on to the courtship, each party stunted in their development as a late teen or young adult.
‘Ring by spring’ is, in a logistical sense, a numbers game. Women usually outnumber men nearly two to one on Christian campuses. They also outpace men in nearly every measure of religiosity, from belief to prayer and church attendance.
In the United States, the median age at first marriage is 28 for women and 30 for men, a number that has been increasing for generations. And while there is grumbling about the trend of delayed milestones for millennials on all fronts, delayed marriage has its benefits. If women wait to marry until they are 30 or older, there are other life goals they are able to reach, with a dollar amount attached: for college-educated women in their mid-30s, it’s a premium that levels out at $18,152.
It’s easy to imagine how these inequalities are exacerbated when a student attends college with the central purpose of finding a husband. George recalled classmates who were women who switched from pre-medical degrees to nursing once it was advised that it would be too challenging to find a spouse as a doctor. There are others who graduate single, armed with degrees they didn’t think they would ever have to use, and are left feeling directionless and ill-equipped for a world of social and financial independence.
“[Getting engaged] is something to celebrate for them, but oh, my gosh, we’re just in college. It’s crazy,” said Katie Morris, who began her first year at Point Loma Nazarene University, an oceanfront college in San Diego, last fall. The school is a small, faith-based haven in a secular bubble, with ties to the Church of the Nazarene and a mandatory community living agreement that prohibits extramarital sexual relations, pornography and alcohol.
“It is dangerous for females to go in with that mindset and think ‘my goal is to go to university and leave with a spouse’,” Morris said. “Now that it is spring, I have seen a lot more engagement posts. It wasn’t really talked about last semester. But I’d say the stereotype is true.”
When Erin Smith made the decision to transfer to Liberty University from her local community college in Randolph County, North Carolina, it wasn’t to find a boy to marry. But if it happened, she told me, she wouldn’t complain. Liberty University is the brainchild of evangelists Jerry Falwell, Sr., and Elmer L. Towns, and in the last 50 years it has become something of an evangelical anchorage. Smith knew that the school would be a place where she wouldn’t have to worry about kids around her drinking or doing drugs. Now that she is entering her junior year, the pressure has shifted.
“I feel like it would be harder for me to find a good Christian guy if I’m not finding somebody at Liberty,” Smith said. “Once you get out in the real world, it’s a lot harder to find. The only places I go when I’m home are to my house, to work and to church.”
When she scrolls through social media, she sees friends her age getting engaged or married. Sometimes she sees girls younger than her who have already begun families. Right now, she’s talking to someone—a boy who lives a few floors above in her dorm—but she’s trying not to get ahead of herself. One of the things that happens at Liberty, Smith said, is that a girl will find out that a boy has interest, and she will consider his advances, and before she has time to sort her own thoughts, her friends will perk up—he could be the one, they’ll say. He could be your soulmate.
According to Smith, there was a noticeable sense of relief among women when the university brought students back to the classroom at a peak of the pandemic, not least because it meant that courtship could continue at pace.
Smith always assumed that she would get engaged before graduation, but she has other plans, too. She wants to start her own nonprofit organization and travel. She feels called to help children, either through work with adoption agencies or orphanages.
“At Christian colleges, this is what people do. Girls meet somebody and they’re like ‘let’s get married,’” Smith said. “Some people are just like ‘this guy seems like a good guy, he goes to church, that’s what I want, let’s get married.’ Some people do it so that they can move out of their parents’ house and be an adult. It’s not that I don’t agree with it. I just feel like it’s a little soon.”
There’s something to the assumption that the rush to marriage comes down to sex, Smith said. Women are interested in marriage because they have a vision of domestic bliss; men are interested in marriage because they want to lose their virginities. This is a theory most students raised—that it is a crockpot of sociological and hormonal elements that leads to premature commitment. Marriage is a blunt tool to eliminate temptation.
But statistics don’t necessarily reflect that reality. In George’s research, she found that if students dated at Christian colleges and wanted to have sex, they would have sex. They were also getting married. Those surveyed were divided into thirds: one-third of students reported having sex before marriage, one-third were choosing to remain abstinent and one-third declined to answer.
The truth is that the incentive for men to marry in their late teens and early 20s—even with the promise of a physical relationship—is low. ‘Ring by spring’ is, in a logistical sense, a numbers game. Women usually outnumber men nearly two to one on Christian campuses. They also outpace men in nearly every measure of religiosity, from belief to prayer and church attendance. Smith’s idea that it will be difficult to find a husband once she leaves Liberty is not altogether incorrect. The church as a “functional dating” market is not what it used to be and hasn’t been for a while: the share of Americans who report meeting their partner at church was four percent in 2017, down from a meager seven percent in 1995.
For men, the instinct that there will always be a pool of wholesome, churchgoing women at their disposal is reasonable. And without the sense of urgency felt by women, men are free to construct their identities outside of relationships. They can find out what interests them, what they like to study and which parts of their faith they want to hold close.
The gendered implications of ‘ring by spring’ are difficult to reconcile. But there is nothing inherently unique about the process of choosing a college, secular or not. In the U.S., college is marketed as a “choose your adventure” series. Schools are ranked by all sorts of meters outside of academic excellence and employment rates: there are colleges sorted by the luxe amenities they offer through campus housing, and those sorted by the reliability of day drinking outside of frat houses. If students have the means, there is a natural urge to attend a college out-of-state and find peers who match the person they want to be. These disparate educational experiences are packaged and sold to families as their child’s particular brand of oasis, a product that is almost entirely reliant on reputation. As you choose your university, you select a four-year social hub, and with it, a stockpile of potential romantic partners. This means that there are lots of married graduates, religious and not, who report attending the same college as their spouse, making finding your partner an under-layer of the experience regardless of where you go.
When Jewel Schuurmans talks about the reasons she decided to attend Bob Jones University, she comes back to two points: the people and their morals. At 13, she visited the campus for the first time, 200 acres of manicured lawns, stucco buildings and—yes, truly—yellow-brick roads in Greenville, South Carolina. It was the only school she applied to.
Bob Jones, like Liberty and Brigham Young University, is mostly known to outsiders by the rigidness of its rules; some will remember BJU as an institution that lifted its ban on interracial dating in the year 2000, and through the revoking (and eventual reinstatement) of its tax-exempt status after the Supreme Court ruled that its policies discriminated on the basis of race.
“Do not take for granted the privileges God has given each of us,” reads the welcome letter to newcomers from the student council presidents. “He has allowed us to be at a University with students and faculty who love Him; He has allowed us to be in a country where we can worship Him freely; and He has allowed us to have opportunities to serve those around us. As you invest in your classes, in your on-campus responsibilities, in work and whatever else you are involved in, keep the big picture in mind.”
In the most recent edition of the university’s student handbook, unmarried men and women are instructed to avoid physical contact both on and off campus, with the exception of side hugs for photographs. Residence hall students are not to be alone with a member of the opposite sex off campus. Even for those who are engaged, permission must be secured from administration to be off campus alone in a public place in the Greenville area, as well as parental consent. These rules operate in tandem with the ones that require “intentionally conservative” music, movies and television with a PG rating and the use of BJU’s online content filtering system.
Schuurmans doesn’t see the rules as restricting relationships. It is a source of encouragement, she said, pointing to president Steve Pettit’s favorite line to new students: “You should all get married and have lots of kids and send them to Bob Jones University.” No one goes to BJU thinking that it is anything it’s not. People come because of a desire to have belief folded into each aspect of life.
“I don’t know how much material I can give you,” Schuurmans said, when asked about dating on campus. “I’ve met a lot of people who have similar values to me, but that hasn’t come to fruition.”
In her first three years of college, Schuurmans went on dates with a few men who seemed to have promise—they got meals at the dining commons, sat outside in the gazebo, grabbed cups of coffee. There is an artist series that puts on an opera once a semester, and freshmen scramble to find someone to go with. For each bud of a relationship, promise didn’t amount to much else.
“I’ve felt very satisfied investing in my career and in my personal relationship with Christ,” Schuurmans said. “I’ve had excellent friendships. That being said, I would love to be married someday. I would love a family.”
She believes it is a misconception that women opt for domesticity at the request of their husbands. The fulfillment that comes from a peaceful home life should not be underestimated, she said, speaking from the experience of her side job as a nanny. She is a double major in French and journalism, which she assumes will lend itself to flexible hours and work-from-home in the future. There is freelance writing, and if not that, she can teach with open summers.
“There are some things that I have less interest in pursuing for a career, not because I think they are unachievable in any way, but if I were to pursue being a doctor...” she said, pausing for a moment. “I would prefer to choose a career that is more in line with what I expect to do in the future, which is to raise my children. It’s healthy to have the priority be your family first and the career after. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to compromise either.”
Schuurmans is not discouraged that she is entering her senior year of college single. She has always been pragmatic about her choices, she said. The relationships that fizzled out were learning experiences, and when they ended, it wasn’t so much of a disappointment as it was a refocusing. Relationships are complicated. There is more to it than a careful alignment of conviction. Because she set standards for herself and did not invest in “ways that went against my conscience,” she looks back at the romantic interactions she has had at BJU with a full heart.
“I feel like I haven’t given away anything that I would regret,” she said.
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Schuurmans a different variation of the same question we have circled around, this time with a finer point. Entering BJU, how did she picture her life as an incoming senior? Would a younger version of herself think that she would be further along on the path to marriage?
“If you put it that way, then I probably would have expected it,” Schuurmans said after collecting her thoughts. “Yeah. I would have expected it. But I don’t feel like I’ve let myself down.”
In May, she attended a small event for senior students, pulled from a graduating class of over 500. All seniors were brought to the front, asked to state their major and their plans for the summer. Those plans included moving outside of South Carolina, beginning first careers and working in ministry. About half, Schuurmans said, told the room that the summer would hold their wedding.
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