When Josh Harris was 21, he wrote one of those books that becomes not just a bestseller but a movement. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was an abstinence manifesto and courtship manual that convinced a generation of conservative Christian teenagers that avoiding premarital sex was more than a good idea or even God’s plan—it was a holy calling and a prerequisite to a good marriage. The book went on to sell more than a million copies. Josh got married at 23; by then, he was a celebrity in evangelical circles. On Thursday, he and his wife, Shannon, announced they are separating after 19 years of marriage.
Normally, an author’s apparently amicable separation from their spouse would not be newsworthy. But Josh’s early career was built on the promise that there might be a formula to building a permanent and happy Christian marriage. He has also spent the past few years publicly reckoning with the legacy of his youthful certainty and the pain that critics say he caused. The end of the Harrises’ marriage is a coda of sorts to the “purity culture” he helped inspire.
Josh’s career as a conservative relationship savant came naturally to him, at least on the surface. His parents were leaders in the conservative Christian home schooling movement in the ’80s and ’90s. Josh, the oldest of seven, published a magazine for home-schoolers called New Attitude while he was still a teenager, and spoke at home schooling conferences around the country. His twin brothers later wrote a popular book called Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations and conducted a controversial “modesty survey” in which young Christian men answered detailed questions about what kind of clothing they felt Christian girls should avoid wearing.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published in 1997 by an evangelical publisher, and it was an immediate sensation. Part memoir, part manifesto, the book “made abstinence seem both romantic and noble,” as I wrote in a profile of Josh a few years ago. The premise was that modern dating was damaging, in part because frequent breakups were “a training ground for divorce.” Josh advocated instead for courtship, which involves the couple’s parents and is overtly oriented toward marriage. Published in the era of purity rings and “True Love Waits,” the book was endorsed by many evangelical leaders, and found a willing audience of teenagers who were being trained to see premarital abstinence as a core performance of faith. The book’s popularity was not hurt by the fact that Josh was young, cute, and single. In 2000, he published Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship, in which he shared the story of his marriage to Shannon.
More successes quickly followed. By the time Josh was in his mid-20s, a prominent nondenominational pastor named C.J. Mahaney had begun grooming him to take over the flagship congregation of Sovereign Grace, a network of churches he had founded in the ’80s. Josh was living with the Mahaney family when he met Shannon, and he became senior pastor at Covenant Life Church in Maryland at age 30.
But in 2015, Josh told his church he had lived a “crazy, backwards life,” as he announced he was leaving his position as pastor in order to attend seminary at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In that sermon, he compared himself to Benjamin Button, the F. Scott Fitzgerald character who ages in reverse. His decision to go to seminary at age 40 made national news, and the family moved west to Canada. By then, Harris had left Sovereign Grace—he removed his congregation from the group in 2012—and Mahaney and the church network were embroiled in controversy over their handling of sexual abuse cases in the ’80s and ’90s. (This spring, Sovereign Grace declined calls for an independent investigation of the abuse cases.)
Meanwhile, Josh had begun openly grappling with the legacy of the book that made him famous. His teenage readers had grown up, and many of them were sharing stories online about their experiences. Not all participants in the abstinence movement regret it, but many readers shared stories of shame, disillusionment, sexual dysfunction, and divorce. Harris started soliciting stories on his own site, and heard from disenchanted readers directly. In 2016, he told me that he was reconsidering his role in the purity movement: “It’s like, well, crap, is the biggest thing I’ve done in my life this really huge mistake?” he asked. Last year, he participated in a documentary called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Shannon Harris, who goes by the name Shannon Bonne as a singer-songwriter, has not spoken as openly about her own spiritual trajectory. But her Instagram account in recent months has included mentions of having “buried” her true self, and what seem to be veiled references to leaving Sovereign Grace. “I myself have been sitting here for seven years. Quietly Thinking. No, longer,” she wrote in June. “Nearly a decade ruminating over my time in a place called church.” Just a few days ago, she posted that she is working on a musical whose themes include “power in the conservative church.” She has also used the hashtag #exvangelical, a term used by some who have left the evangelical movement.
Josh and Shannon Harris made their separation announcement this week the way public figures do these days: simultaneous and identical Instagram posts. (Josh told me Thursday by email that he and Shannon are not making any further statements for now.)
The Harrises strike the usual melancholy but optimistic tone common to statements like this, including phrases like “moving forward,” “sincere love for one another,” and “our unique story as a couple.” They mention their three children and their commitment to being co-parents and friends. But the statement also includes a sentence that will be intriguing to those who have followed their story over their many years in and out of the public eye. “In recent years,” the Harrises wrote, “some significant changes have taken place in both of us.” It would be foolish to speculate about what that means to this particular couple. Every marriage is its own particular mystery, with its own “significant changes.” Living one’s entire life with another person is a complicated endeavor. As so many of Josh’s early readers have discovered on their own, there is no magic formula.