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The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891

by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother

Chapter 1.

The New England Meeting-House.

When the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth they at once assigned a Lord's Day meeting-place for the Separatist church,--"a timber fort both strong and comely, with flat roof and battlements;" and to this fort, every Sunday, the men and women walked reverently, three in a row, and in it they worshipped until they built for themselves a meeting-house in 1648.

As soon as each successive outlying settlement was located and established, the new community built a house for the purpose of assembling therein for the public worship of God; this house was called a meeting-house. Cotton Mather said distinctly that he "found no just ground in Scripture to apply such a trope as church to a house for public assembly." The church, in the Puritan's way of thinking, worshipped in the meeting-house, and he was as bitterly opposed to calling this edifice a church as he was to calling the Sabbath Sunday. His favorite term for that day was the Lord's Day.

The settlers were eager and glad to build their meeting-houses; for these houses of God were to them the visible sign of the establishment of that theocracy which they had left their fair homes and had come to New England to create and perpetuate. But lest some future settlements should be slow or indifferent about doing their duty promptly, it was enacted in 1675 that a meeting-house should be erected in every town in the colony; and if the people failed to do so at once, the magistrates were empowered to build it, and to charge the cost of its erection to the town. The number of members necessary to establish a separate church was very distinctly given in the Platform of Church Discipline: "A church ought not to be of greater number than can ordinarilie meet convenientlie in one place, nor ordinarilie fewer than may convenientlie carry on church-work." Each church was quite independent in its work and government, and had absolute power to admit, expel, control, and censure its members.

These first meeting-houses were simple buildings enough,--square log-houses with clay-filled chinks, surmounted by steep roofs thatched with long straw or grass, and often with only the beaten earth for a floor. It was considered a great advance and a matter of proper pride when the settlers had the meeting-house "lathed on the inside, and so daubed and whitened over workmanlike." The dimensions of many of these first essays at church architecture are known to us, and lowly little structures they were. One, indeed, is preserved for us under cover at Salem. The first meeting-house in Dedham was thirty-six feet long, twenty feet wide, and twelve feet high "in the stud;" the one in Medford was smaller still; and the Haverhill edifice was only twenty-six feet long and twenty wide, yet "none other than the house of God."

As the colonists grew in wealth and numbers, they desired and built better sanctuaries, "good roomthy meeting-houses" they were called by Judge Sewall, the most valued and most interesting journal-keeper of the times. The rude early buildings were then converted into granaries or storehouses, or, as was the Pentucket meeting-house, into a "house of shelter or a house to sett horses in." As these meeting-houses had not been consecrated, and as they were town-halls, forts, or court-houses as well as meeting-houses, the humbler uses to which they were finally put were not regarded as profanations of holy places.

The second form or type of American church architecture was a square wooden building, usually unpainted, crowned with a truncated pyramidal roof, which was surmounted (if the church could afford such luxury) with a belfry or turret containing a bell. The old church at Hingham, the "Old Ship" which was built in 1681, is still standing, a well-preserved example of this second style of architecture. These square meeting-houses, so much alike, soon abounded in New England; for a new church, in its contract for building, would often specify that the structure should be "like in every detaile to the Lynn meeting-house," or like the Hadley, Milford, Boston, Danvers, or New Haven meeting-house. This form of edifice was the prototype of the fine great First Church of Boston, a large square brick building, with three rows of windows and two galleries, which stood from the year 1713 to 1808, and of which many pictures exist.

The third form of the Puritan meeting-house, of which the Old South Church of Boston is a typical model, has too many representatives throughout New England to need any description, as have also the succeeding forms of New England church architecture.

The first meeting-houses were often built in the valleys, in the meadow lands; for the dwelling-houses must be clustered around them, since the colonists were ordered by law to build their new homes within half a mile of the meeting-house. Soon, however, the houses became too closely crowded for the most convenient uses of a farming community; pasturage for the cattle had to be obtained at too great a distance from the farmhouse; firewood had to be brought from too distant woods; nearness to water also had to be considered. Thus the law became a dead letter, and each new-coming settler built on outlying and remote land, since the Indians were no longer so deeply to be dreaded. Then the meeting-houses, having usually to accommodate a whole township of scattered farms, were placed on remote and often highly elevated locations; sometimes at the very top of a long, steep hill,--so long and so steep in some cases, especially in one Connecticut parish, that church attendants could not ride down on horseback from the pinnacled meeting-house, but were forced to scramble down, leading their horses, and mount from a horse-block at the foot of the hill. The second Roxbury church was set on a high hill, and the story is fairly pathetic of the aged and feeble John Eliot, the glory of New England Puritanism, that once, as he toiled patiently up the long ascent to his dearly loved meeting, he said to the person on whose supporting arm he leaned (in the Puritan fashion of teaching a lesson from any event and surrounding): "This is very like the way to heaven; 'tis uphill. The Lord by His grace fetch us up."

The location on a hilltop was chosen and favored for various reasons. The meeting-house was at first a watch-house, from which to keep vigilant lookout for any possible approach of hostile or sneaking Indians; it was also a landmark, whose high bell-turret, or steeple, though pointing to heaven, was likewise a guide on earth, for, thus stationed on a high elevation, it could be seen for miles around by travellers journeying through the woods, or in the narrow, tree-obscured bridle-paths which were then almost the only roads. In seaside towns it could be a mark for for sailors at sea; such was the Truro meeting-house. Then, too, our Puritan ancestors dearly loved a "sightly location," and were willing to climb uphill cheerfully, even through bleak New England winters, for the sake of having a meeting-house which showed off well, and was a proper source of envy to the neighboring villages and the country around. The studiously remote and painfully inaccessible locations chosen for the site of many fine, roomy churches must astonish any observing traveller on the byroads of New England. Too often, alas! these churches are deserted, falling down, unopened from year to year, destitute alike of minister and congregation. Sometimes, too, on high hilltops, or on lonesome roads leading through a tall second growth of woods, deserted and neglected old graveyards--the most lonely and forlorn of all sad places--by their broken and fallen headstones, which surround a half-filled-in and uncovered cellar, show that once a meeting-house for New England Christians had stood there. Tall grass, and a tangle of blackberry brambles cover the forgotten graves, and perhaps a spire of orange tiger-lilies, a shrub of southernwood or of winter-killed and dying box, may struggle feebly for life under the shadow of the "plumed ranks of tall wild cherry," and prove that once these lonely graves were cared for and loved for the sake of those who lie buried in this now waste spot. No traces remain of the old meeting-house save the cellar and the narrow stone steps, sadly leading nowhere, which once were pressed by the feet of the children of the Pilgrims, but now are trodden only by the curious and infrequent passer-by, or the epitaph-seeking antiquary.

It is difficult often to understand the details in the descriptions of these early meeting-houses, the colonial spelling is so widely varied, and so cleverly ingenious. Uniformity of spelling is a strictly modern accomplishment, a hampering innovation. "A square roofe without Dormans, with two Lucoms on each side," means, I think, without dormer windows, and with luthern windows. Another church paid a bill for the meeting-house roof and the "Suppolidge." They had "turritts" and "turetts" and "turits" and "turyts" and "feriats" and "tyrryts" and "toryttes" and "turiotts" and "chyrits," which were one and the same thing; and one church had orders for "juyces and rayles and nayles and bymes and tymber and gaybels and a pulpyt, and three payr of stayrs," in its meeting-house,--a liberal supply of the now fashionable y's. We read of "pinakles" and "pyks" and "shuthers" and "scaffills" and "bimes" and "lynters" and "bathyns" and "chymbers" and "bellfers;" and often in one entry the same word will be spelt in three or four different ways. Here is a portion of a contract in the records of the Roxbury church: "Sayd John is to fence in the Buring Plas with a Fesy ston wall, sefighiattly don for Strenk and workmanship as also to mark a Doball gatt 6 or 8 fote wid and to hing it." Sefighiattly is "sufficiently;" but who can translate "Fesy"? can it mean "facy" or faced smoothly?

The church-raising was always a great event in the town. Each citizen was forced by law to take part in or contribute to "raring the Meeting hows." In early days nails were scarce,--so scarce that unprincipled persons set fire to any buildings which chanced to be temporarily empty, for the sake of obtaining the nails from the ruins; so each male inhabitant supplied to the new church a certain "amount of nayles." Not only were logs, and lumber, and the use of horses' and men's labor given, but a contribution was also levied for the inevitable barrel of rum and its unintoxicating accompaniments. "Rhum and Cacks" are frequent entries in the account books of early churches. No wonder that accidents were frequent, and that men fell from the scaffolding and were killed, as at the raising of the Dunstable meeting-house. When the Medford people built their second meeting-house, they provided for the workmen and bystanders, five barrels of rum, one barrel of good brown sugar, a box of fine lemons, and two loaves of sugar. As a natural consequence, two thirds of the frame fell, and many were injured. In Northampton, in 1738, ten gallons of rum were bought for £8 "to raise the meeting-house"--and the village doctor got "£3 for setting his bone Jonathan Strong, and £3 10s. for setting Ebenezer Burt's thy" which had somehow through the rum or the raising, both gotten broken. Sometimes, as in Pittsfield in 1671, the sum of four shillings was raised on every acre of land in the town, and three shillings a day were paid to every man who came early to work, while one shilling a day was apportioned to each worker for his rum and sugar. At last no liquor was allowed to the workmen until after the day's work was over, and thus fatal accidents were prevented.

The earliest meeting-houses had oiled paper in the windows to admit the light. A Pilgrim colonist wrote to an English friend about to emigrate, "Bring oiled paper for your windows." Higginson, however, writing in 1629, asks for "glasse for windowes." When glass was used it was not set in the windows as now. We find frequent entries of "glasse and nayles for it," and in Newbury, in 1665, the church ordered that the "Glasse in the windows be ... look't to if any should happen to be loosed with winde to be nailed close again." The glass was in lozenge-shaped panes, set in lead in the form of two long narrow sashes opening in the middle from top to bottom, and it was many years before oblong or square panes came into common use.

These early churches were destitute of shade, for the trees in the immediate vicinity were always cut down on account of dread of the fierce fires which swept often through the forests and overwhelmed and destroyed the towns. The heat and blazing light in summer were as hard to bear in these unscreened meeting-houses as was the cold in winter.

  "Old house of Puritanic wood,
  Through whose unpainted windows streamed,
  On seats as primitive and rude
  As Jacob's pillow when he dreamed,
  The white and undiluted day."

We have all heard the theory advanced that it is impossible there should be any true religious feeling, any sense of sanctity, in a garish and bright light,--"the white and undiluted day,"--but I think no one can doubt that to the Puritans these seething, glaring, pine-smelling hothouses were truly God's dwelling-place, though there was no "dim, religious light" within.

Curtains and window-blinds were unknown, and the sunlight streamed in with unobstructed and unbroken rays. Heavy shutters for protection were often used, but to close them at time of service would have been to plunge the church into utter darkness. Permission was sometimes given, as in Haverhill, to "sett up a shed outside of the window to keep out the heat of the sun there,"--a very roundabout way to accomplish a very simple end. As years passed on, trees sprang up and grew apace, and too often the churches became overhung and heavily shadowed by dense, sombre spruce, cedar, and fir trees. A New England parson was preaching in a neighboring church which was thus gloomily surrounded. He gave out as his text, "Why do the wicked live?" and as he peered in the dim light at his manuscript, he exclaimed abruptly, "I hope they will live long enough to cut down this great hemlock-tree back of the pulpit window." Another minister, Dr. Storrs, having struggled to read his sermon in an ill-lighted, gloomy church, said he would never speak in that building again while it was so overshadowed with trees. A few years later he was invited to preach to the same congregation; but when he approached the church, and saw the great umbrageous tree still standing, he rode away, and left the people sermonless in their darkness. The chill of these sunless, unheated buildings in winter can well be imagined.

Strange and grotesque decorations did the outside of the earliest meeting-houses bear,--grinning wolves' heads nailed under the windows and by the side of the door, while splashes of blood, which had dripped from the severed neck, reddened the logs beneath. The wolf, for his destructiveness, was much more dreaded by the settlers than the bear, which did not so frequently attack the flocks. Bears were plentiful enough. The history of Roxbury states that in 1725, in one week in September, twenty bears were killed within two miles of Boston. This bear story requires unlimited faith in Puritan probity, and confidence in Puritan records to credit it, but believe it, ye who can, as I do! In Salem and in Ipswich, in 1640, any man who brought a living wolf to the meeting-house was paid fifteen shillings by the town; if the wolf were dead, ten shillings. In 1664, if the wolf-killer wished to obtain the reward, he was ordered to bring the wolf's head and "nayle it to the meeting-house and give notis thereof." In Hampton, the inhabitants were ordered to "nayle the same to a little red oake tree at northeast end of the meeting-house." One man in Newbury, in 1665, killed seven wolves, and was paid the reward for so doing. This was a great number, for the wary wolf was not easily destroyed either by musket or wolf-hook. In 1723 wolves were so abundant in Ipswich that parents would not suffer their children to go to and from church and school without the attendance of some grown person. As late as 1746 wolves made sad havoc in Woodbury, Connecticut; and a reward of five dollars for each wolf's head was offered by law in that township in 1853.

In 1718 the last public reward was paid in Salem for a wolf's head, but so late as the year 1779 the howls of wolves were heard every night in Newbury, though trophies of shrivelled wolves' heads no longer graced the walls of the meeting-house.

All kinds of notices and orders and regulations and "bills" were posted on the meeting-house, often on the door, where they would greet the eye of all who entered: prohibitions from selling guns and powder to the Indians, notices of town meetings, intentions of marriage, copies of the laws against Sabbath-breaking, messages from the Quakers, warnings of "vandoos" and sales, lists of the town officers, and sometimes scandalous and insulting libels, and libels in verse, which is worse, for our forefathers dearly loved to rhyme on all occasions. On the meeting-house green stood those Puritanical instruments of punishment, the stocks, whipping-post, pillory, and cage; and on lecture days the stocks and pillory were often occupied by wicked or careless colonists, or those everlasting pillory-replenishers, the Quakers. It is one of the unintentionally comic features of absurd colonial laws and punishments in which the early legal records so delightfully abound, that the first man who was sentenced to and occupied the stocks in Boston was the carpenter who made them. He was thus fitly punished for his extortionate charge to the town for the lumber he used in their manufacture. This was rather better than "making the punishment fit the crime," since the Boston magistrates managed to force the criminal to furnish his own punishment. In Shrewsbury, also, the unhappy man who first tested the wearisome capacity and endured the public mortication of the town's stocks was the man who made them. He "builded better than he knew." Pillories were used as a means of punishment until a comparatively recent date,--in Salem until the year 1801, and in Boston till 1803.

Great horse-blocks, rows of stepping-stones, or hewn logs further graced the meeting-house green; and occasionally one fine horse-block, such as the Concord women proudly erected, and paid for by a contribution of a pound of butter from each house-wife.

The meeting-house not only was employed for the worship of God and for town meetings, but it was a storehouse as well. Until after the Revolutionary War it was universally used as a powder magazine; and indeed, as no fire in stove or fireplace was ever allowed within, it was a safe enough place for the explosive material. In Hanover, the powder room was in the steeple, while in Quincy the "powder-closite" was in the beams of the roof. Whenever there chanced to be a thunderstorm during the time of public worship, the people of Beverly ran out under the trees, and in other towns they left the meeting-house if the storm seemed severe or near; still they built no powder houses. Grain, too, was stored in the loft of the meeting-house for safety; hatches were built, and often the corn paid to the minister was placed there. "Leantos," or "linters," were sometimes built by the side of the building for use for storage. In Springfield, Mr. Pyncheon was allowed to place his corn in the roof chamber of the meeting-house; but as the people were afraid that the great weight might burst the floor, he was forbidden to store more than four hundred bushels at a time, unless he "underpropped the floor."

In one church in the Connecticut valley, in a township where it was forbidden that tobacco be smoked upon the public streets, the church loft was used to dry and store the freshly cut tobacco-leaves which the inhabitants sold to the "ungodly Dutch." Thus did greed for gain lead even blue Connecticut Christians to profane the house of God.

The early meeting-houses in country parishes were seldom painted, such outward show being thought vain and extravagant. In the middle of the eighteenth century paint became cheaper and more plentiful, and a gay rivalry in church-decoration sprang up. One meeting-house had to be as fine as its neighbor. Votes were taken, "rates were levied," gifts were asked in every town to buy "colour" for the meeting-house. For instance, the new meeting-house in Pomfret, Connecticut, was painted bright yellow; it proved a veritable golden apple of discord throughout the county. Windham town quickly voted that its meeting-house be "coloured something like the Pomfret meeting-house." Killingly soon ordered that the "cullering of the body of our meeting-house should be like the Pomfret meeting-house, and the Roff shal be cullered Read." Brooklyn church then, in 1762, ordered that the outside of its meeting-house be "culered" in the approved fashion. The body of the house was painted a bright orange; the doors and "bottom boards" a warm chocolate color; the "window-jets," corner-boards, and weather-boards white. What a bright nosegay of color! As a crowning glory Brooklyn people put up an "Eleclarick Rod" on the gorgeous edifice, and proudly boasted that--Brooklyn meeting-house was the "newest biggest and yallowest" in the county. One old writer, however, spoke scornfully of the spirit of envious emulation, extravagance, and bad taste that spread and prevailed from the example of the foolish and useless "colouring" of the Pomfret meeting-house.

Within the meeting-house all was simple enough: raftered walls, sanded floors, rows of benches, a few pews, and the pulpit, or the "scaffold," as John Cotton called it. The bare rafters were often profusely hung with dusty spiders' webs, and were the home also of countless swallows, that flew in and out of the open bell-turret. Sometimes, too, mischievous squirrels, attracted by the corn in the meeting-house loft, made their homes in the sanctuary; and they were so prolific and so omnivorous that the Bible and the pulpit cushions were not safe from their nibbling attacks. On every Sunday afternoon the Word of God and its sustaining cushion had to be removed to the safe shelter of a neighboring farmhouse or tavern, to prevent total annihilation by these Puritanical, Bible-loving squirrels.

The pulpits were often pretentious, even in the plain and undecorated meeting-houses, and were usually high desks, to which a narrow flight of stairs led. In the churches of the third stage of architecture, these stairs were often inclosed in a towering hexagonal mahogany structure, which was ornamented with pillars and panels. Into this the minister walked, closed the door behind him, and invisibly ascended the stairs; while the children counted the seconds from the time he closed the door until his head appeared through the trap-door at the top of the pulpit. The form known as a tub-pulpit was very popular in the larger churches. The pulpit of one old, unpainted church retained until the middle of this century, as its sole decoration, an enormous, carefully painted, staring eye, a terrible and suggestive illustration to youthful wrong-doers of the great, all-seeing eye of God.

As the ceiling and rafters were so open and reverberating, it was generally thought imperative to hang above the pulpit a great sounding-board, which threatened the minister like a giant extinguisher, and was really as devoid of utility as it was curious in ornamentation, "reflecting most part an empty ineffectual sound." This great sound-killer was decorated with carved and painted rosettes, as in the Shrewsbury meeting-house; with carved ivy leaves, as in Farmington; with a carved bunch of grapes or pomegranates, as in the Leicester church; with letters indicating a date, as, "M. R. H." for March, in the Hadley church; with appropriate mottoes and texts, such as the words, "Holiness is the Lords," in the Windham church; with cords and tassels, with hanging fringes, with panels and balls; and thus formed a great ornament to the church, and a source of honest pride to the church members. The clumsy sounding-board was usually hung by a slight iron rod, which looked smaller still as it stretched up to the high, raftered roof, and always appeared to be entirely insufficient to sustain the great weight of the heavy machine. In Danvers, one of these useless though ornamental structures hung within eighteen inches of the preacher's nose, on a slender bar thirty feet in length; and every Sunday the children gazed with fascinated anticipation at the slight rod and the great hexagonal extinguisher, thinking and hoping that on this day the sounding-board would surely drop, and "put out" the minister. In fact, it was regarded by many a child, though this idea was hardly formulated in the little brain, as a visible means of possible punishment for any false doctrine that might issue from the mouth of the preacher.

Another pastime and source of interest to the children in many old churches was the study of the knots and veins in the unpainted wood of which the pews and galleries were made. Age had developed and darkened and rendered visible all the natural irregularities in the wood, just as it had brought out and strengthened the dry-woody, close, unaired, penetrating scent which permeated the meeting-house and gave it the distinctive "church smell." The children, and perhaps a few of the grown people, found in these clusters of knots queer similitudes of faces, strange figures and constellations, which, though conned Sunday after Sunday until known by heart, still seemed ever to show in their irregular groupings a puzzling possibility of the discovery of new configurations and monstrosities.

The dangling, dusty spiders' webs afforded, too, an interesting sight and diversion for the sermon-hearing, but not sermon-listening, young Puritans, who watched the cobwebs swaying, trembling, forming strange maps of imaginary rivers with their many tributaries, or outlines of intersecting roads and lanes. And if little Yet-Once, Hate-Evil, or Shearjashub chanced, by good fortune, to be seated near a window where a crafty spider and a foolish buzzing fly could be watched through the dreary exposition and attempted reconciliation of predestination and free will, that indeed were a happy way of passing the weary hours.

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