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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 10.

The Deacon's Office.

The deacons in the early New England churches had, besides their regular duties on the Lord's Day, and their special duties on communion Sabbaths, the charge of prudential concerns, and of providing for the poor of the church. They also "dispensed the word" on Sabbaths to the congregation during the absence of the ordained minister. Judge Sewall thus describes in his diary under the date of November, 1685, the method at that time of appointing or ordaining a deacon:--

    "In afternoon Mr. Willard ordained our Brother Theophilus Frary to the office of a Deacon. Declared his acceptance January 11th first now again. Propounded him to the congregation at Noon. Then in even propounded him if any of the church of other had to object they might speak. Then took the Church's Vote, then call'd him up to the Pulpit, laid his Hand on's head, and said I ordain Thee, etc., etc., gave him his charge, then Prayed & sung 2nd Part of 84th Psalm."

The deacons always sat near the pulpit in a pew, which was generally raised a foot or two above the level of the meeting-house floor, and which contained, usually, several high-backed chairs and a table or a broad swinging-shelf for use at the communion service. These venerable men were a group of awe-inspiring figures, who, next to the parson, received the respect of the community. In Bristol, Connecticut, the deacons wore starched white linen caps in the meeting-house to indicate their office,--a singular local custom. One of their duties in many communities was naturally to furnish the sacramental wines, and the money for the payment thereof was allowed to them from the church-rates, or was raised by special taxation. In Farmington, Connecticut, in 1669, each male inhabitant was ordered to pay a peck of wheat or one shilling to the deacons of the church to defray the expenses of the sacrament. In Groton church, in 1759, "4 Coppers for every Sacrament for 1 year" was demanded from each communicant. In Springfield the "deacon's rate" was paid in "wampam,"--sixpence in "wampam" or a peck of Indian corn from each family in the town. This special tax was somewhat modified in case a man had no wife, or if he were not a church-member, but in the latter case he still had to pay some dues, though of course he could not take part in the communion service. In 1734 the Milton church ordered the deacons to procure "good Canary Wine for the Communion Table." Abuses sometimes arose,--abominably poor wines were furnished, though full rates were paid for the purchase of wine of good quality; and in Newbury the man who was appointed to furnish the sacramental wines, sold, under that religious cover, wine and liquors at retail.

The deacons also had charge of the vessels used in the communion service. These vessels were frequently stored, when not in use, under the pulpit in a little closet which opened into "the Ministers wives pue," and which was fabled to be at the disposal of the tithingmen and deacons for the darksome incarceration of unruly and Sabbath-breaking boys. The communion vessels were not always of valuable metal; John Cotton's first church had wooden chalices; the wealthier churches owned pieces of silver which had been given to them, one piece at a time, by members or friends of the church; but communion services of pewter were often seen.

The church in Hanover, Massachusetts, bought a pewter service in 1728, and the record of the purchase still exists. It runs thus:--

  3 Pewter Tankards marked C. T.    10 shillings.
  5   "    Beakers    "    C. B.    6 sh. 6d. each.
  2   "    Platters   "    C. P.    5 sh. each.
  1   "    Basin for Baptisms.

This pewter service is still owned by the Hanover church, a highly prized relic. Until 1753 the church in Andover used a pewter communion service, but when a silver service was given to it, the Andover church sent the vessels of baser metal to a sister church in Methuen. In Haverhill the will of a church-member named White gave to the church absolutely the pewter dishes which were used at the sacrament, and which had been his personal property. The "ffirst church" of Hartford had "one Puter fflagon, ffower pewter dishes, and a bason" left to it by the bequest of one of its members. When the Danvers church was burned in 1805, the pewter communion vessels were saved while the silver ones were either burnt or stolen. As pewter was, in the early days of New England, far from being a despised metal, and as pewter dishes and plates were seen on the tables of the wealthiest families, were left by will as precious possessions, were engraved with initials and stamped with coats of arms, and polished with as much care as were silver vessels, a communion service of pewter was doubtless felt to be a thoroughly satisfactory acquisition and appointment to a Puritan church.

The deacons of course took charge of the church contributions. Lechford, in his "Plaine Dealing," thus describes the manner of giving in the Boston church in 1641:--

    "Baptism being ended, follows the contribution, one of the deacons saying, 'Brethren of the Congregation, now there is time left for contribution, whereof as God has prospered you so freely offer.' The Magistrates and chief gentlemen first, and then the Elders and all the Congregation of them, and most of them that are not of the church, all single persons, widows and women in absence of their husbands, came up one after another one way, and bring their offering to the deacon at his seat, and put it into a box of wood for the purpose, if it be money or papers. If it be any other Chattel they set or lay it down before the deacons; and so pass on another way to their seats again; which money and goods the Deacons dispose towards the maintenance of the Minister, and the poor of the Church, and the Churches occasions without making account ordinarily."

Lechford also said he saw a "faire gilt cup" given at the public contribution; and other gifts of value to the church and minister were often made. Libellous verses too were thrown into the contribution boxes, and warning and gloomy messages from the Quakers; and John Rogers, in derision of a pompous New London minister, threw in the insulting contribution of an old periwig. One Puritan goodwife, sternly unforgiving, never saw a contribution taken for proselyting the Indians without depositing in the contribution-box a number of leaden bullets, the only tokens she wished to see ever dispersed among the red men.

Even our pious forefathers were not always quite honest in their church contributions, and had to be publicly warned, as the records show, that they must deposit "wampum without break or deforming spots," or "passable peage without breaches." The New Haven church was particularly tormented by canny Puritans who thus managed to dispose of their broken and worthless currency with apparent Christian generosity. In 1650 the New Haven "deacons informed the Court that the wampum which is putt into the Church Treasury is generally so bad that the Elders to whom they pay it cannot pay it away."

In 1651, as the bad wampum was still paid in by the pious New Haven Puritans, it was ordered that "no money save silver or bills" be accepted by the deacons. After this order the deacons and elders found tremendous difficulty in getting any contributions at all, and many are the records of the actions and decisions of the church in regard to the perplexing matter. It should be said, in justice to the New Haven colonists, though they were the most opulent of the New England planters, save the wealthy settlers of Narragansett, that money of all kinds was scarce, and that the Indian money, wampum-peag, being made of a comparatively frail sea-shell, was more easily disfigured and broken than was metal coin; and that there was little transferable wealth in the community anyway, even in "Country Pay." The broken-wampum-giver of the seventeenth century, who contributed with intent to defraud and deceive the infant struggling church was the direct and lineal ancestor of the sanctimonious button-giver of nineteenth-century country churches.

In Revolutionary times, after the divine service, special contributions were taken for the benefit of the Continental Army. In New England large quantities of valuable articles were thus collected. Not only money, but finger-rings, earrings, watches, and other jewelry, all kinds of male attire,--stockings, hats, coats, breeches, shoes,--produce and groceries of all kinds, were brought to the meeting-house to give to the soldiers. Even the leaden weights were taken out of the window-sashes, made into bullets, and brought to meeting. On one occasion Madam Faith Trumbull rose up in Lebanon meeting-house in Connecticut, when a collection was being made for the army, took from her shoulders a magnificent scarlet cloak, which had been a present to her from Count Rochambeau, the commander-in-chief of the French allied army, and advancing to the altar, gave it as her offering to the gallant men, who were fighting not only the British army, but terrible want and suffering. The fine cloak was cut into narrow strips and used as red trimmings for the uniforms of the soldiers. The romantic impressiveness of Madam Trumbull's patriotic act kindled warm enthusiasm in the congregation, and an enormous collection was taken, packed carefully, and sent to the army.

One early duty of the deacons which was religiously and severely performed was to watch that no one but an accepted communicant should partake of the holy sacrament. One stern old Puritan, having been officially expelled from church-membership for some temporal rather than spiritual offence, though ignored by the all-powerful deacon, still refused to consider himself excommunicated, and calmly and doggedly attended the communion service bearing his own wine and bread, and in the solitude of his own pew communed with God, if not with his fellow-men. For nearly twenty years did this austere man rigidly go through this lonely and sad ceremonial, until he conquered by sheer obstinacy and determination, and was again admitted to church-fellowship.

A very extraordinary custom prevailed in several New England churches. Through it the deacons were assigned a strange and serious duty which appeared to make them all-important and possibly self-important, and which must have weighed heavily upon them, were they truly godly, and conscientious in the performance of it. In the rocky little town of Pelham in the heart of Massachusetts, toward the close of the eighteenth century and during the pastorate of the notorious thief, counterfeiter, and forger, Rev. Stephen Burroughs, that remarkable rogue organized and introduced to his parishioners the custom of giving during the month a metal check to each worthy and truly virtuous church-member, on presentation of which the check-bearer was entitled to partake of the communion, and without which he was temporarily excommunicated. The duty of the deacon in this matter was to walk up and down the aisles of the church at the close of each service and deliver to the proper persons (proper in the deacon's halting human judgment) the significant checks. The deacon had also to see that this religionistic ticket was presented on the communion Sabbath. Great must have been the disgrace of one who found himself checkless at the end of the month, and greater even than the heart-burnings over seating the meeting must have been the jealousies and church quarrels that arose over the communion-checks. And yet no records of the protests or complaints of indignant or grieving parishioners can be found, and the existence of the too worldly, too business-like custom is known to us only through tradition.

Many of the little chips called "Presbyterian checks" are, however, still in existence. They are oblong discs of pewter, about an inch and a half long, bearing the initials "P. P.," which stand, it is said, for "Pelham Presbyterian." I could not but reflect, as I looked at the simple little stamped slips of metal, that in a community so successful in the difficult work of counterfeiting coin, it would have been very easy to form a mould and cast from it spurious checks with which to circumvent the deacons and preserve due dignity in the meeting.

The Presbyterian checks have never been attributed in Massachusetts to other than the Pelham church, and are usually found in towns in the vicinity of Pelham; and there the story of their purpose and use is universally and implicitly believed. A clergyman of the Pelham church gave to many of his friends these Presbyterian checks, which he had found among the disused and valueless church-properties, and the little relics of the old-time deacons and services have been carefully preserved.

In New Hampshire, however, a similar custom prevailed in the churches of Londonderry and the neighboring towns.. The Londonderry settlers were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians (and the Pelham planters were an off-shoot of the Londonderry settlement), and they followed the custom of the Scotch Presbyterians in convening the churches twice a year to partake of the Lord's Supper. This assembly was always held in Londonderry, and ministers and congregations gathered from all the towns around. Preparatory services were held on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Long tables were placed in the aisles of the church on the Sabbath; and after a protracted and solemn address upon the deep meaning of the celebration and the duties of the church-members, the oldest members of the congregation were seated at the table and partook of the sacrament. Thin cakes of unleavened bread were specially prepared for this sacred service. Again and again were the tables refilled with communicants, for often seven hundred church-members were present. Thus the services were prolonged from early morning until nightfall. When so many were to partake of the Lord's Supper, it seemed necessary to take means to prevent any unworthy or improper person from presenting himself. Hence the tables were fenced off, and each communicant was obliged to present a "token." These tokens were similar to the "Presbyterian checks;" they were little strips of lead or pewter stamped with the initials "L. D.," which may have stood for "Londonderry" or "Lord's Day." They were presented during the year by the deacons and elders to worthy and pious church-members. This bi-annual celebration of the Lord's Supper--this gathering of old friends and neighbors from the rocky wilds of New Hampshire to join, in holy communion--was followed on Monday by cheerful thanksgiving and social intercourse, in which, as in every feast, our old friend, New England rum, played no unimportant part. The three days previous to the communion Sabbath were, however, solemnly devoted to the worship of God; a Londonderry man was reproved and prosecuted for spreading grain upon a Thursday preceding a communion Sunday, just as he would have been for doing similar work upon the Sabbath. The use of these "tokens" in the Londonderry church continued until the year 1830.

In the coin collection of the American Antiquarian Society are little pewter communion-checks, or tokens, stamped with a heart. These were used in the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, and were delivered to pious church-members at the Friday evening prayer-meeting preceding the communion Sabbath. Long tables were set in the aisles, as at Londonderry. In practice, belief, and origin, the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania churches were sisters.

The deacons had many minor duties to perform in the different parishes. Some of these duties they shared with the tithingman. They visited the homes of the church-members to hear the children say the catechism, they visited and prayed with the sick, and they also reported petty offences, though they were not accorded quite so powerful legal authority as the tithingmen and constables.

It was much desired by several of the first-settled ministers that there should be deaconesses in the New England Puritan church, and many good reasons were given for making such appointments. It was believed that for the special duty of visiting the sick and afflicted in the community deaconesses would be more useful than deacons. There had been an aged deaconess in the Puritan church in Holland, who with a "little birchen rod" had kept the children in awe and order in meeting, and who had also exercised "her guifts" in speaking; but when she died no New England successor was appointed to fill her place.

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