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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 16.

The Interruptions of the Services.

Though the Puritans were such a decorous, orderly people, their religious meetings were not always quiet and uninterrupted. We know the torment they endured from the "wretched boys," and they were harassed by other annoying interruptions. For the preservation of peace and order they made characteristic laws, with characteristic punishments. "If any interrupt or oppose a preacher in season of worship, they shall be reproved by the Magistrate, and on repetition, shall pay £5, or stand two hours on a block four feet high, with this inscription in Capitalls, 'A WANTON GOSPELLER.'" As with other of their severe laws the rigid punishment provoked the crime, for Wanton Gospellers abounded. The Baptists did not hesitate to state their characteristic belief in the Puritan meetings, and the Quakers or "Foxians," as they were often called, interrupted and plagued them sorely. Judge Sewall wrote, in 1677, "A female quaker, Margaret Brewster, in sermon-time came in, in a canvass frock, her hair dishevelled loose like a Periwig, her face as black as ink, led by two other quakers, and two other quakers followed. It occasioned the greatest and most amazing uproar that I ever saw." More grievous irruptions still of scantily clad and even naked Quaker women were made into other Puritan meetings; and Quaker men shouted gloomily in through the church windows, "Woe! Woe! Woe to the people!" and, "The Lord will destroy thee!" and they broke glass bottles before the minister's very face, crying out, "Thus the Lord will break thee in pieces!" and they came into the meeting-house, in spite of the fierce tithingman, and sat down in other people's seats with their hats on their heads, in ash-covered coats, rocking to and fro and groaning dismally, as if in a mournful obsession. Quaker women managed to obtain admission to the churches, and they jumped up in the quiet Puritan assemblies screaming out, "Parson! thou art an old fool," and, "Parson! thy sermon is too long," and, "Parson! sit down! thee has already said more than thee knows how to say well," and other unpleasant, though perhaps truthful personalities. It is hard to believe that the poor, excited, screaming visionaries of those early days belonged to the same religious sect as do the serene, low-voiced, sweet-faced, and retiring Quakeresses of to-day. And there is no doubt that the astounding and meaningless freaks of these half-crazed fanatics were provoked by the cruel persecutions which they endured from our much loved and revered, but alas, intolerant and far from perfect Puritan Fathers. These poor Quakers were arrested, fined, robbed, stripped naked, imprisoned, laid neck and heels, chained to logs of wood, branded, maimed, whipped, pilloried, caged, set in the stocks, exiled, sold into slavery and hanged by our stern and cruel ancestors. Perhaps some gentle-hearted but timid Puritan souls may have inwardly felt that the Indian wars, and the destructive fires, and the earthquakes, and the dead cattle, blasted wheat, and wormy peas, were not judgments of God for small ministerial pay and periwig-wearing, but punishments for the heartrending woes of the persecuted Quakers. Others than the poor Quakers spoke out in colonial meetings. In Salem village and in other witch-hunting towns the crafty "victims" of the witches were frequently visited with their mock pains and sham fits in the meeting-houses, and they called out and interrupted the ministers most vexingly. Ann Putnam, the best and boldest actress among those cunning young Puritan witch-accusers, the protagonist of that New England tragedy known as the Salem Witchcraft, shouted out most embarrassingly, "There is a yellow-bird sitting on the minister's hat, as it hangs on the pin in the pulpit." Mr. Lawson, the minister, wrote with much simplicity that "these things occurring in the time of public worship did something interrupt me in my first prayer, being so unusual." But he braced himself up in spite of Ann and the demoniacal yellow-bird, and finished the service. These disorderly interruptions occurred on every Lord's Day, growing weekly more constant and more universal, and must have been unbearable. Some few disgusted members withdrew from the church, giving as reason that "the distracting and disturbing tumults and noises made by persons under diabolical power and delusions, preventing sometimes our hearing and understanding and profiting of the word preached; we having after many trials and experiences found no redress in this case, accounted ourselves under a necessity to go where we might hear the word in quiet." These withdrawing church-members were all of families that contained at least one person that had been accused of practising witchcraft. They were thus severely intolerant of the sacrilegious and lawless interruptions of the shy young "victims," who received in general only sympathy, pity, and even stimulating encouragement from their deluded and excited neighbors.

One very pleasing interruption,--no, I cannot call it by so severe a name,--one very pleasing diversion of the attention of the congregation from the parson was caused by an innocent custom that prevailed in many a country community. Just fancy the flurry on a June Sabbath in Killingly, in 1785, when Joseph Gay, clad in velvet coat, lace-frilled shirt, and white broadcloth knee-breeches, with his fair bride of a few days, gorgeous in a peach-colored silk gown and a bonnet trimmed "with sixteen yards of white ribbon," rose, in the middle of the sermon, from their front seat in the gallery and stood for several minutes, slowly turning around in order to show from every point of view their bridal finery to the eagerly gazing congregation of friends and neighbors. Such was the really delightful and thoughtful custom, in those fashion-plateless days, among persons of wealth in that and other churches; it was, in fact, part of the wedding celebration. Even in midwinter, in the icy church, the blushing bride would throw aside her broadcloth cape or camblet roquelo and stand up clad in a sprigged India muslin gown with only a thin lace tucker over her neck, warm with pride in her pretty gown, her white bonnet with ostrich feathers and embroidered veil, and in her new husband.

The services in the meeting-house on the Sabbath and on Lecture days were sometimes painfully varied, though scarcely interrupted, by a very distressing and harrowing custom of public abasement and self-abnegation, which prevailed for many years in the nervously religious colonies. It was not an enforced punishment, but a voluntary one. Men and women who had committed crimes or misdemeanors, and who had sincerely repented of their sins, or who were filled with remorse for some violation of conscience, or even with regret for some neglect of religious ethics, rose in the Sabbath meeting before the assembled congregation and confessed their sins, and humbly asked forgiveness of God, and charity from their fellows. At other times they stood with downcast heads while the minister read their confession of guilt and plea for forgiveness. A most graphic account of one of those painful scenes is thus given by Governor Winthrop in his "History of New England:"--

  "Captain Underhill being brought by the blessing of God in this church's censure of excommunication, to remorse for his foul sins, obtained, by means of the elders, and others of the church of Boston, a safe conduct under the hand of the governor and one of the council to repair to the church. He came at the time of the court of assistants, and upon the lecture day, after sermon, the pastor called him forth and declared the occasion, and then gave him leave to speak: and in it was a spectacle winch caused many weeping eyes, though it afforded matter of much rejoicing to behold the power of the Lord Jesus in his ordinances, when they are dispensed in his own way, holding forth the authority of his regal sceptre in the simplicity of the gospel came in his worst clothes (being accustomed to take great pride in his bravery and neatness) without a band, in a foul linen cap pulled close to his eyes; and standing upon a form, he did, with many deep sighs and abundance of tears, lay open his wicked course, his adultery, his hypocrisy, his persecution of God's people here, and especially his pride (as the root of all which caused God to give him over to his other sinful courses) and contempt of the magistrates.... He spake well save that his blubbering &c interrupted him, and all along he discovered a broken and melting heart and gave good exhortations to take heed of such vanities and beginnings of evil as had occasioned his fall; and in the end he earnestly and humbly besought the church to have compassion of him and to deliver him out of the hands of Satan."

What a picture! what a story! "Of all tales 'tis the saddest--and more sad because it makes us smile."

Captain John Underhill was a brave though somewhat bumptious soldier, who had fought under the Prince of Orange in the War of the Netherlands, and had been employed as temporal drill-master in the church-militant in New England. He did good service for the colonists in the war with the Pequot Indians, and indeed wherever there was any fighting to be done. "He thrust about and justled into fame" He also managed to have apparently a very good time in the new land, both in sinning and repenting. When he stood up on the church-seat before the horrified, yet wide-open eyes of pious Boston folk, in his studiously and theatrically disarranged garments, and blubbered out his whining yet vain-glorious repentance, he doubtless acted his part well, for he had twice before been through the same performance, supplementing his second rehearsal by kneeling down before an injured husband in the congregation, and asking earthly forgiveness. I wish I could believe that this final repentance of the resilient captain were sincere--but I cannot. Nor did Boston people believe it either, though that noble and generous-minded man, Winthrop, thought he saw at the time of confession evidences of a truly contrite heart. The Puritans sternly and eagerly cast out the gay captain to the Dutch when he became an Antinomian, and he came to live and fight and gallant in a town on the western end of Long Island, where he perhaps found a church-home with members less severe and less sharp-eyed than those of his Boston place of martyrdom, and a people less inclined to resent and punish his frailties and his ways of amusing himself.

In justice to Underhill (or perhaps to show his double-dealing) I will say that he left behind him a letter to Hanserd Knollys, complaining of the ill-treatment he had received; and in it he gives a very different account of this little affair with the Boston Church from that given us by Governor Winthrop. The offender says nothing about his hypocrisy, his public and self-abasing confession, nor of his sanctimonious blubbering and wishes for death. He explains that his offence was mild and purely mental, that in an infaust moment he glanced (doubtless stared soldier-fashion) at "Mistris Miriam Wildbore" as she sat in her "pue" at meeting. The elders, noting his admiring and amorous glances, thereupon accused him of sin in his heart, and severely asked him why he did not look instead at Mistress Newell or Mistress Upham. He replied very spiritedly and pertinently that these dames were "not desiryable women as to temporal graces," which was certainly sufficient and proper reason for any man to give, were he Puritan or Cavalier. Then acerb old John Cotton and some other Boston ascetics (perhaps Goodman Newell and Goodman Upham, resenting for their wives the spretæ injuria formæ) at once hunted up some plainly applicable verses from the Bible that clearly proved him guilty of the alleged sin--and summarily excommunicated him. He also wrote that the pious church complained that the attractive, the temporally graced Mistress Wildbore came vainly and over-bravely clad to meeting, with "wanton open-worked gloves slitt at the thumbs and fingers for the purpose of taking snuff," and he resented this complaint against the fair one, saying no harm could surely come from indulging in the "good creature called tobacco." He would naturally feel that snuff-taking was a proper and suitable church-custom, since his own conversion,--dubious though it was,--his religious belief had come to him, "the spirit fell home upon his heart" while he was indulging in a quiet smoke.

The story of his offences as told b his contemporaries does not assign to him so innocuous a diversion as staring across the meeting-house, but the account is quite as amusing as his own plaintive and deeply injured version of his arraignment.

Other letters of his have been preserved to us,--letters blustering as was Ancient Pistol, and equally sanctimonious, letters fearfully and phonetically spelt. Here is the opening of a letter written while he was under sentence of excommunication from the Boston Church, and of banishment. It is to Governor Winthrop, his friend and fellow-emigrant:--

"Honnored in the Lord,--

"Your silenc one more admirse me. I Youse chrischan playnnes. I know you love it.... Silene can not reduce the hart of youer lovd brother: I would the rightchous would smite me espechah youerslfe & the honnered Depoti to whom I also dereckt this letter.... I would to God you would tender me soule so as to youse playnnes with me. I wrot to you both but now answer: & here I am dayli abused by malishous tongue. John Baker I here hath wrot to the honnored depoti how as I was drouck & like to be cild & both falc, upon okachon I delt with Wannerton for intrushon & finddmg them resolutli bent to rout all gud a mong us & advanc there superstischous ways & by boystrous words indeferd to fritten men to accomplish his end. & he abusing me to my face, dru upon him with intent to corb his insolent & dastardli sperrite.... Ister daye on Pickeren their Chorch Warden caim up to us with intent to make some of ourse drone as is sospeckted but the Lord sofered him so to misdemen himslfe as he is likli to li by the hielse this too month.... My homble request is that you will be charitable of me.... Let justies and merci be goyned.... You may plese to soggest youer will to this barrer you will find him tracktabel."

My sense of drollery is always most keenly tickled when I read Underhill's epistles, with their amazing and highly-varied letter concoctions, and remember that he also--wrote a book. What that seventeenth-century printer and proof-reader endured ere they presented his "edited" volume to the public must have been beyond expression by words. It was a pretty good book though, and in it, like many another man of his ilk, he tendered to his much-injured wife loud and diffuse praise, ending with these sententious words, "Let no man despise advice and counsel of his wife--though she be a woman."

And yet, upon careful examination we find a method, a system, in Underhill's orthography, or rather in his cacography. He thinks a final tion should be spelt chon--and why not? "proposichon," "satisfackchon," "oblegachon," "persekuchon," "dereckchon," "himelyachon"--thus he spells such words. And his plurals are plain when once you grasp his laws: "poseschouse" and "considderachonse," "facktse," and "respecktse." And his ly is alwajs li, "exacktli," "thorroli," "fidelliti," "charriti," "falsciti." And why is not "indiered," as good as 'endeared,' "pregedic," as 'prejudice,' "obstrucktter" as 'obstructer,' "pascheges," and "prouydentt," and "antyentt," just as clear as our own way of spelling these words? A "painful" speller you surely were, my gay Don Juan Underbill, as your pedantic "writtingse" all show, and the most dramatic and comic figure among all the early Puritans as well, though you scarcely deserve to be called a Puritan; we might rather say of you, as of Malvolio, "The devil a Puritan that he was, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser ... his ground of faith that all who looked on him loved him."

In keen contrast to this sentimental excitement is the presence of noble Judge Sewall, white-haired and benignant, standing up calmly in Boston meeting, with dignified face and demeanor, but an aching and contrite heart, to ask through the voice of his minister humble forgiveness of God and man for his sad share as a judge in the unjust and awful condemnation and cruel sentencing to death of the poor murdered victims of that terrible delusion the Salem Witchcraft. Years of calm and unshrinking reflection, of pleading and constant communion with God had brought to him an overwhelming sense of his mistaken and over-influenced judgment, and a horror and remorse for the fatal results of his error. Then, like the steadfast and upright old Puritan that he was, he publicly acknowledged his terrible mistake. It is one of the finest instances of true nobility of soul and of absolute self-renunciation that the world affords. And the deep strain, the sharp wrench of the step is made more apparent still by the fact of the disapproval of his fellow-judges of his public confession and recantation. The yearly entries in his diary, simply expressed yet deeply speaking, entries of the prayerful fasts which he spent alone in his chamber when the anniversary of the fatal judgment-day returned, show that no half-vain bigotry, no emotional excitement filled and moved him to the open words of remorse. The lesson of his repentance is farther reaching than he dreamed, when the story of his confession can so move and affect this nineteenth-century generation, and fill more than one soul with a nobler idea of the Puritan nature, and with a higher and fuller conception of the absolute truth of the Puritan Christianity.

Some very prosaic and earthly interruptions to the church services are recorded as being made, and possibly by the church-members themselves. In one church, in 1661, a fine of five shillings was imposed on any one "who shot off a gun or led a horse into the meeting-house." These seem to me quite as unseemly, irreverent, and disagreeable disturbances as shouting out, Quaker-fashion, "Parson, your sermon is too long;" but possibly the house of God was turned into a stable on week-days, not on the Sabbath.

In many parishes church-attendants were fined who brought their "doggs" into the meeting-house. Dogs swarmed in the colony, for they had been imported from England, "sufficient mastive dogs, hounds and beagles," and also Irish wolf-hounds; and they caused an interruption in one afternoon service by chasing into the meeting-house one of those pungently offensive, though harmless, animals that abounded even in the earliest colonial days, and whose mephitic odor, in this case, had power to scatter the congregation as effectively as would have a score of armed Indian braves. Officially appointed "Dogg-whippers" and the never idle tithingman expelled the intruding and unwelcome canine attendants from the meeting-house with fierce blows and fiercer yelps. The swarming dogs, though they were trained to hunt the Indians and wolves and tear them in pieces, were much fonder of hunting and tearing the peaceful sheep, and thus became such unmitigated nuisances, out of meeting as well as in, that they had to be muzzled and hobbled, and killed, and land was granted (as in Newbury in 1703) on condition that no dog was ever kept thereon. As late as the year 1820, it was ordered in the town of Brewster that any dog that came into meeting should be killed unless the owner promised to thenceforth keep the intruder out.

Alarms of fire in the neighborhood frequently disturbed the quiet of the early colonial services; for the combustible catted chimneys were a constant source of conflagration, especially on Sundays, when the fireplaces with their roaring fires were left unwatched; and all the men rushed out of the meeting at sound of the alarm to aid in quenching the flames, which could however be ill-fought with the scanty supply of water that could be brought in a few leathern fire-buckets and milk-pails,--though at a very early date as an aid in extinguishing fires each New England family was ordered by law to own a fire-ladder. Occasionally the town's ladder and poles and hooks and cedar-buckets were kept in the meeting-house, and thus were handy for Sunday fires.

Sometimes armed men, bearing rumors of wars and of hostile attacks, rode clattering up to the church-door, and strode with jingling spurs and rattling swords into the excited assembly with appeal for more soldiers to bear arms, or for more help for those already in the army, and the whole congregation felt it no interruption but a high religious privilege and duty, to which they responded in word and deed. On some happy Sabbaths the armed riders bore good news of great victories, and great was the rejoicing thereat in prayer and praise in the old meeting-house.

But usually through the Sabbath services, though the quiet was not that of our modern carpeted, cushioned, orderly churches, but few interrupting sounds were heard. The cry of a waking infant, the scraping of restless feet on the sanded floor, the lumbering noise of the motions of a cramped farmer as he stood up to lean over the pew-door or gallery-rail, the clatter of an overturned cricket, the twittering of swallows in the rafters, and in the summer-time the bumping and buzzing of an invading bumble-bee as he soared through the air and against the walls, were the only sounds within the meeting-house that broke the monotonous "thirteenthly" and "fourteenthly" of the minister's sermon.

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