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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 17.

The Observances of the Day.

The so-called "False Blue Laws" of Connecticut, which were foisted upon the public by the Reverend Samuel Peter, have caused much indignation among all thoughtful descendants and all lovers of New England Puritans. Three of his most bitterly resented false laws which refer to the observance of the Sabbath read thus:--

"No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave on the Sabbath Day.

"No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day.

"No one shall ride on the Sabbath Day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere except reverently to and from meeting."

Though these laws were worded by Dr. Peters, and though we are disgusted to hear them so often quoted as historical facts, still we must acknowledge that though in detail not correct, they are in spirit true records of the old Puritan laws which were enacted to enforce the strict and decorous observance of the Sabbath, and which were valid not only in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but in other New England States. Even a careless glance at the historical record of any old town or church will give plenty of details to prove this.

Thus in New London we find in the latter part of the seventeenth century a wicked fisherman presented before the Court and fined for catching eels on Sunday; another "fined twenty shillings for sailing a boat on the Lord's Day;" while in 1670 two lovers, John Lewis and Sarah Chapman, were accused of and tried for "sitting together on the Lord's Day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman's Orchard,"--so harmless and so natural an act. In Plymouth a man was "sharply whipped" for shooting fowl on Sunday; another was fined for carrying a grist of corn home on the Lord's Day, and the miller who allowed him to take it was also fined. Elizabeth Eddy of the same town was fined, in 1652, "ten shillings for wringing and hanging out clothes." A Plymouth man, for attending to his tar-pits on the Sabbath, was set in the stocks. James Watt, in 1658, was publicly reproved "for writing a note about common business on the Lord's Day, at least in the evening somewhat too soon." A Plymouth man who drove a yoke of oxen was "presented" before the Court, as was also another offender, who drove some cows a short distance "without need" on the Sabbath.

In Newbury, in 1646, Aquila Chase and his wife were presented and fined for gathering peas from their garden on the Sabbath, but upon investigation the fines were remitted, and the offenders were only admonished. In Wareham, in 1772, William Estes acknowledged himself "Gilty of Racking Hay on the Lord's Day" and was fined ten shillings; and in 1774 another Wareham citizen, "for a breach of the Sabbath in puling apples," was fined five shillings. A Dunstable soldier, for "wetting a piece of an old hat to put in his shoe" to protect his foot--for doing this piece of heavy work on the Lord's Day, was fined, and paid forty shillings.

Captain Kemble of Boston was in 1656 set for two hours in the public stocks for his "lewd and unseemly behavior," which, consisted in his kissing his wife "publicquely" on the Sabbath Day, upon the doorstep of his house, when he had just returned from a voyage and absence of three years. The lewd offender was a man of wealth and influence, the father of Madam Sarah Knights, the "fearfull female travailler" whose diary of a journey from Boston to New York and return, written in 1704, rivals in quality if not in quantity Judge Sewall's much-quoted diary. A traveller named Burnaby tells of a similar offence of an English sea-captain who was soundly whipped for kissing his wife on the street of a New England town on Sunday, and of his retaliation in kind, by a clever trick upon his chastisers; but Burnaby's narrative always seemed to me of dubious credibility.

Abundant proof can be given that the act of the legislature in 1649 was not a dead letter which ordered that "whosoever shall prophane the Lords daye by doeing any seruill worke or such like abusses shall forfeite for euery such default ten shillings or be whipt."

The Vermont "Blue Book" contained equally sharp "Sunday laws." Whoever was guilty of any rude, profane, or unlawful conduct on the Lord's Day, in words or action, by clamorous discourses, shouting, hallooing, screaming, running, riding, dancing, jumping, was to be fined forty shillings and whipped upon the naked back not to exceed ten stripes. The New Haven code of laws, more severe still, ordered that "Profanation of the Lord's Day shall be punished by fine, imprisonment, or corporeal punishment; and if proudly, and with a high hand against the authority of God--with death."

Lists of arrests and fines for walking and travelling unnecessarily on the Sabbath might be given in great numbers, and it was specially ordered that none should "ride violently to and from meeting." Many a pious New Englander, in olden days, was fined for his ungodly pride, and his desire to "show off" his "new colt" as he "rode violently" up to the meeting-house green on Sabbath morn. One offender explained in excuse of his unnecessary driving on the Sabbath that he had been to visit a sick relative, but his excuse was not accepted. A Maine man who was rebuked and fined for "unseemly walking" on the Lord's Day protested that he ran to save a man from drowning. The Court made him pay his fine, but ordered that the money should be returned to him when he could prove by witnesses that he had been on that errand of mercy and duty. As late as the year 1831, in Lebanon, Connecticut, a lady journeying to her father's home was arrested within sight of her father's house for unnecessary travelling on the Sabbath; and a long and fiercely contested lawsuit was the result, and damages were finally given for false imprisonment. In 1720 Samuel Sabin complained of himself before a justice in Norwich that he visited on Sabbath night some relatives at a neighbor's house. His morbidly tender conscience smote him and made him "fear he had transgressed the law," though he felt sure no harm had been done thereby. In 1659 Sam Clarke, for "Hankering about on men's gates on Sabbath evening to draw company out to him," was reproved and warned not to "harden his neck" and be "wholly destrojed." Poor stiff-necked, lonely, "hankering" Sam! to be so harshly reproved for his harmlessly sociable intents. Perhaps he "hankered" after the Puritan maids, and if so, deserved his reproof and the threat of annihilation.

Sabbath-breaking by visiting abounded in staid Worcester town to a most base extent, but was severely punished, as local records show. In Belfast, Maine, in 1776, a meeting was held to get the "Towns Mind" with regard to a plan to restrain visiting on the Sabbath. The time had passed when such offences could be punished either by fine or imprisonment, so it was voted "that if any person makes unnecessary Vizits on the Sabeth, They shall be Look't on with Contempt." This was the universal expression throughout the Puritan colonies; and looked on with contempt are Sabbath-breakers and Sabbath-slighters in New England to the present day. Even if they committed no active offence, the colonists could not passively neglect the Church and its duties. As late as 1774 the First Church of Roxbury fined non-attendance at public worship. In 1651 Thomas Scott "was fyned ten shillings unless he have learned Mr. Norton's 'Chatacise' by the next court" In 1760 the legislature of Massachusetts passed the law that "any person able of Body who shall absent themselves from publick worship of God on the Lord's Day shall pay ten shillings fine." By the Connecticut code ten shillings was the fine, and the law was not suspended until the year 1770. By the New Haven code five shillings was the fine for non-attendance at church, and the offender was often punished as well. Captain Dennison, one of New Haven's most popular and respected citizens, was fined fifteen shillings for absence from church. William Blagden, who lived in New Haven in 1647, was "brought up" for absence from meeting. He pleaded that he had fallen into the water late on Saturday, could light no fire on Sunday to dry his clothes, and so had lain in bed to keep warm while his only suit of garments was drying. In spite of this seemingly fair excuse, Blagden was found guilty of "sloathefuluess" and sentenced to be "publiquely whipped." Of course the Quakers contributed liberally to the support of the Court, and were fined in great numbers for refusing to attend the church which they hated, and which also warmly abhorred them; and they were zealously set in the stocks, and whipped and caged and pilloried as well,--whipped if they came and expressed any dissatisfaction, and whipped if they stayed away.

Severe and explicit were the orders with regard to the use of the "Creature called Tobacko" on the Sabbath. In the very earliest days of the colony means had been taken to present the planting of the pernicious weed except in very small quantities "for meere necessitie, for phisick, for preseruaceon of health, and that the same be taken privatly by auncient men." In Connecticut a man could by permission of the law smoke once if he went on a journey of ten miles (as some slight solace for the arduous trip), but never more than once a day, and never in another man's house. Let us hope that on their lonely journeys they conscientiously obeyed the law, though we can but suspect that the one unsocial smoke may have been a long one. In some communities the colonists could not plant tobacco, nor buy it, nor sell it, but since they loved the fascinating weed then as men love it now, they somehow invoked or spirited it into their pipes, though they never could smoke it in public unfined and unpunished. The shrewd and thrifty New Haven people permitted the raising of it for purposes of trade, though not for use, thus supplying the "devil's weed" to others, chiefly the godless Dutch, but piously spurning it themselves--in public. Its use was absolutely forbidden under any circumstances on the Sabbath within two miles of the meeting-house, which (since at that date all the homes were clustered around the church-green) was equivalent to not smoking it at all on the Lord's Day, if the lav were obeyed. But wicked backsliders existed, poor slaves of habit, who were in Duxbury fined ten shillings for each offence, and in Portsmouth, not only were fined, but to their shame be it told, set as jail-birds in the Portsmouth cage. In Sandwich and in Boston the fine for "drinking tobacco in the meeting-house" was five shillings for each drink, which I take to mean chewing tobacco rather than smoking it; many men were fined for thus drinking, and solacing the weary hours, though doubtless they were as sly and kept themselves as unobserved as possible. Four Yarmouth men--old sea-dogs, perhaps, who loved their pipe--were, in 1687, fined four shillings each for smoking tobacco around the end of the meeting-house. Silly, ostrich-brained Yarmouth men! to fancy to escape detection by hiding around the corner of the church; and to think that the tithingman had no nose when he was so Argus-eyed. Some few of the ministers used the "tobacco weed." Mr. Baily wrote with distress of mind and abasement of soul in his diary of his "exceeding in tobacco." The hatred of the public use of tobacco lingered long in New England, even in large towns such as Providence, though chiefly on account of universal dread lest sparks from the burning weed should start conflagrations in the towns. Until within a few years, in small towns in western Massachusetts, Easthampton and neighboring villages, tobacco-smoking on the street was not permitted either on weekdays or Sundays.

Not content with strict observance of the Sabbathday alone, the Puritans included Saturday evening in their holy day, and in the first colonial years these instructions were given to Governor Endicott by the New England Plantation Company: "And to the end that the Sabeth may be celebrated in a religious man ner wee appoint that all may surcease their labor every Satterday throughout the yeare at three of the clock in the afternoone, and that they spend the rest of the day in chatechizing and preparacoon for the Sabeth as the ministers shall direct." Cotton Mather wrote thus of his grandfather, old John Cotton: "The Sabbath he begun the evening before, for which keeping from evening to evening he wrote arguments before his coming to New England, and I suppose 't was from his reason and practice that the Christians of New England have generally done so too." He then tells of the protracted religious services held in the Cotton household every Saturday night,--services so long that the Sabbath-day exercises must have seemed in comparison like a light interlude.

John Norton described these Cotton Sabbaths more briefly thus: "He [John Cotton] began the Sabbath at evening; therefore then performed family-duty after supper, being longer than ordinary in Exposition. After which he catechized his children and servants and then returned unto his study. The morning following, family-worship being ended, he retired into his study until the bell called him away. Upon his return from meeting he returned again into his study (the place of his labor and prayer) unto his private devotion; where, having a small repast carried him up for his dinner, he continued until the tolling of the bell. The public service being over, he withdrew for a space to his pre-mentioned oratory for his sacred addresses to God, as in the forenoon, then came down, repeated the sermon in the family, prayed, after supper sang a Psalm, and towards bedtime betaking himself again to his study he closed the day with prayer. Thus he spent the Sabbath continually." Just fancy the Cotton children and servants listening to his long afternoon sermon a second time!

All the New England clergymen were rigid in the prolonged observance of Sunday. From sunset on Saturday until Sunday night they would not shave, have rooms swept, nor beds made, have food prepared, nor cooking utensils and table-ware washed. As soon as their Sabbath began they gathered their families and servants around them, as did Cotton, and read the Bible and exhorted and prayed and recited the catechism until nine o'clock, usually by the light of one small "dip candle" only; on long winter Saturdays it must have been gloomy and tedious indeed. Small wonder that one minister wrote back to England that he found it difficult in the new colony to get a servant who "enjoyed catechizing and family duties." Many clergymen deplored sadly the custom which grew in later years of driving, and even transacting business, on Saturday night. Mr. Bushnell used to call it "stealing the time of the Sabbath," and refused to countenance it in any way.

It was very generally believed in the early days of New England that special judgments befell those who worked on the eve of the Sabbath. Winthrop gives the case of a man who, having hired help to repair a milldam, worked an hour on Saturday after sunset to finish what he had intended for the day's labor. The next day his little child, being left alone for some hours, was drowned in an uncovered well in the cellar of his house. "The father freely, in open congregation, did acknowledge it the righteous hand of God for his profaning his holy day."

Visitors and travellers from other countries were forced to obey the rigid laws with regard to Saturday-night observance. Archibald Henderson, the master of a vessel which entered the port of Boston, complained to the Council for Foreign Plantations in London that while he was in sober Boston town, being ignorant of the laws of the land, and having walked half an hour after sunset on Saturday night, as punishment for this unintentional and trivial offence, a constable entered his lodgings, seized him by the hair of his head, and dragged him to prison. Henderson claimed £800 damages for the detention of his vessel during his prosecution. I have always suspected that the gay captain may have misbehaved himself in Boston on that Saturday night in some other way than simply by walking in the streets, and that the Puritan law-enforcers took advantage of the Sabbath-day laws in order to prosecute and punish him. We know of Bradford's complaint of the times; that while sailors brought "a greate deale" of money from foreign parts to New England to spend, they also brought evil ways of spending it--"more sine I feare than money."

The Puritans found in Scripture support for this observance of Saturday night, in these words, "The evening and the morning were the first day," and they had many followers in their belief. In New England country towns to this day, descendants of the Puritans regard Saturday night, though in a modified way, as almost Sunday, and that evening is never chosen for any kind of gay gathering or visiting. As late as 1855 the shops in Hartford were never open for customers upon Saturday night.

Much satire was directed against this Saturday night observance both by English and by American authors. In the "American Museum" for February, 1787, appeared a poem entitled, "The Connecticut Sabbath." After saying at some length that God had thought one day in seven sufficient for rest, but New England Christians had improved his law by setting apart a day and a half, the poet thus runs on derisively:--

"And let it be enacted further still
That all our people strict observe our will;
Five days and a half shall men, and women, too,
Attend their bus'ness and their mirth pursue,
But after that no man without a fine
Shall walk the streets or at a tavern dine.
One day and half 'tis requisite to rest
From toilsome labor and a tempting feast.
Henceforth let none on peril of their lives
Attempt a journey or embrace their wives;
No barber, foreign or domestic bred,
Shall e'er presume to dress a lady's head;
No shop shall spare (half the preceding day)
A yard of riband or an ounce of tea."

And many similar rhymes might be given.

Sunday night, being shut out of the Sabbath hours, became in the eighteenth century a time of general cheerfulness and often merry-making. This sudden transition from the religious calm and quiet of the afternoon to the noisy gayety of the evening was very trying to many of the clergymen, especially to Jonathan Edwards, who preached often and sadly against "Sabbath evening dissipations and mirth-making." In some communities singing-schools were held on Sunday nights, which afforded a comparatively decorous and orderly manner of spending the close of the day.

Sweet to the Pilgrims and to their descendants was the hush of their calm Saturday night, and their still, tranquil Sabbath,--sign and token to them, not only of the weekly rest ordained in the creation, but of the eternal rest to come. The universal quiet and peace of the community showed the primitive instinct of a pure, simple devotion, the sincere religion which knew no compromise in spiritual things, no half-way obedience to God's Word, but rested absolutely on the Lord's Day--as was commanded. No work, no play, no idle strolling was known; no sign of human life or motion was seen except the necessary care of the patient cattle and other dumb beasts, the orderly and quiet going to and from the meeting, and at the nooning, a visit to the churchyard to stand by the side of the silent dead. This absolute obedience to the letter as well as to the spirit of God's Word was one of the most typical traits of the character of the Puritans, and appeared to them to be one of the most vital points of their religion.

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