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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 18.

The Authority of the Church and the Ministers.

Severely were the early colonists punished if they ventured to criticise or disparage either the ministers or their teachings, or indeed any of the religious exercises of the church. In Sandwich a man was publicly whipped for speaking deridingly of God's words and ordinances as taught by the Sandwich minister. Mistress Oliver was forced to stand in public with a cleft stick on her tongue for "reproaching the elders." A New Haven man was severely whipped and fined for declaring that he received no profit from the minister's sermons. We also know the terrible shock given the Windham church in 1729 by the "vile and slanderous expressions" of one unregenerate Windhamite who said, "I had rather hear my dog bark than Mr. Bellamy preach." He was warned that he would be "shakenoff and givenup," and terrified at the prospect of so dire a fate he read a confession of his sorrow and repentance, and promised to "keep a guard over his tongue," and also to listen to Mr. Bellamy's preaching, which may have been a still more difficult task. Mr. Edward Tomlins, of Boston, upon retracting his opinion which he had expressed openly against the singing in the churches, was discharged without a fine. William Howes and his son were in 1744 fined fifty shillings "apeece for deriding such as sing in the congregation, tearming them fooles." The church music was as sacred to the Puritans as were the prayers, but it must have been a sore trial to many to keep still about the vile manner and method of singing. In 1631 Phillip Ratcliffe, for "speaking against the churches," had his ears cut off, was whipped and banished. We know also the consternation caused in New Haven in 1646 by Madam Brewster's saying that the custom of carrying contributions to the Deacons' table was popish--was "like going to the High Alter," and "savored of the Mass." She answered her accusers in such a bold, highhanded, and defiant manner that her heinous offence was considered worthy of trial in a higher court, whose decision is now lost.

The colonists could not let their affection and zeal for an individual minister cause them to show any disrespect or indifference to the Puritan Church in general. When the question of the settlement of the Reverend Mr. Lenthal in the church of Weymouth, Massachusetts, was under discussion, the tyranny of the Puritan Church over any who dared oppose or question it was shown in a marked manner, and may be cited as a typical case. Mr. Lenthal was suspected of being poisoned with the Anne Hutchinson heresies, and he also "opposed the way of gathering churches." Hence his ordination over the church in the new settlement was bitterly opposed by the Boston divines, though apparently desired by the Weymouth congregation. One Britton, who was friendly towards Lenthal and who spoke "reproachfully" and slurringly of a book which defended the course of the Boston churches, was whipped with eleven stripes, as he had no money to pay the imposed fine. John Smythe, who "got hands to a blank" (which was either canvassing for signatures to a proxy vote in favor of Lenthal or obtaining signatures to an instrument declaring against the design of the churches), for thus "combining to hinder the orderly gathering" of the Weymouth church at this time, was fined £2. Edward Sylvester for the same offence was fined and disfranchised. Ambrose Martin, another friend of Lenthal's, for calling the church covenant of the Boston divines "a stinking carrion and a human invention," was fined £10, while Thomas Makepeace, another Weymouth malcontent, was informed by those in power that "they were weary of him," or, in modern slang, that "he made them tired." Parson Lenthal himself, being sent for by the convention, weakened at once in a way his church followers must have bitterly despised; he was "quickly convinced of his error and evil." His conviction was followed with his confession, and in open court he gave under his hand a laudable retraction, which retraction he was ordered also to "utter in the assembly at Weymouth, and so no further censure was passed on him." Thus the chief offender got the lightest punishment, and thus did the omnipotent Church rule the whole community.

The names of loquacious, babbling Quakers and Baptists who spoke disrespectfully of some or all of the ordinances of the Puritan church might be given, and would swell the list indefinitely; they were fined and punished without mercy or even toleration.

All profanity or blaspheming against God was severely punished. One very wicked man in Hartford for his "fillthy and prophane expressions," namely, that "hee hoped to meet some of the members of the Church in Hell before long, and he did not question but hee should," was "committed to prison, there to be kept in safe custody till the sermon, and then to stand the time thereof in the pillory, and after sermon to be severely whipped." What a severe punishment for so purely verbal an offence! New England ideas of profanity were very rigid, and New England men had reason to guard well their temper and tongue, else that latter member might be bored with a hot iron; for such was the penalty for profanity. We know what horror Mr. Tomlins's wicked profanity, "Curse ye woodchuck!" caused in Lynn meeting, and Mr. Dexter was "putt in ye billboes ffor prophane saying dam ye cowe." The Newbury doctor was sharply fined also for wickedly cursing. When drinking at the tavern he raised his glass and said,--

"I'll pledge my friends, and for my foes
A plague for their heels, and a poxe for their toes."

He acknowledged his wickedness and foolishness in using the "olde proverb," and penitently promised to curse no more.

Sad to tell, Puritan women sometimes lost their temper and their good-breeding and their godliness. Two wicked Wells women were punished in 1669 "for using profane speeches in their common talk; as in making answer to several questions their answer is, The Devil a bit." In 1640, in Springfield, Goody Gregory, being grievously angered, profanely abused an annoying neighbor, saying, "Before God I coulde breake thy heade!" But she acknowledged her "great sine and faulte" like a woman, and paid her fine and sat in the stocks like a man, since she swore like the members of that profane sex.

Sometimes the sins of the fathers were visited on the children in a most extraordinary manner. One man, "for abusing N. Parker at the tavern," was deprived of the privilege of bringing his children to be baptized, and was thus spiritually punished for a very worldly offence. For some offences, such as "speaking deridingly of the minister's powers," as was done in Plymouth, "casting uncharitable reflexions on the minister," as did an Andover man; and also for absenting one's self from church services; for "sloathefulness," for "walking prophanely," for spoiling hides when tanning and refusing explanation thereof; for selling short weight in grain, for being "given too much to Jearings," for "Slanndering," for being a "Makebayte," for "ronging naibors," for "being too Proude," for "suspitions of stealing pinnes," for "pnishouse Squerilouse Odyouse wordes," and for "lyeing," church-members were not only fined and punished but were deprived of partaking of the sacrament. In the matter of lying great distinction was made as to the character and effect of the offence. George Crispe's wife, who "told a lie, not a pernicious lie, but unadvisedly," was simply admonished and remonstrated with. Will Randall, who told a "plain lie," was fined ten shillings. While Ralph Smith, who "lied about seeing a whale," was fined twenty shillings and excommunicated.

In some communities, of which Lechford tells us New Haven was one, these unhouselled Puritans were allowed, if they so desired, to stand outside the meeting-house door at the time of public worship and catch what few words of the service they could. This humble waiting for crumbs of God's word was doubtless regarded as a sign of repentance for past deeds, for it was often followed by full forgiveness. As excommunicated persons were regarded with high disfavor and even abhorrence by the entire pious and godly walking community, this apparently spiritual punishment was more severe in its temporal effects than at first sight appears. From the Cambridge Platform, which was drawn up and adopted by the New England Synod in 1648, we learn that "while the offender remains excommunicated the church is to refrain from all communion with him in civil things," and the members were specially "to forbear to eat and drink with him;" so his daily and even his family life was made wretched. And as it was not necessary to wait for the action of the church to pronounce excommunication, but the "pastor of a church might by himself and authoritatively suspend from the Lord's table a brother suspected of scandal" until there was time for full examination, we can see what an absolute power the church and even the minister had over church-members in a New England community.

Nor could the poor excommunicate go to neighboring towns and settlements to start afresh. No one wished him or would tolerate him. Lancaster, in 1653, voted not to receive into its plantation "any excommunicat or notoriously erring agt the Docktrin & Discipline of churches of this Commonwealth." Other towns passed similar votes. Fortunately, Rhode Island--the island of "Aquidnay" and the Providence Plantations--opened wide its arms as a place of refuge for outcast Puritans. Universal freedom and religious toleration were in Rhode Island the foundations of the State. Josiah Quincy said that liberty of conscience would have produced anarchy if it had been permitted in the New England Puritan settlements in the seventeenth century, but the flourishing Narragansett, Providence, and Newport plantations seem to prove the absurdity of that statement. Liberty of conscience was there allowed, as Dr. MacSparran, the first clergyman of the Narragansett Church, complained in his "America Dissected," "to the extent of no religion at all." The Gortonians, the Foxians, and Hutchinsonians, the Anabaptists, the Six Principle Baptists, the Church of England, apparently all the followers of the eighty-two "pestilent heresies" so sadly enumerated and so bitterly hated and "cast out to Satan" by the Massachusetts Puritan divines,--all the excommunicants and exiles found in Rhode Island a home and friends--other friends than the Devil to whom they had been consigned.

Though the early Puritan ministers had such powerful influence in every other respect, they were not permitted to perform the marriage-service nor to raise their voices in prayer or exhortation at a funeral. Sewall jealously notes when the English burial-service began to be read at burials, saying, "the office for Burial is a Lying very bad office makes no difference between the precious and the vile." The office of marriage was denied the parson, and was generally relegated to the magistrate. In this, Governor Bradford states, they followed "ye laudable custome of ye Low Countries." Not rulers and magistrates only were empowered to perform the marriage ceremony; squires, tavern-keepers, captains, various authorized persons might wed Puritan lovers; any man of dignity or prominence in the community could apparently receive authority to perform that office except the otherwise all-powerful parson.

As years rolled on, though the New Englanders still felt great reverence and pride for their church and its ordinances, the minister was no longer the just man made perfect, the oracle of divine will. The church-members escaped somewhat from ecclesiastical power, and some of them found fault with and openly disparaged their ministers in a way that would in early days have caused them to be pilloried, whipped, caged, or fined; and often the derogatory comments were elicited by the most trivial offences. One parson was bitterly condemned because he managed to amass eight hundred dollars by selling the produce of his farm. Another shocking and severely criticised offence was a game of bowls which one minister played and enjoyed. Still another minister, in Hanover, Massachusetts, was reproved for his lack of dignity, which was shown in his wearing stockings "footed up with another color;" that is, knit stockings in which the feet were colored differently from the legs. He also was found guilty of having jumped over the fence instead of decorously and clerically walking through the gate when going to call on one of his parishioners. Rev. Joseph Metcalf of the Old Colony was complained of in 1720 for wearing too worldly a wig. He mildly reproved and shamed the meddlesome women of his church by asking them to come to him and each cut off a lock of hair from the obnoxious wig until all the complainers were satisfied that it had been rendered sufficiently unworldly. Some Newbury church-members, in 1742, asserted that their minister unclerically wore a colored kerchief instead of a band. This he indignantly denied, saying that he "had never buried a babe even in most tempestuous weather," when he rode several miles, but he always wore a band, and he complained in turn that members of his congregation turned away from him on the street, and "glowered" at him and "sneered at him." Still more unseemly demonstrations of dislike were sometimes shown, as in South Hadley, in 1741, when a committee of disaffected parishioners pulled the Rev. Mr Rawsom out of the pulpit and marched him out of the meeting-house because they did not fancy his preaching. But all such actions were as offensive to the general community then as open expressions of dissatisfaction and contempt are now.

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