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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 19.

The Ordination of the Minister.

The minister's ordination was, of course, an important social as well as spiritual event in such a religious community as was a New England colonial town. It was always celebrated by a great gathering of people from far and near, including all the ministers from every town for many miles around; and though a deeply serious service, was also an excuse for much merriment. In Connecticut, and by tradition also in Massachusetts, an "ordination-ball" was frequently given. It is popularly supposed that at this ball the ministers did not dance, nor even appear, nor to it in any way give their countenance; that it was only a ball given at the time of the ordination because so many people would then be in the town to take part in the festivity. That this was not always the case is proved by a letter of invitation still in existence written by Reverend Timothy Edwards, who was ordained in Windsor in 1694; it was written to Mr. and Mrs. Stoughton, asking them to attend the ordination-ball which was to be given in his, the minister's house. But whether the parsons approved and attended, or whether they strongly discountenanced it, the ordination-ball was always a great success. It is recorded that at one in Danvers a young man danced so vigorously and long on the sanded floor that he entirely wore out a new pair of shoes. The fashion of giving ordination-balls did not die out with colonial times. In Federal days it still continued, a specially gay ball being given in the town of Wolcott at an ordination in 1811.

There was always given an ordination supper,--a plentiful feast, at which visiting ministers and the new pastor were always present and partook with true clerical appetite. This ordination feast consisted of all kinds of New England fare, all the mysterious compounds and concoctions of Indian corn and "pompions," all sorts of roast meats, "turces" cooked in various ways, gingerbread and "cacks," and--an inevitable feature at the time of every gathering of people, from a corn-husking or apple-bee to a funeral--a liberal amount of cider, punch, and grog was also supplied, which latter compound beverages were often mixed on the meeting-house green or even in punch-bowls on the very door-steps of the church. Beer, too, was specially brewed to honor the feast. Rev. Mr. Thatcher, of Boston, wrote in his diary on the twentieth of May, 1681, "This daye the Ordination Beare was brewed." Portable bars were sometimes established at the church-door, and strong drinks were distributed free of charge to the entire assemblage. As late as 1825, at the installation of Dr. Leonard Bacon over the First Congregational Church in New Haven, free drinks were furnished at an adjacent bar to all who chose to order them, and were "settled for" by the generous and hospitable society. In considering the extravagant amount of moneys often recorded as having been paid out for liquor at ordinations, one must not fail to remember that the seemingly large sums were often spent in Revolutionary times during the great depreciation of Continental money. Six hundred and sixty-six dollars were disbursed for the entertainment of the council at the ordination of Mr. Kilbourn, of Chesterfield; but the items were really few and the total amount of liquor was not great,--thirty-eight mugs of flip at twelve dollars per mug; eleven gills of rum bitters at six dollars per gill, and two mugs of sling at twenty-four dollars per mug. The church in one town sent the Continental money in payment for the drinks of the church-council in a wheelbarrow to the tavern-keeper, and he was not very well paid either.

It gives one a strange sense of the customs and habits of the olden times to read an "ordination-bill" from a tavern-keeper which is thus endorsed, "This all Paid for exsept the Minister's Rum." To give some idea of the expense of "keeping the ministers" at an ordination in Hartford in 1784, let me give the items of the bill:--

                          £  s. d.
  To keeping Ministers    0  2  4
  2 Mugs tody             0  5 10
  5 Segars                0  3  0
  1 Pint wine             0  0  9
  3 lodgings              0  9  0
  3 bitters               0  0  9
  3 breakfasts            0  3  6
  15 boles Punch          1 10  0
  24 dinners              1 16  0
  11 bottles wine         0  3  6
  5 mugs flip             0  5 10
  3 boles punch           0  6  0
  3 boles tody            0  3  6

One might say with Falstaff, "O monstrous! but one half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!" I sadly fear me that at that Hartford ordination our parson ancestors got grievsously "gilded," to use a choice "red-lattice phrase."

Many accounts of gay ordination parties have been preserved in diaries for us. Reverend Mr. Smith, who was settled in Portland in the early part of the eighteenth century, wrote thus in his journal of an ordination which he attended: "Mr. Foxcroft ordained at New Gloucester. We had a pleasant journey home. Mr. L. was alert and kept us all merry. A jolly ordination. We lost all sight of decorum." The Mr. L. referred to was Mr. Stephen Longfellow, greatgrandfather of the poet.

Bills for ordination-expenses abound in items of barrels of rum and cider and metheglin, of bowls of flip and punch and toddy, of boxes of lemons and loaves of sugar, in punches, and sometimes broken punchbowls, and in one case a large amount of Malaga and Canary wine, spices and "ross water," from which was brewed doubtless an appetizing ordination-cup which may have rivalled Josselyn's New England nectar of "cyder, Maligo raisins, spices, and sirup of clove-gillyflowers."

In Massachusetts, in January, 1759, the subject of the frequent disorders and irregularities in connection with ordination-services, especially in country towns, came before the council of the province, who referred its consideration to a convention of ministers. The ministers at that convention were recommended to each give instruction, exhortation, and advice against excesses to the members of his congregation whenever an ordination was about to take place in the vicinity of his church. In this way it was hoped that the reformation would be aided, and temperance, order, and decorum established. The newspapers were free in their condemnation of the feasting and roistering at ordination-services. When Dr. Cummings was ordained over the Old South Church of Boston in February, 1761, a feast took place at the Rev. Dr. Sewall's house which occasioned much comment. A four-column letter of criticism appeared in the Boston Gazette of March 9, 1761, over the signature of "Countryman," which provoked several answers and much newspaper controversy. As Dr. Sewall had been moderator of the meeting of ministers held only two years previously with the hope, and for the purpose of abolishing ordination revelries, it is not strange that the circumstance of the feast being given in his house should cause public comment and criticism.

"Countryman" complained that "the price of provisions was raised a quarter cart in Boston for several days before the instalment by reason of the great preparations therefor, and the readiness of the ecclesiastical caterers to give almost any price that was demanded. Many Boston people complained the town had, by this means, in a few days lost a large sum of money; which was, as it were, levied on and extorted from them. If the poor were the better for what remained of so plentiful and splendid a feast I am very glad but yet think it is a pity the charity were not better timed." He reprovingly enumerates, "There were six tables that held one with another eighteen persons each, upon each table a good rich plumb pudding, a dish of boil'd pork and fowls, and a corn'd leg of pork with sauce proper for it, a leg of bacon, a piece of alamode beef, a leg of mutton with caper sauce, a roast line of veal, a roast turkey, a venison pastee, besides chess cakes and tarts, cheese and butter. Half a dozen cooks were employed upon this occasion, upwards of twenty tenders to wait upon the tables; they had the best of old cyder, one barrel of Lisbon wine, punch in plenty before and after dinner, made of old Barbados spirit. The cost of this moderate dinner was upwards of fifty pounds lawful money." This special ordination-feast, even as detailed by the complaining "Countryman," does not seem to me very reprehensible. The standing of the church, the wealth of the congregation, the character of the guests (among whom were the Governor and the judges of the Superior Court) all make this repast appear neither ostentatious nor extravagant. Fifty pounds was certainly not an enormous sum to spend for a dinner with wine for over one hundred persons, and such a good dinner too. Nor is it probable that a city as large as was Boston at that date could through that dinner have been swept of provisions to such an extent that prices would be raised a quarter part. I suspect some personal malice caused "Countryman's" attacks, for he certainly could have found in other towns more flagrant cases to complain of and condemn.

Though no record exists to prove that "the poor were the better for what remained" after this Boston feast, in other towns letters and church-entries show that any fragments remaining after the ordination-dinner were well disposed of. Sometimes they furnished forth the new minister's table. In one case they were given to "a widowed family" ("widowed" here being used in the old tender sense of bereaved). In Killingly "the overplush of provisions" was sold to help pay the arrearages of the salary of the outgoing minister, thus showing a laudable desire to "settle up and start square."

If the church were dedicated at the time of the ordination, that would naturally be cause for additional gayety. A very interesting and graphic account of the feast at the dedication of the Old Tunnel Meeting-House of Lynn in the year 1682 has been preserved. It thus describes the scene:--

"Ye Deddication Dinner was had in ye greate barne of Mr. Hoode which by reason of its goodly size was deemed ye most fit place. It was neatly adorned with green bows and other hangings and made very faire to look upon, ye wreaths being mostly wrought by ye young folk, they meeting together, both maides and young men, and having a merry time in doing ye work. Ye rough stalls and unbowed posts being gaily begirt and all ye corners and cubbies being clean swept and well aired, it truly did appear a meet banquetting hall. Ye scaffolds too from which ye provinder had been removed were swept cleane as broome could make them. Some seats were put up on ye scaffoldes whereon might sitt such of ye antient women as would see & ye maides and children. Ye greate floor was all held for ye company which was to partake of ye feast of fat things, none others being admitted there save them that were to wait upon ye same. Ye kine that were wont to be there were forced to keep holiday in the field."

Then follows a minute account of how the fowls persisted in flying in and roosting over the table, scattering feathers and hay on the parsons beneath.

"Mr. Shepard's face did turn very red and he catched up an apple and hurled it at ye birds. But he thereby made a bad matter worse for ye fruit being well aimed it hit ye legs of a fowl and brought him floundering and flopping down on ye table, scattering gravy, sauce and divers things upon our garments and in our faces. But this did not well please some, yet with most it was a happening that made great merryment. Dainty meats were on ye table in great plenty, bear-stake, deer-meat, rabbit, and fowle, both wild and from ye barnyard. Luscious puddings we likewise had in abundance, mostly apple and berry, but some of corn meal with small bits of sewet baked therein; also pyes and tarts. We had some pleasant fruits, as apples, nuts and wild grapes, and to crown all, we had plenty of good cider and ye inspiring Barbadoes drink. Mr. Shepard and most of ye ministers were grave and prudent at table, discoursing much upon ye great points of ye deddication sermon and in silence laboring upon ye food before them. But I will not risque to say on which they dwelt with most relish, ye discourse or ye dinner. Most of ye young members of ye Council would fain make a jolly time of it. Mr. Gerrish, ye Wenham minister, tho prudent in his meat and drinks, was yet in right merry mood. And he did once grievously scandalize Mr. Shepard, who on suddenly looking up from his dish did spy him, as he thot, winking in an unbecoming way to one of ye pretty damsels on ye scaffold. And thereupon bidding ye godly Mr. Rogers to labor with him aside for his misbehavior, it turned out that ye winking was occasioned by some of ye hay seeds that were blowing about, lodging in his eye; whereat Mr. Shepard felt greatly releaved.

"Ye new Meeting house was much discoursed upon at ye table. And most thot it as comely a house of worship as can be found in the whole Collony save only three or four. Mr. Gerrish was in such merry mood that he kept ye end of ye table whereby he sat in right jovial humour. Some did loudly laugh and clap their hands. But in ye middest of ye merryment a strange disaster did happen unto him. Not having his thots about him he endeavored ye dangerous performance of gaping and laughing at the same time which he must now feel is not so easy or safe a thing. In doing this he set his jaws open in such wise that it was beyond all his power to bring them together again. His agonie was very great, and his joyful laugh soon turned to grievous gioaning. Ye women in ye scaffolds became much distressed for him. We did our utmost to stay ye anguish of Mr. Gerrish, but could make out little till Mr. Rogers who knoweth somewhat of anatomy did bid ye sufferer to sit down on ye floor, which being done Mr. Rogers took ye head atween his legs, turning ye face as much upward as possible and then gave a powerful blow and then sudden press which brot ye jaws into working order. But Mr. Geirish did not gape or laugh much more on that occasion, neither did he talk much for that matter.

"No other weighty mishap occurred save that one of ye Salem delegates, in boastfully essaying to crack a walnut atween his teeth did crack, instead of ye nut, a most usefull double tooth and was thereby forced to appear at ye evening with a bandaged face."

This ended this most amusing chapter of disasters to the ministers, though the banquet was diversified by interrupting crows from invading roosters, fierce and undignified counter-attacks with nuts and apples by the clergymen, a few mortifyingly "mawdlin songs and much roistering laughter," and the account ends, "so noble and savoury a banquet was never before spread in this noble town, God be praised." What a picture of the good old times! Different times make different manners; the early Puritan ministers did not, as a rule, drink to excess, any more than do our modern clergymen; but it is not strange that though they were of Puritan blood and belief, they should have fallen into the universal custom of the day, and should have "gone to their graves full of years, honor, simplicity, and rum." The only wonder is, when the ministers had the best places at every table, at every feast, at every merry-making in New England, that stories of their roistering excesses should not have come down to us as there have of the intemperate clergy of Virginia.

The ordination services within the meeting-houses were not always decorous and quiet scenes. In spite of the reverence which our forefathers had for their church and their ministers, it did not prevent them from bitterly opposing the settlement of an unwished-for clergyman over them, and many towns were racked and divided, then as now, over the important question. As years passed on the church members grew bold enough to dare to offer personal and bodily opposition. At the ordination of the Rev. Peter Thatcher in the New North Church in Boston, in 1720, there were two parties. The members who did not wish him to be settled over the church went into the meeting-house and made a great disorder and clamor. They forbade the proceedings, and went into the gallery, and threw from thence water and missiles on the friends of the clergymen who were gathered around him at the altar. Perhaps they obtained courage for these sacrilegious acts from the barrels of rum and the bowls of strong punch. And this was in Puritanical Boston, in the year of the hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower. Thus had one century changed the absolute reverence and affectionate regard of the Pilgrims for their church, their ministers, and their meeting-houses, to irreverent and obstinate desire for personal satisfaction. No wonder that the ministers at that date preached and believed that Satan was making fresh and increasing efforts to destroy the Puritan church. The hour was ready for Whitefield, for Edwards, for any new awakening; and was above all fast approaching for the sadly needed temperance reform.

In the seventeenth century a minister was ordained and re-ordained at each church over which he had charge; but after some years the name of installation was given to each appointment after the first ordination, and the ceremony was correspondingly changed.

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