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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 20.

The Ministers.

The picture which Colonel Higginson has drawn of the Puritan minister is so well known and so graphic that any attempt to add to it would be futile. All the succeeding New England parsons, as years rolled by, were not, however, like the black-gowned, black-gloved, stately, and solemn man whom he has so clearly shown us. Men of rigid decorum, and grave ceremony there were, such as Dr. Emmons and Jonathan Edwards; but there were parsons also of another type,--eccentric, unconventional, and undignified in demeanor and dress. Parson Robinson, of Duxbury, persisted in wearing in the pulpit, as part of his clerical attire, a round jacket instead of the suitable gown or Geneva cloak, and he was known thereby as "Master Jack." With astonishing inconsistency this Master Jack objected to the village blacksmith's wearing his leathern apron into the church, and he assailed the offender again and again with words and hints from his pulpit. He was at last worsted by the grimaces of the victorious smith (where was the Duxbury tithingman?), and indignantly left the pulpit, ejaculating, "I'll not preach while that man sits before me." A remonstrating parishioner said afterward to Master Jack, "I'd not have left if the Devil sat there." "Neither would I" was the quick answer.

Another singular article of attire was worn in the pulpit by Father Mills, of Torrington, though neither in irreverence nor indifference. When his dearly loved wife died he pondered how he, who always wore black, could express to the world that he was wearing mourning; and his simple heart hit upon this grotesque device: he left off his full-flowing wig, and tied up his head in a black silk handkerchief, which he wore thereafter as a trapping of woe.

Parson Judson, of Taunton, was so lazy that he used to preach while sitting down in the pulpit; and was so contemptibly fond of comfort that he would on summer Sundays give out to the sweltering members of his congregation the longest psalm in the psalm-book, and then desert them--piously perspiring and fuguing--and lie under a tree enjoying the cool outdoor breezes until the long psalm was ended, escaping thus not only the heat but the singing; and when we consider the quantity and quality of both, and that he condemned his good people to an extra amount of each, it seems a piece of clerical inhumanity that would be hard to equal. Surely this selfish Taunton sybarite was the prosaic ideal of Hamlet's words:--

"Some ungracious pastors do
Show me the steep and thorny way to Heaven,
Whilst like a puff'd and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede."

But lazy and slothful ministers were fortunately rare in New England. No primrose path of dalliance was theirs; industrious and hard-working were nearly all the early parsons, preaching and praying twice on the Sabbath, and preaching again on Lecture days; visiting the sick and often giving medical and "chyrurgycal" advice; called upon for legal counsel and adjudication; occupied in spare moments in teaching and preparing young men for college; working on their farms; hearing the children say their catechism; fasting and praying long, weary hours in their own study,--truly they were "pious and painful preachers," as Colonel Higginson saw recorded on a gravestone in Watertown. Though I suspect "painful" in the Puritan vocabulary meant "painstaking," did it not? Cotton Mather called John Fiske, of Chelmsford, a "plaine but able painful and useful preacher," while President Dunster, of Harvard College, was described by a contemporary divine as "pious painful and fit to teach." Other curious epithets and descriptions were applied to the parsons; they were called "holy-heavenly," "sweet-affecting," "soul-ravishing," "heaven-piercing," "angel-rivalling," "subtil," "irrefragable," "angelical," "septemfluous," "holy-savoured," "princely," "soul-appetizing," "full of antic tastes" (meaning having the tastes of an antiquary), "God-bearing." Of two of the New England saints it was written:--

"Thier Temper far from Injucundity,
Thier tongues and pens from Infecundity."

Many other fulsome, turgid, and even whimsical expressious of praise might be named, for the Puritans were rich in classic sesquipedalian adjectives, and their active linguistic consciences made them equally fertile in producing new ones.

Ready and unexpected were the solemn Puritans in repartee. A party of gay young sparks, meeting austere old John Cotton, determined to guy him. One of the young reprobates sent up to him and whispered in his ear, "Cotton, thou art an old fool." "I am, I am," was the unexpected answer; "the Lord make both thee and me wiser than we are." Two young men of like intent met Mr. Haynes, of Vermont, and said with mock sad faces, "Have you heard the news? the Devil is dead." Quick came the answer, "Oh, poor, fatherless children! what will become of you?"

Gloomy and depressed of spirits they were often. The good Warham, who could take faithful and brave charge of his flock in the uncivilized wilds of Connecticut among ferocious savages, was tortured by doubts and "blasphemous suggestions," and overwhelmed by unbelief, enduring specially agonizing scruples about administering and partaking of the Lord's Supper, and was thus perplexed and buffeted until the hour of his sad death. The ministers went through various stages of uncertainty and gloom, from the physical terror of Dr. Cogswell in a thunderstorm, through vacillating and harassing convictions about the Half Way Covenant, through doubt of God, of salvation, of heaven, of eternite, particularly distressing suspicions about the reality of hell and the personality of the Devil, to the stage of deep melancholy which was shown in its highest type in "Handkerchief Moody," who preached and prayed and always appeared in public with a handkerchief over his face, and gave to Hawthorne the inspiration for his story of "The Black Veil." Rev. Mr. Bradstreet, of the First Church of Charlestown, was so hypochondriacal that he was afraid to preach in the pulpit, feeling sure that he would die if he entered therein; so he always delivered his sermons to his patient congregation from the deacons' pew. Mr. Bradstreet was unconventional in many other respects, and was far from being a typical Puritan minister. He seldom wore a coat, but generally appeared in a plaid gown, and was always seen with a pipe in his mouth,--a most disreputable addition to the clerical toilet at that date, or, in truth, at any date. He was a learned and pious man, however, and was thus introduced to a fellow clergyman, "Here is a man who can whistle Greek."

Scarcely one of the early Puritan ministers was free from the sad shadow of doubt and fear. No "rose-pink or dirty-drab views of humanity" were theirs; all was inky-black. And it is impossible to express the gloom and the depression of spirit which fall on one now, after these centuries of prosperous and cheerful years, when one considers thoughtfully the deep and despairing agony of mind endured by these good, brave, steadfast, godly Puritan ministers. Read, for instance, the sentences from the diary of the Rev. John Baily, or of Nathaniel Mather, as given by Cotton Mather in his "Magnalia." Mather says that poor, sad, heart-sick Baily was filled with "desponding jealousies," "disconsolate uneasinesses," gloomy fears, and thinks the words from his diary "may be profitable to some discouraged minds." Profitable! Ah, no; far from it! The overwhelming blackness of despair, the woful doubts and fears about destruction and utter annihilation which he felt so deeply and so continually, fall in a heavy, impenetrable cloud upon us as we read, until we feel that we too are in the "Suburbs of hell" and are "eternally damned."

But in succeeding years they were not always gloomy and not always staid, as we know from the stories of the cheerful parties at ordination-times; and I doubt not the reverend Assembly of Elders at Cambridge enjoyed to the full degree the twelve gallons of sack and six gallons of white wine sent to them by the Court as a testimony of deep respect. And the group of clergymen who were painted over the mantelpiece of Parson Lowell, of Newbury, must have been far from gloom, as the punch-bowl and drinking-cups and tobacco and pipes would testify, and their cheerful motto likewise: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." And the Rev. Mr. ---- no, I will not tell his name--kept an account with one Jerome Ripley, a storekeeper, and on one page of this account-book, containing thirty-nine entries, twenty-one were for New England rum. It somewhat lessens in our notions the personal responsibility, or the personal potatory capability of the parson, to discover that there was an ordination in town during that rum-paged week, and that the visiting ministers probably drank the greater portion of Jerome Ripley's liquor. But I wish the store-keeper had--to save this parson's reputation among succeeding generations--called and entered the rum as hay, or tea, or nails, or anything innocent and virtuous and clerical. When we read of all these doings and drinkings of the old New England ministers,--"if ancient tales say true, nor wrong these ancient men"--we feel that we cannot so fiercely resent nor wonder at the degrading coupling in Byron's sneering lines:--

"There's naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms,
As rum and true religion."

All the cider made by the New England elders did not tend to gloom, and they were celebrated for their fine cider. The best cider in Massachusetts--that which brought the highest price--was known as the Arminian cider, because the minister who furnished it to the market was suspected of having Arminian tendencies. A very telling compliment to the cider of one of the first New England ministers is thus recorded: "Mr. Whiting had a score of appill-trees from which he made delicious cyder. And it hath been said yt an Indyan once coming to hys house and Mistress Whiting giving him a drink of ye cyder, he did sett down ye pot and smaking his lips say yt Adam and Eve were rightlie damned for eating ye appills in ye garden of Eden, they should have made them into cyder." This perverse application of good John Eliot's teaching would have vexed the apostle sorely. Of so much account were the barrels of cider, and so highly were they prized by the ministers, that one honest soul did not hesitate to thank the Lord in the pulpit for the "many barrels of cider vouchsafed to us this year."

Stronger liquors than cider were also manufactured by the ministers,--and by God-fearing, pious ministers also. They did not hesitate to own and operate distilleries. Rev. Nathan Strong, pastor of the First Church of Hartford and author of the hymn "Swell the anthem, raise the song," was engaged in the distilling business and did not make a success of it either. Having become bankrupt, he did not dare show his head anywhere in public for some time, except on Sunday, for fear of arrest. This disreputable and most unclerical affair did not operate against him in the minds of the contemporaneous public, for ten years later he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Princeton College; and he did not hesitate to joke about his liquor manufacturing, saying to two of his brother-clergymen, "Oh, we are all three in the same boat together,--Brother Prime raises the grain, I distil it, and Brother Flint drinks it."

Impostors there were--false parsons--in the early struggling days of New England (since "the devil was never weary and never ceasing in disturbing the peace of the new English church"), and they plagued the colonists sorely. The very first shepherd of the wandering flock--Mr. Lyford, who preached to the planters in 1624--was, as Bradford says, "most unsavory salt," a most agonizing and unbearable thorn in the flesh and spirit of the poor homesick Pilgrims; and he was finally banished to Virginia, where it was supposed that he would find congenial and un-Puritanlike companions. Another bold-faced cheat preached to the colonists a most impressive sermon on the text, "Let him that stole steal no more," while his own pockets were stuffed out with stolen money. "Out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh."

Dicky Swayn, "after a thousand rogueries," set up as a parson in Boston. But, unfortunately for him, he prayed too loud and too long on one occasion, and his prayer attracted the attention of a woman whose servant he had formerly been. She promptly exposed his false pretensions and past villanies, and he left Boston and an army of cheated creditors. In 1699 two other attractive and plausible scamps--Kingsbury and May--garbed and curried themselves as ministers, and went through a course of unchecked villany, building only on their agreeable presence. Cotton Mather wrote pertinently of one of these charmers, "Fascination is a thing whereof mankind has more Experience than Comprehension;" and he also wrote very despitefully of the adventurer's scholarly attainments saying there were "eighteen horrid false spells and not one point in one very short note I received from him." As the population increased, so also did the list of dishonest impostors, who made a cloak of religion most effectively to aid them in deceiving the religious community; and sometimes, alas! the ordained clergymen became sad backsliders.

Nor were the pious and godly Puritan divines above the follies and frailties of other men in other places and in other times. It can be said of them, as of the Jew, had they not "eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?"--were they not as other men? It is recorded of Rev. Samuel Whiting, of Lynn, that "once coming among a gay partie of yong people he kist all ye maides and said yt he felt all ye better for it." And who can doubt it? Even that extreme type, that highest pinnacle of American Puritanical bigotry,--solemn and learned Cotton Mather,--had, when he was a mourning widower, a most amusing amorous episode with a rather doubtful, a decidedly shady, young Boston woman, whom he styled an "Ingenious Child," but who was far from being an ingenuous child. "She," as he proudly stated, "became charmed with my person to such a degree that she could not but break in upon me with her most importunate requests." And a very handsome and thoroughly attractive person does his portrait show even to modern eyes. Poor Cotton resisted the wiles of the devil in this alluring form, though he had to fast and pray three consecutive nights ere the strong Puritan spirit conquered the weak flesh, and he could consent and resolve to give up the thought of marrying the siren. His self-denial and firmness deserved a better reward than the very trying matrimonial "venture" that he afterwards made.

Many another Puritan parson has left record of his wooings that are warm to read. And well did the parsons' wives deserve their ardent wooings and their tender love-letters. Hard as was the minister's life, over-filled as was his time, highly taxed as were his resources, all these hardships were felt in double proportion by the minister's wife. The old Hebrew standard of praise quoted by Cotton Mather, "A woman worthy to be the wife of a priest," was keenly epigrammatic; and ample proof of the wise insight of the standard of comparison may be found in the lives of "the pious, prudent, and prayerful" wives of New England ministers. What wonder that their praises were sung in many loving though halting threnodies, in long-winded but tender eulogies, in labored anagrams, in quaintly spelled epitaphs?--for the ministers' wives were the saints of the Puritan calendar.

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