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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 21.

The Ministers' Pay.

The salaries of New England clergymen were not large in early days, but the £60 or £70 which they each were yearly voted was quite enough to suitably support them in that new country of plain ways and plain living, if they only received it, which was, alas! not always the case. The First Court of Massachusetts, in 1630, set the amount of the minister's annual stipend to be £20 or £30 according to the wealth of the community, and made it a public charge. In 1659 the highest salary paid in Suffolk County was £100 to Mr. Thatcher, and the lowest was £40 to the clergyman at Hull. The minister of the Andover church was voted a salary of £60, and "when he shall have occacion to marry, £10 more." He was very glad, however, to take £42 in hard cash instead of £60 in corn and labor, which were at that time the most popular forms of ministerial remuneration; even though the "hard cash" were in the form of wampum, beaver-skins, or leaden bullets.

Many congregations, though the members were so pious and godly, were pretty sharp in bargaining with their preachers; for instance, the church in New London made its new parson sign a contract that "in case he remove before the year is out, he returneth the £80 paid him." Often clergymen would "supply" (or "Sipploye," or "syploy" or "sipply," or "sciploy," as various records have it) from month to mouth without "settling." As they got the "keepe of a hors," and their own board for Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday morning a cash payment for preaching (though often the amount was only twelve shillings), they were richer than with a small yearly salary that was irregularly and inconveniently paid. Often too they entered by preference into a yearly contract with a church, without any wish for regular settlement or ordination.

A large portion of the stipends in early parishes being paid in corn and labor, the amounts were established by fixed rate upon the inhabitants; and the amount of land owned and cultivated by each church-member was considered in reckoning his assessment. These amounts were called voluntary contributions. If, however, any citizen refused to "contribute," he was taxed; and if he refused to pay his church-tax he could be fined, imprisoned, or pilloried. For one hundred years the ministers' salaries in Boston were paid by these so-called "voluntary contributions." In one church it was voted that "the Deacons have liberty for a quarter of a yeare to git in every mans sume either in a Church way or in a Christian way." I would the process employed in the "Church way" were recorded, since it differed so from the Christian way.

It is one of the Puritan paradoxes that abounded in New England, that the community of New Haven, a "State whose Desire was Religion," and religion alone, was particularly backward in paying the minister who had spiritual charge there. After much trouble in deciding about the form and quality of the currency which should be used in pay, since so much bad wampum was thrust upon the deacons at the public contributions, it was in 1651 enacted that "whereas it is taken notice of that Divers give not into the Treasury at all on the Lords Day, it is decreed that all such if they give not freely, of themselves be rated according to the Jurisdiction order for the Ministers Maintaynance." The delinquents were ordered to bring their "rate" to the Deacon's house at once. A presuming young man ventured to suggest that the recreant members who would not pay in the face of the whole congregation would hardly rush to the Deacon's door to give in their "rate." He was severely ordered to keep silence in the company of wiser and elder people; but time proved his simply wise supposition to be correct; and many and various were the devices and forces which the deacons were obliged to use to obtain the minister's rate in New Haven.

Some few bold Puritan souls dared to protest against being forced to pay the church rate whether they wished to or not. Lieutenant Fuller, of Barnstable, was fined fifty shillings for "prophanely" saying "that the law enacted about the ministers maintenance was a wicked and devilish one, and that the devil sat at the helm when the law was made." Such courageous though profane expressions of revolt but little availed; for not only were members and attendants of the Puritan churches taxed, but Quakers, Baptists, and Church-of-England men were also "rated," and if they refused to pay to help support the church that they abhorred, they were fined and imprisoned. One man, of Watertown, named Briscoe, dared to write a book against the violent enforcement of "voluntary" subscriptions. He was fined £10 for his wickedness; and the printer of the book was also punished. A virago in New London, more openly courageous, threw scalding water on the head of the tithingman who came to collect the minister's rate. Old John Cotton preached long and earnestly upon the necessity and propriety of raising the money for the minister's salary, and for other expenses of the church, wholly by voluntary and eagerly given contributions,--the "Lord having directed him to make it clear by Scripture." He believed that tithes and church-taxes were productive of "pride, contention and sloth," and indicated a declining spiritual condition of the church. But it was a strange voluntary gift he wished, that was forced by dread of the pillory and cage!

Since, as Higginson said, "New England was a plantation of Religion, not a plantation of Trade," the church and its support were of course the first thought in laying out a new town-settlement, and some of the best town-lots were always set aside for the "yuse of the minister." Sometimes these lots were a gift outright to the first settled preacher, in other townships they were set aside as glebes, or "ministry land" as it was called. It was a universal custom to build at once a house for the minister, and some very queer contracts and stipulations for the size, shape, and quality of the parson's home-edifice may be read in church-records. To the construction of this house all the town contributed, as also to the building of the meeting-house; some gave work; some, the use of a horse or ox-team; some, boards; some, stones or brick; some, logs; others, nails; and a few, a very few, money. At the house-raising a good dinner was provided, and of course, plenty of liquor. Some malcontents rebelled against being forced to work on the minister's house. Entries of fines are common enough for "refusing to dig on the Minister's Selor," for neglecting to send "the Minister's Nayles," for refusing to "contribute clay-boards," etc. As with the town-lot, the house sometimes was a gift outright to the clergyman, and ofttimes the ownership was retained by the church, and the free use only was given to each minister.

It was a universal custom to allow free pasturage for the minister's horse, for which the village burial-ground was assigned as a favorite feeding-ground. Sometimes this privilege of free pasturage was abused. In Plymouth, in 1789, Rev. Chandler Robbins was requested "not to have more horses than shall be necessary, for his many horses that had been pastured on 'Burial Hill'" had sadly damaged and defaced the gravestones,--perhaps the very headstones placed over the bones of our Pilgrim Fathers.

The "strangers' money," which was the money contributed by visitors who chanced to attend the services, and which was sometimes specified as "all the silver and black dogs given by strangers," was usually given to the minister. A "black dog" was a "dog dollar."

Often a settlement or a sum of money was given outright to the clergyman when he was first ordained or settled in the parish. At a town meeting in Sharon, January 8, 1755, which was held with regard to procuring a new minister, it was voted "that a committe confer with Mr. Smith, and know which will be more acceptable to him, to have a larger settlement and a smaller salary, or a larger salary and a smaller settlement, and make report to this meeting." On Jan. 15th it was voted "that we give to said Mr. Smith 420 ounces of silver or equivalent in old Tenor bills, for a settlement, to be paid in three years after settlement. That we give to said Mr. Smith 220 Spanish dollars or an equivalent in old Tenor bills for his yearly salary." Mr. Smith was very generous to his new parish, for his acceptance of its call contains this clause: "As it will come heavy upon some perhaps to pay salary and settlement together I have thought of releasing part of the payment of the salary for a time to be paid to me again. The first year I shall allow you out of the salary you have voted me 40 dollars, the 2nd 30 dollars, the 3rd 15, the 4th year 20 to be repaid to me again, the 5th year 20 more, the 6th year 20 more and the 25 dollars that remain, I am willing that the town should keep 'em for its own use." He was apparently "willing to live very low," as Parson Eliot humbly and pathetically wrote in a petition to his church.

The Puritan ministers in New England in the eighteenth century were all good Whigs; they hated the English kings, fully believing that those stupid rulers, who really cared little for the Church of England, were burning with pious zeal to make Episcopacy the established church of the colonies, and knowing that were that deed accomplished they themselves would probably lose their homes and means of livelihood. They were the most eager of Republicans and patriots, and many of them were good and brave soldiers in the Revolution.

When the minister acquired the independence he so longed and fought for, it was not all his fancy painted it. He found himself poor indeed,--practically penniless. He complained sadly that he was paid his salary in the worthless continental paper money, and he refused to take it. Often he cannily took merchandise of all kinds instead of the low-valued paper money, and he became a good and sharp trader, exchanging his various goods for whatever he needed--and could get. Merchandise was, indeed, far preferable to money. The petition of Rev. Mr. Barnes to his Willsborough people has been preserved, and he thus speaks of his salary: "In 1775 the war comenced & Paper money was emitted which soon began to depreciate and the depreciation was so rappid that in may 1777 your Pastor gave the whole of his years Salary for one sucking Calf, the next year he gave the whole for a small store pig. Your Pastor has not asked for any consideration being willing to try to Scrabble along with the people while they are in low circumstances." His neighbor, Rev. Mr. Sprague, of Dublin, formally petitioned his church not to increase his salary, "as I am plagued to death to get what is owing to me now," or to buy anything with it when he got it. The minister in Scarborough had to be paid £5,400 in paper money to make good his salary of £60 in gold which had been voted him.

"Living low" and "scrabbling along" seems to have been the normal and universal condition of the New England minister for some time after the War of Independence. He was obliged to go without his pay, or to take it in whatever shape it might chance to be tendered. Indeed, from the earliest colonial days it was true that of whatever they had, the church-members gave; meal, maize, beans, cider, lumber, merchantable pork, apples, "English grains," pumpkins,--all were paid to the parson. Part of the stipend of a minister on Cape Cod was two hundred fish yearly from each parishioner, with which to fertilize his sandy corn-land. In Plymouth, in 1662, the following method of increasing the minister's income was suggested: "The Court Proposeth it as a thing that they judge would be very commendable and beneficiall to the townes where God's providence shall cast any whales, if they should agree to set aparte some p'te of every such fish or oyle for the Incouragement of an able and godly minister among them." In Sandwich, also, the parson had a part of every whale that came ashore.

Various gifts, too, came to the preachers. In Newbury the first salmon caught each year in the weir was left by will to the parson. Judge Sewall records that he visited the minister and "carried him a Bushel of Turnips, cost me five shillings, and a Cabbage cost half a Crown." Such a high-priced cabbage!

That New England country institution--the "donation party" to the minister--was evolved at a later date. At these donation parties the unfortunate shepherd of the flock often received much that neither he nor the wily donors could use, while more valuable and useful gifts were lacking.

A very material plenishing of the minister's house was often furnished in the latter part of the eighteenth century by the annual "Spinning Bee." On a given day the women of the parish, each bearing her own spinning-wheel and flax, assembled at the minister's house and spun for his wife great "runs" of linen thread, which were afterward woven into linen for the use of the parson and his family. In Newbury, April 20,1768, "Young ladies met at the house of the Rev. Mr. Parsons, who preached to them a sermon from Proverbs 31-19. They spun and presented to Mrs. Parsons two hundred and seventy skeins of good yarn." They drank "liberty tea." This makeshift of a beverage was made of the four-leaved loosestrife. The herb was pulled up like flax, its stalks were stripped of the leaves and were boiled. The leaves were put in a kettle and basted with the liquor distilled from the stalks. After this the leaves were dried in an oven to use in the same manner as tea-leaves. Liberty tea sold readily for sixpence a pound. In 1787 these same Newbury women spun two hundred and thirty-six skeins of thread and yarn for the wife of the Rev. Mr. Murray. Some were busy spinning, some reeling and carding, and some combing the flax, while the minister preached to them on the text from Exodus xxxv. 25: "And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands." These spinning-bees were everywhere in vogue, and formed a source of much profit to the parson, and of pleasure to the spinners, in spite of the sermons.

Pieced patchwork bed-quilts for the minister's family were also given by the women of the congregation. Sometimes each woman furnished a neatly pieced square, and all met at the parsonage and joined and quilted the coverlet. At other times the minister's wife made the patchwork herself, but the women assembled and transformed it into quilts for her. The parson was helped also in his individual work. When the rye or wheat or grain on the minister's land was full grown and ready for reaping and mowing, the men in his parish gave him gladly a day's work in harvesting, and in turn he furnished them plenty of good rum to drink, else there were "great uneasyness." The New England men were not forced to drink liberty tea.

One universal contribution to the support of the minister all over New England was cord-wood; and the "minister's wood" is an institution up to the present day in the few thickly wooded districts that remain. A load of wood was usually given by each male church-member, and he was expected to deliver the gift at the door of the parsonage. Sixty loads a year were a fair allowance, but the number sometimes ran up to one hundred, as was furnished to Parson Chauncey, of Durham. Rev. Mr. Parsons, of East Hadley, was the greatest wood-consumer among the old ministers of whom I have chanced to read. Good, cheerful, roaring fires must the Parsons family have kept; for in 1774 he had eighty loads of wood supplied to him; in 1751 he was furnished with one hundred loads; in 1763 the amount had increased to one hundred and twenty loads, when the parish was glad to make a compromise with their extravagant shepherd and pay him instead £13 6s 8d annually in addition to his regular salary, and let him buy or cut his own wood. Firewood at that time in that town was worth only the expense of cutting and hauling to the house. A "load" of wood contained about three quarters of a cord, and until after the Revolutionary War was worth in the vicinity of Hadley only three shillings a load. The minister's loads were expected to be always of good "hard-wood." One thrifty parson, while watching a farmer unload his yearly contribution, remarked, "Isn't that pretty soft wood?" "And don't we sometimes have pretty soft preaching?" was the answer. It was well that the witty retort was not made a century earlier; for the speaker would have been punished by a fine, since they fined so sharply anything that savored of "speaking against the minister." In some towns a day was appointed which was called a "wood-spell," when it was ordered that all the wood be delivered at the parson's door; and thus the farmers formed a cheerful gathering, at which the minister furnished plentiful flip, or grog, to the wood-givers. Rev. Stephen Williams, of Longmeadow, never failed to make a note of the "wood-sleddings" in his diary. He wrote on Jan. 25, 1757, "Neighbors sledded wood for me and shewed a Good Humour. I rejoice at it. The Lord bless them that are out of humour and brot no wood." In other towns the wood did not always come in when it was wanted or needed, and winter found the parsonage woodshed empty. Rev. Mr. French, of Andover, gave out this notice in his pulpit one Sunday in November: "I will write two discourses and deliver them in this meeting-house on Thanksgiving Day, provided I can manage to write them without a fire." We can be sure that Monday morning saw several loads of good hard wood deposited at the parson's door.

Other ministers did not hesitate to demand their cord-wood most openly, while still others became adepts in hinting and begging, not only for wood, but for other supplies. It is told of a Newbury parson that he rode from house to house one winter afternoon, saying in each that he "wished he had a slice of their good cheese, for his wife expected company." On his way home his sleigh, unfortunately, upset, and the gathering darkness could not conceal from the eyes of the astonished townspeople, who ran to "right the minister," the nine great cheeses that rolled out into the snow.

Another source of income to New England preachers was the sale of the gloves and rings which were given to them (and indeed to all persons of any importance) at weddings, funerals, and christenings. In reading Judge Sewall's diary one is amazed at the extraordinary number of gloves he thus received, and can but wonder what became of them all, since, had he had as many hands as Briareus, he could hardly have worn them. The manuscript account-book of the Rev. Mr. Elliot, who was ordained pastor of the New North Church of Boston in 1742, shows that he, having a frugal mind, sold both gloves and rings. He kept a full list of the gloves he received, the kid gloves, the lambswool gloves, and the long gloves,--which were for his wife. It seems incredible, but in thirty-two years he received two thousand and nine hundred and forty pairs of gloves. Of these, though dead men's gloves did not have a very good market, he sold through various salesmen and dealers about six hundred and forty dollars worth. One wonders that he did not "combine" with the undertaker or sexton who furnished the gloves to mourners, and thus do a very thrifty business.

The parson, especially in a low-salaried, rural district, had to practise a thousand petty and great economies to eke out his income. He and his family wore homespun and patched clothing, which his wife had spun and wove and cut and made. She knitted woollen mittens and stockings by the score. She unfortunately could not make shoes, and to keep the large family shod was a serious drain on the clerical purse, one minister declaring vehemently that he should have died a rich man if he and his family could have gone barefoot. The pastors of seaboard and riverside parishes set nets, like the Apostles of old, and caught fish with which they fed their families until the over-phosphorized brains and stomachs rebelled. They set snares and traps and caught birds and squirrels and hare, to replenish their tables, and from the skins of the rabbits and woodchucks and squirrels, the parsons' wives made fur caps for the husbands and for the children.

The whole family gathered in large quantities from roadsides and pastures the oily bayberries, and from them the thrifty and capable wife made scores of candles for winter use, patiently filling and refilling her few moulds, or "dipping" the candles again and again until large enough to use. These pale-green bayberry tallow candles, when lighted in the early winter evening, sent forth a faint spicy fragrance--a true New England incense--that fairly perfumed and Orientalized the atmosphere of the parsonage kitchen. They were very saving, however, even of these home-made candles, blowing them out during the long family prayers.

Some parsons could not afford always to use candles. In the home of one well-known minister the wife always knitted, the children ciphered and studied, and the husband wrote his sermon by the flickering fire-light (for they always had wood in plenty), with his scraps of sermon paper placed on the side of the great leathern bellows as it lay in his lap; a pretty home scene that was more picturesque to behold than comfortable to take part in.

Country ministers could scarcely afford paper to write on, as it was taxed and was high priced. They bought their sermon paper by the pound; but they made the first drafts of their addresses, in a fine, closely written hand, on wrapping-paper, on the backs of letters, on the margins of their few newspapers, and copied them when finished in their sermon-books with a keen regard for economy of space and paper. The manuscript sermons of New England divines are models of careful penmanship, and may be examined with interest by a student of chirography. The letters are cramped and crabbed, like the lives of many of the writers, but the penmanship is methodical, clear, and distinct, without wavering lines or uncertain touch.

As every parsonage had some glebe land, the parson could raise at least a few vegetables to supply his table. One minister, prevented by illness from planting his garden, complained with bitterness that, save for a few rare gifts of vegetables from his parishioners, his family had no green thing all summer save "messes of dandelion greens" which he had dug by the roadside, and the summer's succession of wild berries and mushrooms. The children had gathered the berries and had sold them when they could, but of course no one would buy the mushrooms, hence they had been forced to eat them at the parsonage; and he spoke despitefully and disdainfully of the mean, unnourishing, and doubtfully healthful food.

In winter the parson's family fared worse; one minister declared that he had had nothing but mush and milk with occasional "cracker johnny-cakes" all winter, and that he had not once tasted meat in that space of time, save at a funeral or ordination-supper, where I doubt not he gorged with the composure and capacity of a Sioux brave at a war feast.

Often the low state of the parsonage larder was quite unknown to the unthinking members of the congregation, who were not very luxuriously fed themselves; and in the profession of preaching as in all other walks of life much depended on the way the parson's money was spent,--economy and good judgment in housekeeping worked wonders with the small salary. Dr. Dwight, in eulogizing Abijah Weld, pastor at Attleborough, declared that on a salary of two hundred and twenty dollars a year Mr. Weld brought up eleven children, kept a hospitable house, and gave liberally in charity to the poor. I fear if we were to ask some carnal-minded person, who knew not the probity of Dr. Dwight, how Mr. Weld could possibly manage to accomplish such wonderful results with so little money, that we should meet with scepticism as to the correctness of the facts alleged. Such cases were, however, too common to be doubted. My answer to the puzzling financial question would be this: examine and study the story of the home life, the work of Mrs. Weld, that unsalaried helper in clerical labor; therein the secret lies.

In many cases, in spite of the never failing and never ceasing economy, care, and assistance of the hard-working, thrifty wife, in spite of tributes, tithes and windfalls--in country parishes especially--the minister, unless he fortunately had some private wealth, felt it incumbent upon him to follow some money-making vocation on week-days. Many were farmers on week-days. Many took into their families young men who wished to be taught, or fitted for college. Rev. Mr. Halleck in the course of his useful and laborious life educated over three hundred young Puritans in his own household. It is not recorded how Mrs. Halleck enjoyed the never ending cooking for this regiment of hungry young men. Some parsons learned to draw up wills and other legal documents, and thus became on a small scale the lawyers of the town. Others studied the mystery of medicine, and bought a small stock of the nauseous drugs of the times, which they retailed with accompanying advice to their parishioners. Some were coopers, some carpenters, rope-makers, millers, or cobblers. One cobbler clergyman in Andover, Vermont, worked at his shoe-mending all the week with his Bible open on his bench before him, and he marked the page containing any text which bore on the subject of his coming sermon, with a marker of waxed shoe-thread. Often the Bible, in his pulpit on Sunday, had thirty or forty of these shoe-thread guides hanging down from it.

One minister, having been reproved for his worldliness in amassing a large enough fortune to buy a good farm, answered his complaining congregation thus: "I have obtained the money to buy this farm by neglecting to follow the maxim to 'mind my own business.' My business was to study the word of God and attend to my parish duties and preach good sermons. All this I acknowledge I have not done, for I have been meddling with your business. That was to support me and my family; that you have not done. But remember this: while I have performed your duties, you have not done mine, so I think you cannot complain."

Some of the early ministers, in addition to preaching in the meeting-house, did not disdain to take care of the edifice. Parson Everitt of Sandwich was paid three dollars a year for sweeping out the meeting-house in which he preached; and after he resigned this position of profit, the duties were performed by the town physician "as often as there shalbe ocation to keepe it deesent." The thrifty Mr. Everitt had a pleasing variety of occupations; he was also a successful farmer, a good fence-builder, and he ran a fulling-mill.

So, altogether, as they were wholly exempt from taxation, the New England parsons did not fare ill, though Mr. Cotton said that "ministers and milk were the only cheap things in New England," and he deemed various ills, such as attacks by fierce Indians, loss of cattle, earthquakes, and failure of crops, to be divine judgments for the small ministerial pay; while Cotton Mather, in one of his pompous and depressing jokes, called the minister's stipend "Synecdotical Pay." A search in a treatise on rhetoric or in a dictionary will discover the point of this witticism--if it be worth searching for.

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