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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 22.

The Plain-Speaking Puritan Pulpit.

One thing which always interests and can but amuse every reader of the old Puritan sermons is the astonishingly familiar way in which these New England divines publicly shared their domestic joys and sorrows with the members of their congregations; and we are equally surprised at the ingenuity which they displayed in finding texts that were suitable for the various occasions and events. The Reverend Mr. Turell was specially ingenious. Of him Dr. Holmes wrote,--

"You've heard, no doubt, of Parson Turell;
Over at Medford he used to dwell,--
Married one of the Mathers' folks."

His wife, Jane Coleman, was a handsome brunette. The bridegroom preached his first sermon after his wedding on this text, "I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem." When he married a second time he chose as his text, "He is altogether lovely, this is my beloved, and this my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!" It is possible that each of Parson Turell's brides may have chosen the text from which he preached her honeymoon sermon. It was the universal custom for many years thoughout New England to allow a bride the privilege of selecting for the parson who had solemnized her marriage, or at whose church she first appeared after the wedding, the text from which he should preach on the bridal Sabbath. Thus when John Physick and Mary Prescott were married in Portland, on July 4, 1770, the bride gave to Rev. Mr. Deane this text: "Mary hath chosen that good part;" and from it Parson Deane preached the "wedding sermon." When Abby Smith, daughter of Parson Smith, married 'Squire John Adams, whom her father disliked and would not invite home to dinner, she chose this text for her wedding sermon: "John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and ye say he hath a devil." The high-spirited bride had the honor of living to be the wife of one President of the United States, and mother of another.

Another ingenious clergyman gave out one morning as his text, "Unto us a son is born;" and thus notified the surprised congregation of an event which they had been awaiting for some weeks. Another preached on the text, "My servant lieth at home sick," which was literally true. Another, a bachelor, dared to announce this abbreviated text: "A wonder was seen in heaven--a woman." Dr. Mather Byles, of Boston, being disappointed through the non-appearance of a minister named Prince, who had been expected to deliver the sermon, preached himself upon the text, "Put not your trust in princes." But Dr. Byles was one who would always "court a grin when he should win a soul."

One minister felt it necessary to reprove a money-making parishioner who had stored and was holding in reserve (with the hope of higher prices) a large quantity of corn which was sadly needed for consumption in the town. The parson preached from this appropriate text, Proverbs xi. 26. "He that withholdeth his corn, the people shall curse him; but blessings shall be upon the head of him that selleth it." As the minister grew warmer in his explanation and application of the text, the money-seeking corn-storer defiantly and unregenerately sat up stiff and unmoved, until at last the preacher, provoked out of prudence and patience, roared out, "Colonel Ingraham, Colonel Ingraham! you know I mean you; why don't you hang down your head?" In a similar case another stern parson employed the text, "Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone;" though the personalities of the sermon made unnecessary the open reference in the text to the offender's name.

The ministers were such autocrats in the Puritan community that they never hesitated to show their authority in any manner in the pulpit. Judge Sewall records with much bitterness a libel which his pastor, Mr. Pemberton, launched at him in the meeting through the medium of the psalm which he gave out to be sung. They had differed over the adjustment of some church-matter and on the following Sunday the clergyman assigned to be sung the libellous and significant psalm. Such lines as these must have been hard indeed for Judge Sewall to endure:--

"Speak, oh ye Judges of the Earth
  if just your Sentence be
Or must not Innocence appeal
  to Heav'n from your decree

"Your Wicked Hearts and Judgments are
  alike by Malice sway'd
Your griping Hands by mighty Bribes
  to violence betrayed.

"No Serpent of parch'd Afric's breed
  doth Ranker poison bear
The drowsy Adder will as soon
  unlock his Sullen Ear

"Unmov'd by good Advice, and dead
  As Adders they remain
From whom the skilful Charmer's voice
  can no attention gain."

Small wonder that Judge Sewall writhed under the infliction of these lines as they were doubly thrust upon him by the deacon's "lining" and the singing of the congregation; and the words, "The drowsy Adder will as soon unlock his Sullen Ear" seemed to particularly irritate him; doubtless he felt sure that no one could doubt his integrity, but feared that some might think him stupid and obstinate.

Another arbitrary clergyman, having had an altercation with some unruly singers in the choir, gave out with much vehemence on the following Sunday the hymn beginning,--

"And are you wretches yet alive
And do you yet rebel?"

with a very significant glower towards the singers' gallery. In a similar situation another minister gave out to the rebellious choir the hymn commencing,--

"Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God."

A visiting clergyman, preaching in a small and shabby church built in a parish of barren and stony farm-land, very spitefully and sneeringly read out to be sung the hymn of Watts' beginning,--

"Lord, what a wretched land is this,
That yields us no supplies!"

But his malicious intent was frustrated and the tables were adroitly turned by the quick-witted choir-master, who bawled out in a loud voice as if in answer, "Northfield,"--the name of the minister's own home and parish,--while he was really giving out to the choir, as was his wont, the name of the tune to which the hymn was to be sung.

Nor did the parsons hesitate to be personal even in their prayers. Rev. Mr. Moody, who was ordained pastor at York in the year 1700, reproved in an extraordinary manner a young man who had called attention to some fine new clothing which he wore by coming in during prayer time and thus attracting the notice of the congregation. Mr. Moody, in an elevated tone of voice, at once exclaimed, "And O Lord! we pray Thee, cure Ned Ingraham of that ungodly strut," etc. Another time he prayed for a young lady in the congregation and ended his invocation thus, "She asked me not to pray for her in public, but I told her I would, and so I have, Amen."

Rev. Mr. Miles, while praying for rain, is said to have used this extraordinary phraseology: "O Lord, Thou knowest we do not want Thee to send us a rain which shall pour down in fury and swell our streams and carry away our hay-cocks, fences, and bridges; but, Lord, we want it to come drizzle-drozzle, drizzle-drozzle, for about a week, Amen."

They did not think it necessary always to give their congregations novel thoughts and ideas nor fresh sermons. One minister, after being newly ordained in his parish, preached the same sermon three Sundays in succession; and a deacon was sent to him mildly to suggest a change. "Why, no," he answered, "I can see no evidence yet that this one has produced any effect."

Rev. Mr. Daggett, of Yale College, had an entire system of sermons which took him four years to preach throughout. And for three successive years he delivered once a year a sermon on the text, "Is Thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?" And the fourth year he varied it with, "And the dog did it."

Dr. Coggswell, of Canterbury, Connecticut, had a sermon which he thrust upon his people every spring for many years as being suitable to the time when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love. In it he soberly reproved the young church attendants for gazing so much at each other in the meeting. This annual anti-amatory advice never failed to raise a smile on the face of each father and son in the congregation as he listened to the familiar and oft-repeated words.

The Puritan ministers gave advice in their sermons upon most personal and worldly matters. Roger Williams instructed the women of his parish to wear veils when they appeared in public; but John Cotton preached to them one Sunday morning and proved to them that veils were a sign of undue subjection to their husbands; and in the afternoon the fair Puritans appeared with bare faces and showed that women had even at that early day "rights."

How the varieties of headgear did torment the parsons! They denounced from many a pulpit the wearing of wigs. Mr. Noyes preached long and often against the fashion. Eliot, the noble preacher and missionary to the Indians, found time even in the midst of his arduous and incessant duties to deliver many a blast against "prolix locks,"--"with boiling zeal," as Cotton Mather said,--and he labelled them a "luxurious feminine protexity;" but lamented late in life that "the lust for wigs is become insuperable." He thought the horrors in King Philip's War were a direct punishment from God for wig-wearing. Increase Mather preached warmly against wigs, saying that "such Apparel is contrary to the light of Nature and to express Scripture," and that "Monstrous Perriwigs such as some of our church members indulge in make them resemble ye locusts that came out of ye Bottomless Pit." To learn how these "Horrid Bushes of Vanity" were despised by a real live Puritan wig-hater one needs only to read the many disparaging, regretful, and bitter references to wig-wearing and wig-wearers in Judge Sewall's diary, which reached a culmination when a widow whom he was courting suggested most warmly that he ought to wear, what his very soul abominated, a periwig.

Eliot had also a strong aversion to tobacco, and denounced its use in severe terms; but his opposition in this case was as ineffectual as it was against wigs. Allen said, "In contempt of all his admonitions the head would be adorned with curls of foreign growth, and the pipe would send up volumes of smoke."

Rev. Mr. Rogers preached against long natural hair,--the "disguisement of long ruffianly hair,"--as did also President Chauncey of Harvard College; while Mr. Wigglesworth's sermon on the subject has often been reprinted, and is full of logical arguments. This offence was named on the list of existing evils which was made by the General Court: that "the men wore long hair like women's hair," while the women were complained of for "cutting and curling and laying out of hair, especially among the younger sort." Still, the Puritan magistrates, omnipotent as they were, did not dare to force the be-curled citizens to cut their long love-locks, though they instructed and bribed them to do so. A Salem man was, in 1687, fined ten shillings for a misdemeanor, but "in case he shall cutt off his long har of his head into a sevill (civil?) frame in the mean time shall have abated five shillings of his fine." John Eliot hated long natural hair as well as false hair. Cotton Mather said of him, in a very unpleasant figure of speech, "The hair of them that professed religion grew too long for him to swallow." Other fashions and habits brought forth denunciations from the pulpit,--hooped petticoats, gold-laced coats (unless worn by gentlemen), pointed shoes, chaise-owning, health-drinking, tavern-visiting, gossiping, meddling, tale-bearing, and lying.

Political and business and even medical and sanitary subjects were popular in the early New England pulpit. Mr. Peters preached many a long sermon to urge the formation of a stock company for fishing, and canvassed all through the commonwealth for the same purpose. Cotton Mather said plainly that ministers ought to instruct themselves and their congregations in politics; and in Connecticut it was ordered by law that each minister should give sound and orthodox advice to his congregation at the time of civil elections.

Every natural phenomenon, every unusual event called forth a sermon, and the minister could find even in the common events of every-day life plain manifestations of Divine wrath and judgment. He preached with solemn delight upon comets, and earthquakes, and northern lights, and great storms and droughts, on deaths and diseases, and wonders and scandals (for there were scandals even in puritanical New England), on wars both at home and abroad, on shipwrecks, on safe voyages, on distinguished visitors, on noted criminals and crimes,--in fact, upon every subject that was of spiritual or temporal interest to his congregation or himself. And his people looked for his religious comment upon passing events just as now-a-days we read articles upon like subjects in the newspaper. Thus was the Puritan minister not only a preacher, but a teacher, adviser, and friend, and a pretty plain-spoken one too.

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