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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 23.

The Early Congregations.

On Sunday morning in New England in the olden time, the country church-members whose homes were near the meeting-house walked reverently and slowly across the green meadows or the snowy fields to meeting. Townspeople, at the sound of the bell or drum or horn, walked decorously and soberly along the irregular streets to the house of God. Farmers who lived at a greater distance were up betimes to leave their homes and ride across the fields and through the narrow bridle-paths, which were then the universal and almost the only country roads. These staid Puritan planters were mounted on sturdy farmhorses, and a pillion was strapped on behind each saddle, and on it was seated wife, daughter, or perhaps a young child--I should like to have seen the church-going dames perched up proudly in all their Sunday finery, masked in black velvet, a sober Puritan travesty of a gay carnival fashion. Riding-habits were hardly known until a century ago, and even after their introduction were never worn a-pillion-riding, so the Puritan women rode in their best attire. Sometimes, in unusually muddy or dusty weather, a very daintily dressed "nugiperous" dame would don a linen "weather skirt" to protect her fine silken petticoats.

The wealthier Puritans were mounted on fine pacing horses, "once so highly prized, now so odious deemed;" for trotting horses were not in much demand or repute in America until after the Revolutionary War. There were, until that date, professional horse-trainers, whose duties were to teach horses to pace; though by far the best saddle-horses were the natural-gaited "Narragansett Pacers," the first distinctively American race of horses. These remarkably easy-paced animals were in such demand in the West Indies for the use of the wives and daughters of the wealthy sugar-planters, and in Philadelphia and New York for rich Dutch and Quaker colonists, that comparatively few of them were allowed to remain in New England, and they were, indeed too high-priced for poor New England colonists. The natural and singular pace of these Narragansett horses, which did not incline the rider from side to side, nor jolt him up and down, and their remarkable sureness of foot and their great endurance, rendered them of much value in those days of travel in the saddle. They were also phenomenally broad-backed,--shaped by nature for saddle and pillion.

When trotting-horses became fashionable, the trainers placed logs of wood at regular intervals across the road, and by exercising the animals over this obstructed path forced them to raise their feet at the proper intervals, and thus learn to trot.

Long distances did many of the pre-revolutionary farmers of New England have to ride to reach their churches, and long indeed must have been the time occupied in these Sunday trips, for a horse was too well-burdened with saddle and pillion and two riders to travel fast. The worshippers must often have started at daybreak. When we see now an ancient pillion--a relic of olden times--brought out in jest or curiosity, and strapped behind a saddle on a horse's back, and when we see the poor steed mounted by two riders, it seems impossible for the over-burdened animal to endure a long journey, and certainly impossible for him to make a rapid one.

Horse-flesh, and human endurance also, was economized in early days by what was called the "ride and tie" system. A man and his wife would mount saddle and pillion, ride a couple of miles, dismount, tie the steed, and walk on. A second couple, who had walked the first two miles, soon mounted the rested horse, rode on past the riders for two or three miles, dismounted, and tied the animal again. In that way four persons could ride very comfortably and sociably half-way to meeting, though they must have had to make an early start to allow for the slow gait and long halts. At the church the disburdened horses were tied during the long services to palings and to trees near the meeting-house (except the favored animals that found shelter in the noon-houses) and the scene must have resembled the outskirts of a gypsy camp or an English horse-fair. Such obedience did the Puritans pay to the letter of the law that when the Newbury people were forbidden, in tying their horses outside the church paling, to leave them near enough to the footpath to be in the way of church pedestrians, it did not prevent the stupid or obstinate Newburyites from painstakingly bringing their steeds within the gates and tying them to the gate-posts where they were much more seriously and annoyingly in the way.

It is usual to describe and to think of the Puritan congregations as like assemblies of Quakers, solemn, staid, and uniform and dull of dress; but I can discover in historical records nothing to indicate simplicity, soberness, or even uniformity of apparel, except the uniformity of fashion, which was powerful then as now. The forbidding rules and regulations relating to the varied and elaborate forms of women's dress--and of men's attire as well--would never have been issued unless such prohibited apparel had been common and universally longed-for, and unless much diversity and elegance of dress had abounded.

Indeed the daughters of the Pilgrims were true "daughters of Zion, walking with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, and mincing as they go." Save for the "nose jewels," the complaining and exhaustive list of the prophet Isaiah might serve as well for New England as for Judah and Jerusalem: "their cauls and their round tires like moons; the chains and the bracelets and the mufflers; the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the head bands, and the tablets, and the ear-rings; the rings and nose jewels; the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins; the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods and the veils." Nor has the day yet come to pass in the nineteenth century when the bravery of the daughters has been taken away.

Pleasant it is to think of the church appearance of the Puritan goodmen and goodwives. Priscilla Alden in a Quakeress' drab gown would doubtless have been pleasant to behold, but Priscilla garbed in a "blew Mohere peticote," a "tabby bodeys with red livery cote," and an "immoderate great rayle" with "Slashes," with a laced neckcloth or cross cloth around her fair neck, and a scarlet "whittle" over all this motley finery; with a "outwork quoyf or ciffer" (New England French for coiffure) with "long wings" at the side, and a silk or tiffany hood on her drooping head,--Priscilla in this attire were pretty indeed.

Nor did sober John Alden and doughty Miles Standish lack for variety in their dress; besides their soldier's garb, their sentinel's armor, they had a vast variety of other attire to choose from; they could select their head-wear from "redd knitt capps" or "monmouth capps" or "black hats lyned at the browes with leather." They could have a "sute" of "dublett and hose of leather lyned with oyled-skin-leather," fastened with hooks and eyes instead of buttons; or one of "hampshire kerseys lyned." They could have "mandillions" (whatever they may have been) "lyned with cotton," and "wast-coats of greene cotton bound about with red tape," and breeches of oiled leather and leathern drawers (I do not know whether these leathern drawers were under-garments or leathern draw-strings at the knees of the breeches). They could wear "gloves of sheeps or calfs leather" or of kid, and fine gold belts, and "points" at the knees. In fact, the invoices of goods to the earliest settlers show that they had a choice of various materials for garments, including "gilford and gedleyman, holland and lockerum and buckerum, fustian, canvass, linsey-woolsey, red ppetuna, cursey, cambrick, calico-stuff, loom-work, Dutch serges, and English jeans"--enough for diversity, surely. Sad-colored mantles the goodmen wore, but their doublets were scarlet, and with their green waistcoats and red caps, surely the Puritan men were sufficiently gayly dressed to suit any fancy save that of a cavalier. Later in the history of the colony, when hooped petticoats and laced hoods and mantles, and long, embroidered gloves fastened with horsehair "glove tightens," and when velvet coats and satin breeches and embroidered waistcoats, gold lace, sparkling buckles, and cocked hats with full bottomed wigs were worn, the gray, sombre old meeting-house blossomed like a tropical forest, and vied with the worldly Church of England in gay-garbed church attendants.

Stern and severe of face were many of the members of these early New England congregations, else they had not been true Puritans in heart, and above all, they had not been Pilgrims. Long and thin of feature were they, rarely smiling, yet not devoid of humor. Some handsome countenances were seen,--austere, bigoted Cotton Mather being, strangely enough, the handsomest and most worldly looking of them all. What those brave, stern men and women were, as well as what they looked, is known to us all, and cannot be dwelt upon here, any more than can here be shown and explained the details of their religious faith and creed. Patient, frugal, God-fearing, and industrious, cruel and intolerant sometimes, but never cowardly, sternly obeying the word of God in the spirit and the letter, but erring sometimes in the interpretation thereof,--surely they had no traits to shame us, to keep us from thrilling with pride at the drop of their blood which runs in our backsliding veins. Nothing can more plainly show their distinguishing characteristics, nothing is so fully typical of the motive, the spirit of their lives, as their reverent observance of the Lord's day.

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