The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891
by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother
At about nine o'clock on the Sabbath morning the Puritan colonists assembled for the first public service of the holy day; they were gathered together by various warning sounds. The Haverhill settlers listened for the ringing toot of Abraham Tyler's horn. The Montague and South Hadley people were notified that the hour of assembling had arrived by the loud blowing of a conch-shell. John Lane, a resident of the latter town, was engaged in 1750 to "blow the Cunk" on the Sabbath as "a sign for meeting." In Stockbridge a strong-lunged "praying" Indian blew the enormous shell, which was safely preserved until modern times, and which, when relieved from Sunday use, was for many years sounded as a week-day signal in the hay-field. Even a conch-shell was enough of an expense to the poor colonial churches. The Montague people in 1759 paid £1 10s. for their "conk," and also on the purchase year gave Joseph Root 20 shillings for blowing the new shell. In 1785 the Whately church voted that "we will not improve anybody to blow the conch," and so the church-attendants straggled to Whately meeting each at his own time and pleasure.
In East Hadley the inhabitant who "blew the kunk" (as phonetic East Hadleyites spelt it) and swept out the meeting-house was paid annually the munificent sum of three dollars for his services. Conch-blowing was not so difficult and consequently not so highly-paid an accomplishment as drum-beating. A verse of a simple old-fashioned hymn tells thus of the gathering of the Puritan saints:--
"New England's Sabbath day
Is heaven-like still and pure,
When Israel walks the way
Up to the temple's door.
The time we tell
When there to come
By beat of drum
Or sounding shell."
The drum, as highly suitable for such a military people, was often used as a signal for gathering for public worship, and was plainly the favorite means of notification. In 1678 Robert Stuard, of Norwalk, "ingages yt his son James shall beate the Drumb, on the Sabbath and other ocations," and in Norwalk the "drumb," the "drumne," the "drumme," and at last the drum was beaten until 1704, when the Church got a bell. And the "Drumber" was paid, and well paid too for his "Cervices," fourteen shillings a year of the town's money, and he was furnished a "new strong drumme;" and the town supplied to him also the flax for the drum-cords which he wore out in the service of God. Johnson, in his "Wonder Working Providence," tells of the Cambridge Church: "Hearing the sound of a drum he was directed toward it by a broade beaten way; following this rode he demands of the next man he met what the signall of the drum ment; the reply was made they had as yet no Bell to call men to meeting and therefore made use of the drum." In 1638 a platform was made upon the top of the Windsor meeting-house "from the Lanthornc to the ridge to walk conveniently to sound a trumpet or a drum to give warning to meeting."
Sometimes three guns were fired as a signal for "church-time." The signal for religious gathering, and the signal for battle were always markedly different, in order to avoid unnecessary fright.
In 1647 Robert Basset was appointed in New Haven to drum "twice upon Lordes Dayes and Lecture Dayes upon the meeting house that soe those who live farr off may heare the more distinkly." Robert may have been a good drummer, but he proved to be a most reprehensible and disreputable citizen; in the local Court Records of August 1, 1648, we find a full report of an astounding occurrence in which he played an important part. Ten men, who Avere nearly all sea-faring men,--gay, rollicking sailors,--went to Bassctt's house and asked for strong drink. The magistrates had endeavored zealously, and in the main successfully, to prevent all intoxication in the community, and had forbidden the sale of liquor save in very small quantities. The church-drummer, however, wickedly unmindful of his honored calling, furnished to the sailors six quarts of strong liquor, with which they all, host and visitors, got prodigiously drunk and correspondingly noisy. The Court Record says: "The miscarriage continued till betwixt tenn and eleven of the clock, to the great provocation of God, disturbance of the peace, and to such a height of disorder that strangers wondered at it." In the midst of the carousal the master of the pinnace called the boatswain "Brother Loggerheads." This must have been a particularly insulting epithet, which no respectable boatswain could have been expected quietly to endure, for "at once the two men fell fast to wrestling, then to blowes and theirin grew to that feircnes that the master of the pinnace thought the boatswain would have puled out his eies; and they toumbled on the ground down the hill into the creeke and mire shamefully wallowing theirin." In his pain and terror the master called out, "Hoe, the Watch! Hoe, the Watch!" "The Watch made hast and for the present stopped the disorder, but in his rage and distemper the boatswaine fell a-swearinge Wounds and Hart as if he were not only angry with men but would provoke the high and blessed God." The master of the pinnace, being freed from his fellow-combatant, returned to Basset's house--perhaps to tell his tale of woe, perhaps to get more liquor--and was assailed by the drummer with amazing words of "anger and distemper used by drunken companions;" in short, he was "verey offensive, his noyes and oathes being hearde to the other side of the creeke." For aiding and abetting this noisy and disgraceful spree, and also for partaking in it, Drummer Basset was fined £5, which must have been more than his yearly salary, and in disgrace, and possibly in disgust, quitted drumming the New Haven good people to meeting and moved his residence to Stamford, doubtless to the relief and delight of both magistrates and people of the former town.
Another means of notification of the hour for religious service was by the use of a flag, often in addition to the sound of the drum or bell. Thus in Plymouth, in 1697, the selectmen were ordered to "procure a flagg to be put out at the ringing of the first bell, and taken in when the last bell was rung." In Sutherland also a flag was used as a means of announcement of "meeting-time," and an old goody was paid ten shillings a year for "tending the flagg."
Mr. Gosse, in his "Early Bells of Massachusetts," gives a full and interesting account of the church-bells of the first colonial towns in that State. Lechford, in his "Plaine Dealing," wrote in 1641 that they came together in Boston on the Lord's Day by "the wringing of a bell," and it is thought that that bell was a hand-bell. The first bells, for the lack of bell-towers, were sometimes hung on trees by the side of the meeting-houses, to the great amazement and distress of the Indians, who regarded them with superstitious dread, thinking--to paraphrase Herbert's beautiful line--"when the bell did chime 't was devils' music;" but more frequently the bells were hung in a belfry or bell-turret or "bellcony," and from this belfry depended a long bell-rope quite to the floor; and thus in the very centre of the church the sexton stood when he rung the summons for lire or for meeting. This rope was of course directly in front of the pulpit; and Jonathan Edwards, who was devoid of gestures and looked always straight before him when preaching, was jokingly said to have "looked-off" the bell-rope, when it fell with a crash in the middle of his church.
At the first sound of the drum or horn or bell the town inhabitants issued from their houses in "desent order," man and wife walking first, and the children in quiet procession after them. Often a man-servant and a maid walked on either side of the heads of the family. In some communities the congregation waited outside the church door until the minister and his wife arrived and passed into the house; then the church-attendants followed, the loitering boys always contriving to scuffle noisily in from the horse-sheds at the last moment, making much scraping and clatter with their heavy boots on the sanded floor, and tumbling clumsily up the uucarpeted, creaking stairs.
In other churches the members of the congregation seated themselves in their pews upon their arrival, but rose reverently when the parson, dressed in black skull-cap and Geneva cloak, entered the door; and they stood, in token of respect, until after he entered the pulpit and was seated.
It was also the honor-giving and deferential custom in many New England churches, in the eighteenth century, for the entire congregation to remain respectfully standing within the pews at the end of the serice until the minister had descended from his lofty pulpit, opened the door of his wife's pew, and led her with stately dignity to the church-porch, where, were he and she genial and neighborly minded souls, they in turn stood and greeted with carefully adjusted degrees of warmth, interest, respect, or patronage, the different members of the congregation as they slowly passed out.
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