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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 4.

The Old-Fashioned Pews.

In the early New England meeting-houses the seats were long, narrow, uncomfortable benches, which were made of simple, rough, hand-riven planks placed on legs like milking-stools. They were without any support or rest for the back; and perhaps the stiff-backed Pilgrims and Puritans required or wished no support. Quickly, as the colonies grew in wealth and the colonists in ambition and importance, "Spots for Pues" were sold (or "pitts" as they were sometimes called), at first to some few rich or influential men who wished to sit in a group together, and finally each family of dignity or wealth sat in its own family-pew. Often it was stipulated in the permission to build a pew that a separate entrance-door should be cut into it through the outside wall of the meeting-house, thus detracting grievously from the external symmetry of the edifice, but obviating the necessity of a space-occupying entrance aisle within the church, where there was little enough sitting-room for the quickly increasing and universally church-going population. As these pews were either oblong or square, were both large and small, painted and unpainted, and as each pewholder could exercise his own "tast or disresing" in the kind of wood he used in the formation of his pew, as well as in the style of finish, much diversity and incongruity of course resulted. A man who had a wainscoted pew was naturally and properly much respected and envied by the entire community. These pews, erected by individual members, were individual and not communal property. A widow in Cape Cod had her house destroyed by fire. She was given from the old meeting-house, which was being razed, the old building materials to use in the construction of her new home. She was not allowed, however, to remove the wood which formed the pews, as they were adjudged to be the property of the members who had built them, and those owners only could sell or remove the materials of which they were built.

Many of the pews in the old meeting-houses had towering partition walls, which extended up so high that only the tops of the tallest heads could be seen when the occupants were seated. Permissions to build were often given with modifying restrictions to the aspiring pew-builders, as for instance is recorded of the Haverhill church, "provided they would not build so high as to damnify and hinder the light of them windows," or of the Waterbury church, "if the pues will not progodish the hous." Often the floor of the pews was several inches and occasionally a foot higher than the floor of the "alleys," thus forming at the entrance-door of the pew one or two steps, which were great stumbling-blocks to clumsy and to childish feet, that tripped again when within the pew over the "crickets" and foot-benches which were, if the family were large, the accepted and lowly church-seats of the little children. Occasionally one long, low foot-rest stretched quite across one side of the pew-floor. I have seen these long benches with a tier of three shelves; the lower and broader shelf was used as a foot-rest, the second one was to hold the hats of the men, and the third and narrower shelf was for the hymn-books and Bibles. Such comfortable and luxurious pew-furnishings could never have been found in many churches.

An old New Englander relates a funny story of his youth, in which one of these triple-tiered foot-benches played an important part. When he was a boy a travelling show visited his native town, and though he was not permitted to go within the mystic and alluring tent, he stood longingly at the gate, and was prodigiously diverted and astonished by an exhibition of tight-rope walking, which was given outside the tent-door as a bait to lure pleasure-loving and frivolous townspeople within, and also as a tantalization to the children of the saints who were not allowed to enter the tent of the wicked. Fired by that bewildering and amazing performance, he daily, after the wonderful sight, practised walking on rails, on fences, on fallen trees, and on every narrow foothold which he could find, as a careful preparation for a final feat and triumph of skill on his mother's clothes-line. In an evil hour, as he sat one Sunday in the corner of his father's pew, his eyes rested on the narrow ledge which formed the top of the long foot-bench. Satan can find mischief for idle boys within church as well as without, and the desire grew stronger to try to walk on that narrow foothold. He looked at his father and mother, they were peacefully sleeping; so also were the grown-up occupants of the neighboring pews; the pew walls were high, the minister seldom glanced to right or left; a thousand good reasons were whispered in his ear by the mischief-finder, and at last he willingly yielded, pulled off his heavy shoes, and softly mounted the foot-bench. He walked forward and back with great success twice, thrice, but when turning for a fourth tour he suddenly lost his balance, and over he went with a resounding crash--hats, psalm-books, heavy bench, and all. He crushed into hopeless shapelessness his father's gray beaver meeting-hat, a long-treasured and much-loved antique; he nearly smashed his mother's kid-slippered foot to jelly, and the fall elicited from her, in the surprise of the sudden awakening and intense pain, an ear-piercing shriek, which, with the noisy crash, electrified the entire meeting. All the grown people stood up to investigate, the children climbed on the seats to look at the guilty offender and his deeply mortified parents; while the minister paused in his sermon and said with cutting severity, "I have always regretted that the office of tithingman has been abolished in this community, as his presence and his watchful care are sadly needed by both the grown persons and the children in this congregation." The wretched boy who had caused all the commotion and disgrace was of course uninjured by his fall, but a final settlement at home between father and son on account of this sacrilegious piece of church disturbance made the unhappy would-be tight-rope walker wish that he had at least broken his arm instead of his father's hat and his mother's pride and the peace of the congregation.

The seats were sometimes on four sides of these pews, but oftener on three sides only, thus at least two thirds of the pew occupants did not face the minister. The pew-seats were as narrow and uncomfortable as the plebeian benches, though more exclusive, and, with the high partition walls, quite justified the comment of a little girl when she first attended a service in one of these old-fashioned, square-pewed churches. She exclaimed in dismay, "What! must I be shut up in a closet and sit on a shelf?" Often elderly people petitioned to build separate small pens of pews with a single wider seat as "through the seats being so very narrow" they could not sit in comfort.

The seats were, until well into this century, almost universally hung on hinges, and could be turned up against the walls of the pew, thus enabling the standing congregation to lean for support against the sides of the pews during the psalm-singing and the long, long prayers.

  "And when at last the loud Amen
  Fell from aloft, how quickly then
  The seats came down with heavy rattle,
  Like musketry in fiercest battle."

This noise of slamming pew-seats could easily be heard over half a mile away from the meeting-house in the summer time, for the perverse boys contrived always in their salute of welcome to the Amen to give vent in a most tremendous bang to a little of their pent up and ill-repressed energies. In old church-orders such entries as this (of the Haverhill church) are frequently seen: "The people are to Let their Seats down without Such Nois." "The boyes are not to wickedly noise down there pew-seats." A gentleman attending the old church in Leicester heard at the beginning of the prayer, for the first time in his life, the noise of slamming pew-seats, as the seats were thrust up against the pew-walls. He jumped into the aisle at the first clatter, thinking instinctively that the gallery was cracking and falling. Another stranger, a Southerner, entering rather late at a morning service in an old church in New England, was greeted with the rattle of falling seats, and exclaimed in amazement, "Do you Northern people applaud in church?"

In many meeting-houses the tops of the pews and of the high gallery railings were ornamented with little balustrades of turned wood, which were often worn quite bare of paint by childish fingers that had tried them all "to find which ones would turn," and which, alas! would also squeak. This fascinating occupation whiled away many a tedious hour in the dreary church, and in spite of weekly forbidding frowns and whispered reproofs for the shrill, ear-piercing squeaks elicited by turning the spindle-shaped balusters, was entirely too alluring a time-killer to be abandoned, and consequently descended, an hereditary church pastime, from generation to generation of the children of the Puritans; and indeed it remained so strong an instinct that many a grown person, visiting in after life a church whose pews bore balustrades like the ones of his childhood, could scarce keep his itching fingers from trying them each in succession "to see which ones would turn."

These open balustrades also afforded fine peep-holes through which, by standing or kneeling upon "the shelf," a child might gaze at his neighbor; and also through which sly missiles--little balls of twisted paper--could be snapped, to the annoyance of some meek girl or retaliating boy, until the young marksman was ignominiously pulled down by his mother from his post of attack. And through these balustrades the same boy a few years later could thrust sly missives, also of twisted paper, to the girl whom he had once assailed and bombarded with his annoying paper bullets.

Through the pillared top-rail a restless child in olden days often received, on a hot summer Sabbath from a farmer's wife or daughter in an adjoining pew, friendly and quieting gifts of sprigs of dill, or fennel, or caraway, famous anti-soporifics; and on this herbivorous food he would contentedly browse as long as it lasted. An uneasy, sermon-tired little girl was once given through the pew-rail several stalks of caraway, and with them a large bunch of aromatic southernwood, or "lad's-love" which had been brought to meeting by the matron in the next pew, with a crudely and unconsciously aesthetic sense that where eye and ear found so little to delight them, there the pungent and spicy fragrance of the southernwood would be doubly grateful to the nostrils. Little Missy sat down delightedly to nibble the caraway-seed, and her mother seeing her so quietly and absorbingly occupied, at once fell contentedly and placidly asleep in her corner of the pew. But five heads of caraway, though each contain many score of seeds, and the whole number be slowly nibbled and eaten one seed at a time, will not last through the child's eternity of a long doctrinal sermon; and when the umbels were all devoured, the young experimentalist began upon the stalks and stems, and they, too, slowly disappeared. She then attacked the sprays of southernwood, and in spite of its bitter, wormwoody flavor, having nothing else to do, she finished it, all but the tough stems, just as the long sermon was brought to a close. Her waking mother, discovering no signs of green verdure in the pew, quickly drew forth a whispered confession of the time-killing Nebuchadnezzar-like feast, and frightened and horrified, at once bore the leaf-gorged child from the church, signalling in her retreat to the village doctor, who quickly followed and administered to the omnivorous young New Englander a bolus which made her loathe to her dying day, through a sympathetic association and memory, the taste of caraway, and the scent of southernwood.

An old gentleman, lamenting the razing of the church of his childhood, told the story of his youthful Sabbaths in rhyme, and thus refers with affectionate enthusiasm to the old custom of bringing bunches of esculent "sallet" herbs to meeting:--

  "And when I tired and restless grew,
  Our next pew neighbor, Mrs. True,
  Reached her kind hand the top rail through
  To hand me dill, and fennel too,
  And sprigs of caraway.

  "And as I munched the spicy seeds,
  I dimly felt that kindly deeds
  That thus supply our present needs,
  Though only gifts of pungent weeds,
  Show true religion.

  "And often now through sermon trite
  And operatic singer's flight,
  I long for that old friendly sight,
  The hand with herbs of value light,
  To help to pass the time."

Were the dill and "sweetest fennel" chosen Sabbath favorites for their old-time virtues and powers?

  "Vervain and dill
  Hinder witches of their ill."

And of the charmed fennel Longfellow wrote:--

  "The fennel with its yellow flowers
  That, in an earlier age than ours,
  Was gifted with the wondrous powers,
      Lost vision to restore."

And traditions of mysterious powers, dream-influencing, spirit-exorcising, virtue-awakening, health-giving properties, hung vaguely around the southernwood and made it specially fit to be a Sabbath-day posy. These traditions are softened by the influence of years into simply idealizing, in the mind of every country-bred New Englander, the peculiar refreshing scent of the southernwood as a typical Sabbath-day fragrance. Half a century ago, the pretty feathery pale-green shrub grew in every country door-yard, humble or great, throughout New England; and every church-going woman picked a branch or spray of it when she left her home on Sabbath morn. To this day, on hot summer Sundays, many a staid old daughter of the Puritans may be seen entering the village meeting-house, clad in a lilac-sprigged lawn or a green-striped barège,--a scanty-skirted, surplice-waisted relic of past summers,--with a lace-bordered silk cape or a delicate, time-yellowed, purple and white cashmere scarf on her bent shoulders, wearing on her gray head a shirred-silk or leghorn bonnet, and carrying in her lace-mitted hand a fresh handkerchief, her spectacle-case and well-worn Bible, and a great sprig of the sweet, old-fashioned "lad's-love." A rose, a bunch of mignonette would be to her too gay a posy for the Lord's House and the Lord's Day. And balmier breath than was ever borne by blossom is the pure fragrance of green growing things,--southernwood, mint, sweet fern, bayberry, sweetbrier. No rose is half so fresh, so countrified, so memory-sweet.

The benches and the pew-seats in the old churches were never cushioned. Occasionally very old or feeble women brought cushions to meeting to sit upon. It is a matter of recent tradition that Colonel Greenleaf caused a nine days' talk in Newbury town at the beginning of this century when he cushioned his pew. The widow of Sir William Pepperell, who lived in imposing style, had her pew cushioned and lined and curtained with worsted stuff, and carpeted with a heavy bear-skin. This worn, faded, and moth-eaten furniture remained in the Kittery church until the year 1840, just as when Lady Pepperell furnished and occupied the pew. Nor were even the seats of the pulpit cushioned. The "cooshoons" of velvet or leather, which were given by will to the church, and which were kept in the pulpit, and were nibbled by the squirrels, were for the Bible, not the minister, to rest upon.

In many churches--in Durham, Concord and Sandwich--the pews had swing-shelves, "leaning shelves," upon which a church attendant could rest his paper and his arm when taking notes from the sermon, as was at one time the universal custom, and in which even school-boys of a century ago had to take part. Funny stories are told of the ostentatious notes taken by pompous parishioners who could neither write nor read, but who could scribble, and thus cut a learned figure.

The doors of the pews were usually cut down somewhat lower than the pew-walls, and frequently had no top-rails. They sometimes bore the name of the pew-owner painted in large white letters. They were secured when closed by clumsy wooden buttons. In many country congregations the elderly men--stiff old farmers--had a fashion of standing up in the middle of the sermon to stretch their cramped limbs, and they would lean against and hang over the pew door and stare up and down the aisle. In Andover, Vermont, old Deacon Puffer never let a summer Sunday pass without thus resting and diverting himself. One day, having ill-secured the wooden button at the door of his pew, the leaning-place gave way under his weight, and out he sprawled on all-fours, with a loud clatter, into the middle of the aisle, to the amusement of the children, and the mortification of his wife.

Thus it may be seen, as an old autobiography phrases it, "diversions was frequent in meeting, and the more duller the sermon, the more likely it was that some accident or mischief would be done to help to pass the time."

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