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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 5.

Seating the Meeting.

Perhaps no duty was more important and more difficult of satisfactory performance in the church work in early New England than "seating the meeting-house." Our Puritan forefathers, though bitterly denouncing all forms and ceremonies, were great respecters of persons; and in nothing was the regard for wealth and position more fully shown than in designating the seat in which each person should sit during public worship. A committee of dignified and influential men was appointed to assign irrevocably to each person his or her place, according to rank and importance. Whittier wrote of this custom:—

  "In the goodly house of worship, where in order due and fit,
  As by public vote directed, classed and ranked the people sit;
  Mistress first and goodwife after, clerkly squire before the clown,
  From the brave coat, lace embroidered: to the gray frock shading down."

In many cases the members of the committee were changed each year or at each fresh seating, in order to obviate any of the effects of partiality through kinship, friendship, personal esteem, or debt. A second committee was also appointed to seat the members of committee number one, in order that, as Haverhill people phrased it, "there may be no Grumbling at them for picking and placing themselves."

This seating committee sent to the church the list of all the attendants and the seats assigned to them, and when the list had been twice or thrice read to the congregation, and nailed on the meeting-house door, it became a law. Then some such order as this of the church at Watertown, Connecticut, was passed: "It is ordered that the next Sabbath Day every person shall take his or her seat appointed to them, and not go to any other seat where others are placed: And if any one of the inhabitants shall act contrary, he shall for the first offence be reproved by the deacons, and for a second pay a fine of two shillings, and a like fine for each offence ever after." Or this of the Stratham church: "When the comety have Seatid the meeting-house every person that is Seatid shall set in those Seats or pay Five Shillings Pir Day for every day they set out of There seats in a Disorderly Manner to advance themselves Higher in the meeting-house." These two church-laws were very lenient. In many towns the punishments and fines were much more severe. Two men of Newbury were in 1669 fined £27 4s. each for "disorderly going and setting in seats belonging to others." They were dissatisfied with the seats assigned to them by the seating committee, and openly and defiantly rebelled. Other and more peaceable citizens "entred their Decents" to the first decision of the committee and asked for reconsideration of their special cases and for promotion to a higher pew before the final orders were "Jsued."

In all the Puritan meetings, as then and now in Quaker meetings, the men sat on one side of the meeting-house and the women on the other; and they entered by separate doors. It was a great and much-contested change when men and women were ordered to sit together "promiscuoslie." In front, on either side of the pulpit (or very rarely in the foremost row in the gallery), was a seat of highest dignity, known as the "foreseat," in which only the persons of greatest importance in the community sat.

Sometimes a row of square pews was built on three sides of the ground floor, and each pew occupied by separate families, while the pulpit was on the fourth side. If any man wished such a private pew for himself and family, he obtained permission from the church and town, and built it at his own expense. Immediately in front of the pulpit was either a long seat or a square inclosed pew for the deacons, who sat facing the congregation. This was usually a foot or two above the level of the other pews, and was reached by two or three steep, narrow steps. On a still higher plane was a pew for the ruling elders, when ruling elders there were. The magistrates also had a pew for their special use. What we now deem the best seats, those in the middle of the church, were in olden times the free seats.

Usually, on one side of the pulpit was a square pew for the minister's family. When there were twenty-six children in the family, as at least one New England parson could boast, and when ministers' families of twelve or fourteen children were far from unusual, it is no wonder that we find frequent votes to "inlarge the ministers wives pew the breadth of the alley," or to "take in the next pue to the ministers wives pue into her pue." The seats in the gallery were universally regarded in the early churches as the most exalted, in every sense, in the house, with the exception, of course, of the dignity-bearing foreseat and the few private pews.

It is easy to comprehend what a source of disappointed anticipation, heart-burning jealousy, offended dignity, unseemly pride, and bitter quarrelling this method of assigning scats, and ranking thereby, must have been in those little communities. How the goodwivcs must have hated the seating committee! Though it was expressly ordered, when the committee rendered their decision, that "the inhabitants are to rest silent and sett down satysfyed," who can still the tongue of an envious woman or an insulted man? Though they were Puritans, they were first of all men and women, and complaints and revolts were frequent. Judge Sewall records that one indignant dame "treated Captain Osgood very roughly on account of seating the meeting-house." To her the difference between a seat in the first and one in the second row was immeasurably great. It was not alone the Scribes and Pharisees who desired the highest seats in the synagogue.

It was found necessary at a very early date to "dignify the meeting," which was to make certain seats, though in different localities, equal in dignity; thus could peace and contented pride be partially restored. For instance, the seating committee in the Sutton church used their "best discresing," and voted that "the third seat below be equal in dignity with the foreseat in the front gallery, and the fourth seat below be equal in dignity with the foreseat in the side gallery," etc., thus making many seats of equal honor. Of course wives had to have seats of equal importance with those of their husbands, and each widow retained the dignity apportioned to her in her husband's lifetime. We can well believe that much "discresing" was necessary in dignifying as well as in seating. Often, after building a new meeting-house with all the painstaking and thoughtful judgment that could be shown, the dissensions over the seating lasted for years. The conciliatory fashion of "dignifying the seats" clung long in the Congregational churches of New England. In East Hartford and Windsor it was not abandoned until 1824.

Many men were unwilling to serve on these seating committees, and refused to "medle with the seating," protesting against it on account of the odium that was incurred, but they were seldom "let off." Even so influential and upright a man as Judge Sewall felt a dread of the responsibility and of the personal spleen he might arouse. He also feared in one case lest his seat-decisions might, if disliked, work against the ministerial peace of his son, who had been recently ordained as pastor of the church. Sometimes the difficulty was settled in this way: the entire church (or rather the male members) voted who should occupy the foreseat, or the highest pew, and the voted-in occupants of this seat of honor formed a committee, who in turn seated the others of the congregation.

In the town of Rowley, "age, office, and the amount paid toward building the meeting-house were considered when assigning seats." Other towns had very amusing and minute rules for seating. Each year of the age counted one degree. Military service counted eight degrees. The magistrate's office counted ten degrees. Every forty shillings paid in on the church rate counted one degree. We can imagine the ambitious Puritan adding up his degrees, and paying in forty shillings more in order to sit one seat above his neighbor who was a year or two older.

In Pittsfield, as early as the year 1765, the pews were sold by "vandoo" to the highest bidder, in order to stop the unceasing quarrels over the seating. In Windham, Connecticut, in 1762, the adoption of this pacificatory measure only increased the dissension when it was discovered that some miserable "bachelors who never paid for more than one head and a horse" had bid in several of the best pews in the meeting-house. In New London, two women, sisters-in-law, were seated side by side. Each claimed the upper or more dignified seat, and they quarrelled so fiercely over the occupation of it that they had to be brought before the town meeting.

In no way could honor and respect be shown more satisfactorily in the community than by the seat assigned in meeting. When Judge Sewall married his second wife, he writes with much pride: "Mr. Oliver in the names of the Overseers invites my Wife to sit in the foreseat. I thought to have brought her into my pue. I thankt him and the Overseers." His wife died in a few months, and he reproached himself for his pride in this honor, and left the seat which he had in the men's foreseat. "God in his holy Sovereignty put my wife out of the Fore Seat. I apprehended I had Cause to be ashamed of my Sin and loath myself for it, and retired into my Pue," which was of course less dignified than the foreseat.

Often, in thriving communities, the "pues" and benches did not afford seating room enough for the large number who wished to attend public worship, and complaints were frequent that many were "obliged to sit squeased on the stairs." Persons were allowed to bring chairs and stools into the meeting-house, and place them in the "alleys." These extra seats became often such encumbering nuisances that in many towns laws were passed abolishing and excluding them, or, as in Hadley, ordering them "back of the women's seats." In 1759 it was ordered in that town to "clear the Alleys of the meeting-house of chairs and other Incumbrances." Where the chairless people went is not told; perhaps they sat in the doorway, or, in the summer time, listened outside the windows. One forward citizen of Hardwicke had gradually moved his chair down the church alley, step by step, Sunday after Sunday, from one position of dignity to another still higher, until at last he boldly invaded the deacons' seat. When, in the year 1700, this honored position was forbidden him, in his chagrin and mortification he committed suicide by hanging.

The young men sat together in rows, and the young women in corresponding seats on the other side of the house. In 1677 the selectmen of Newbury gave permission to a few young women to build a pew in the gallery. It is impossible to understand why this should have roused the indignation of the bachelors of the town, but they were excited and angered to such a pitch that they broke a window, invaded the meeting-house, and "broke the pue in pessis." For this sacrilegious act they were fined £10 each, and sentenced to be whipped or pilloried. In consideration, however, of the fact that many of them had been brave soldiers, the punishment was omitted when they confessed and asked forgiveness. This episode is very comical; it exhibits the Puritan youth in such an ungallant and absurd light. When, ten years later, liberty was given to ten young men, who had sat in the "foure backer seats in the gallery," to build a pew in "the hindermost seat in the gallery behind the pulpit," it is not recorded that the Salem young women made any objection. In the Woburn church, the four daughters of one of the most respected families in the place received permission to build a pew in which to sit. Here also such indignant and violent protests were made by the young men that the selectmen were obliged to revoke the permission. It would be interesting to know the bachelors' discourteous objections to young women being allowed to own a pew, but no record of their reasons is given. Bachelors were so restricted and governed in the colonies that perhaps they resented the thought of any independence being allowed to single women. Single men could not live alone, but were forced to reside with some family to whom the court assigned them, and to do in all respects just what the court ordered. Thus, in olden times, a man had to marry to obtain his freedom. The only clue to a knowledge of the cause of the fierce and resentful objection of New England young men to permitting the young women of the various congregations to build and own a "maids pue" is contained in the record of the church of the town of Scotland, Connecticut. "An Hurlburt, Pashants and Mary Lazelle, Younes Bingham, prudenc Hurlburt and Jerusha meachem" were empowered to build a pew "provided they build within a year and raise ye pue no higher than the seat is on the Mens side." "Never ye Less," saith the chronicle, "ye above said have built said pue much higher than ye order, and if they do not lower the same within one month from this time the society comitte shall take said pue away." Do you wonder that the bachelors resented this towering "maids pue?" that they would not be scornfully looked down upon every Sabbath by women-folk, especially by a girl named "meachem"? Pashants and Younes and prudenc had to quickly come down from their unlawfully high church-perch and take a more humble seat, as befitted them; thus did their "vaulting ambition o'erleap itself and fall on the other side." Perhaps the Salem maids also built too high and imposing a pew. In Haverhill, in 1708, young women were permitted to build pews, provided they did not "damnify the Stairway." This somewhat profane-sounding restriction they heeded, and the Haverhill maids occupied their undamnifying "pue" unmolested. Medford young women, however, in 1701, when allowed only one side gallery for seats, while the young men were assigned one side and all the front gallery, made such an uproar that the town had to call a meeting, and restore to them their "woman's rights" in half the front gallery.

Infants were brought to church in their mothers' arms, and on summer days the young mothers often sat at the meeting-house door or in the porch,—if porch there were,—where, listening to the word of God, they could attend also to the wants of their babes. I have heard, too, of a little cage, or frame, which was to be seen in the early meeting-houses, for the purpose of holding children who were too young to sit alone,—poor Puritan babies! Little girls sat with their mothers or elder sisters on "crickets" within the pews; or if the family were over-numerous, the children and crickets exundated into "the alley without the pues." Often a row of little daughters of Zion sat on three-legged stools and low seats the entire length of the aisle,—weary, sleepy, young sentinels "without the gates."

The boys, the Puritan boys, those wild animals who were regarded with such suspicion, such intense disfavor, by all elderly Puritan eyes, and who were publicly stigmatized by the Duxbury elders as "ye wretched boys on ye Lords Day," were herded by themselves. They usually sat on the pulpit and gallery stairs, and constables or tithingmen were appointed to watch over them and control them. In Salem, in 1676, it was ordered that "all ye boyes of ye towne are and shall be appointed to sitt upon ye three pair of stairs in ye meeting-house on ye Lords Day, and Wm. Lord is appointed to look after ye boyes yt sitte upon ye pulpit stairs. Reuben Guppy is to look and order soe many of ye boyes as may be convenient, and if any are unruly, to present their names, as the law directs." Nowadays we should hardly seat boys in a group if we wished them to be orderly and decorous, and I fear the man "by the name of Guppy" found it no easy task to preserve order and due gravity among the Puritan boys in Salem meeting. In fact, the rampant boys behaved thus badly for the very reason that they were seated together instead of with their respective families; and not until the fashion was universal of each family sitting in a pew or group by itself did the boys in meeting behave like human beings rather than like mischievous and unruly monkeys.

In Stratford, in 1668, a tithingman was "appointed to watch over the youths of disorderly carriage, and see that they behave themselves comelie, and use such raps and blows as in his discretion meet."

I like to think of those rows of sober-faced Puritan boys seated on the narrow, steep pulpit stairs, clad in knee-breeches and homespun flapped coats, and with round, cropped heads, miniature likenesses in dress and countenance (if not in deportment) of their grave, stern, God-fearing fathers. Though they were of the sedate Puritan blood, they were boys, and they wriggled and twisted, and scraped their feet noisily on the sanded floor; and I know full well that the square-toed shoes of one in whom "original sin" waxed powerful, thrust many a sly dig in the ribs and back of the luckless wight who chanced to sit in front of and below him on the pulpit stairs. Many a dried kernel of Indian corn was surreptitiously snapped at the head of an unwary neighbor, and many a sly word was whispered and many a furtive but audible "snicker" elicited when the dread tithingman was "having an eye-out" and administering "discreet raps and blows" elsewhere.

One of these wicked youths in Andover was brought before the magistrate, and it was charged that he "Sported and played and by Indecent Gestures and Wry Faces caused laughter and misbehavior in the Beholders." The girls were not one whit better behaved. One of "ye tything men chosen of ye town of Norwich" reported that "Tabatha Morgus of s'd Norwich Did on ye 24th day February it being Sabbath on ye Lordes Day, prophane ye Lordes Day in ye meeting house of ye west society in ye time of ye forenoone service on s'd Day by her rude and Indecent Behaviour in Laughing and Playing in ye time of ye s'd Service which Doinges of ye s'd Tabatha is against ye peace of our Sovereign Lord ye King, his Crown and Dignity." Wanton Tabatha had to pay three shilings sixpence for her ill-timed mid-winter frolic. Perhaps she laughed to try to keep warm. Those who laughed at the misdemeanors of others were fined as well. Deborah Bangs, a young girl, in 1755 paid a fine of five shillings for "Larfing in the Wareham Meeting House in time of Public Worship," and a boy at the same time, for the same offence, paid a fine of ten shillings. He may have laughed louder and longer. In a law-book in which Jonathan Trumbull recorded the minor cases which he tried as justice of the peace, was found this entry: "His Majesties Tithing man entered complaint against Jona. and Susan Smith, that on the Lords Day during Divine Service, they did smile." They were found guilty, and each was fined five shillings and costs,—poor smiling Susan and Jonathan.

Those wretched Puritan boys, those "sons of Belial," whittled, too, and cut the woodwork and benches of the meeting-house in those early days, just as their descendants have ever since hacked and cut the benches and desks in country schoolhouses,—though how they ever eluded the vigilant eye and ear of the ubiquitous tithingman long enough to whittle will ever remain an unsolved mystery of the past. This early forerunning evidence of what has become a characteristic Yankee trait and habit was so annoyingly and extensively exhibited in Medford, in 1729, that an order was passed to prosecute and punish "all who cut the seats in the meeting-house."

Few towns were content to have one tithingman and one staff, but ordered that there should be a guardian set over the boys in every corner of the meeting-house. In Hanover it was ordered "That there be some sticks set up in various places in the meeting-house, and fit persons by them and to use them." I doubt not that the sticks were well used, and Hanover boys were well rapped in meeting.

The Norwalk people come down through history shining with a halo of gentle lenity, for their tithingman was ordered to bear a short, small stick only, and he was "Desired to use it with clemency." However, if any boy proved "incoridgable," he could be "presented" before the elders; and perhaps he would rather have been treated as were Hartford boys by cruel Hartford church folk, who ordered that if "any boye shall be taken playing or misbehaving himself in the time of publick worship whether in the meeting-house or about the walls he shall be examined and punished at the present publickly before the assembly depart." Parson Chauncey, of Durham, when a boy misbehaved in meeting, and was "punched up" by the tithingman, often stopped in his sermon, called the godless young offender by name, and asked him to come to the parsonage the next day. Some very tender and beautiful lessons were taught to these Durham boys at these Monday morning interviews, and have descended to us in tradition; and the good Mr. Chauncey stands out a shining light of Christian patience and forbearance at a time when every other New England minister, from John Cotton down, preached and practised the stern repression and sharp correction of all children, and chanted together in solemn chorus, "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child."

One vicious tithingman invented, and was allowed to exercise on the boys, a punishment which was the refinement of cruelty. He walked up to the laughing, sporting, or whittling boy, took him by the collar or the arm, led him ostentatiously across the meeting-house, and seated him by his shamefaced mother on the women's side. It was as if one grandly proud in kneebreeches should be forced to walk abroad in petticoats. Far rather would the disgraced boy have been whacked soundly with the heavy knob of the tithingman's staff; for bodily pain is soon forgotten, while mortifying abasement lingers long.

The tithingman could also take any older youth who misbehaved or "acted unsivill" in meeting from his manly seat with the grown men, and force him to sit again with the boys; "if any over sixteen are disorderly, they shall be ordered to said seats." Not only could these men of authority keep the boys in order during meeting, but they also had full control during the nooning, and repressed and restrained and vigorously corrected the luckless boys during the midday hours. When seats in the galleries grew to be regarded as inferior to seats and pews on the ground floor, the boys, who of course must have the worst place in the house, were relegated from the pulpit stairs to pews in the gallery, and these square, shut-off pews grew to be what Dr. Porter called "the Devil's play-houses," and turbulent outbursts were frequent enough.

The little boys still sat downstairs under their parents' watchful eyes. "No child under 10 alowed to go up Gailary." In the Sutherland church, if the big boys (who ought to have known better) "behaved unseemly," one of the tithing-men who "took turns to set in the Galary" was ordered "to bring Such Bois out of the Galary & set them before the Deacon's Seat" with the small boys. In Plainfield, Connecticut, the "pestigeous" boys managed to invent a new form of annoyance,—they "damnified the glass;" and a church regulation had to be passed to prevent, or rather to try to prevent them from "opening the windows or in any way damnifying the glass." It was doubtless hot work scuffling and wrestling in the close, shut-in pews high up under the roof, and they naturally wished to cool down by opening or breaking the windows. Grown persons could not inconsiderately open the church windows either. "The Constables are desired to take notic of the persons that open the windows in the tyme of publick worship." No rheumatic-y draughts, no bronchitis-y damps, no pure air was allowed to enter the New England meeting-house. The church doubtless took a vote before it allowed a single window to be opened.

In Westfield, Massachusetts, the boys became so abominably rampant that the church formally decided "that if there is not a Reformation Respecting the Disorders in the Pews built on the Great Beam in the time of Publick Worship the comite can pul it down."

The fashion of seating the boys in pews by themselves was slow of abolishment in many of the churches. In Windsor, Connecticut, "boys' pews" were a feature of the church until 1845. As years rolled on, the tithingmen became restricted in their authority: they could no longer administer "raps and blows;" they were forced to content themselves with loud rappings on the floor, and pointing with a staff or with a condemning finger at the misdemeanant. At last the deacons usurped these functions, and if rapping and pointing did not answer the purpose of establishing order (if the boy "psisted"), led the stubborn offender out of meeting; and they had full authority soundly to thrash the "wretched boy" on the horse-block. Rev. Dr. Dakin tells the story that, hearing a terrible noise and disturbance while he was praying in a church in Quincy, he felt constrained to open his eyes to ascertain the cause thereof; and he beheld a red-haired boy firmly clutching the railing on the front edge of the gallery, while a venerable deacon as firmly clutched the boy. The young rebel held fast, and the correcting deacon held fast also, until at last the balustrade gave way, and boy, deacon, and railing fell together with a resounding crash. Then, rising from the wooden debris, the thoroughly subdued boy and the triumphant deacon left the meeting-house to finish their little affair; and unmistakable swishing sounds, accompanied by loud wails and whining protestations, were soon heard from the region of the horse-sheds. Parents never resented such chastisings; it was expected, and even desired, that boys should be whipped freely by every school-master and person of authority who chose so to do.

In some old church-orders for seating, boys were classed with negroes, and seated with them; but in nearly all towns the negroes had seats by themselves. The black women were all seated on a long bench or in an inclosed pew labelled "B.W.," and the negro men in one labelled "B.M." One William Mills, a jesting soul, being asked by a pompous stranger where he could sit in meeting, told the visitor that he was welcome to sit in Bill Mills's pew, and that it was marked "B.M." The man, who chanced to be ignorant of the local custom of marking the negro seats, accepted the kind invitation, and seated himself in the black men's pew, to the delight of Bill Mills, the amusement of the boys, the scandal of the elders, and his own disgust.

Sometimes a little pew or short gallery was built high up among the beams and joists over the staircase which led to the first gallery, and was called the "swallows' nest," or the "roof pue," or the "second gallery." It was reached by a steep, ladder-like staircase, and was often assigned to the negroes and Indians of the congregation.

Often "ye seat between ye Deacons seat and ye pulpit is for persons hard of hearing to sett in." In nearly every meeting a bench or pew full of aged men might be seen near the pulpit, and this seat was called, with Puritan plainness of speech, the "Deaf Pew." Some very deaf church members (when the boys were herded elsewhere) sat on the pulpit stairs, and even in the pulpit, alongside the preacher, where they disconcertingly upturned their great tin ear-trumpets directly in his face. The persistent joining in the psalm-singing by these deaf old soldiers and farmers was one of the bitter trials which the leader of the choir had to endure.

The singers' seats were usually in the galleries; sometimes upon the ground floor, in the "hind-row on either side." Occasionally the choir sat in two rows of seats that extended quite across the floor of the house, in front of the deacons' seat and the pulpit. The men singers then sat facing the congregation, while the women singers faced the pulpit. Between them ran a long rack for the psalm-books. When they sang they stood up, and bawled and fugued in each other's faces. Often a square pew was built for the singers, and in the centre of this enclosure was a table, on which were laid, when at rest, the psalm-books. When they sang, the choir thus formed a hollow square, as does any determined band, for strength.

One other seat in the old Puritan meeting-house, a seat of gloom, still throws its darksome shadow down through the years,—the stool of repentance. "Barbarous and cruel punishments" were forbidden by the statutes of the new colony, but on this terrible soul-rack the shrinking, sullen, or defiant form of some painfully humiliated man or woman sat, crushed, stunned, stupefied by overwhelming disgrace, through the long Christian sermon; cowering before the hard, pitiless gaze of the assembled and godly congregation, and the cold rebuke of the pious minister's averted face; bearing on the poor sinful head a deep-branding paper inscribed in "Capitall Letters" with the name of some dark or mysterious crime, or wearing on the sleeve some strange and dread symbol, or on the breast a scarlet letter.

Let us thank God that these soul-blasting and hope-killing exposures—so degrading to the criminal, so demoralizing to the community,—these foul, in-human blots on our fair and dearly loved Puritan Lord's Day, were never frequent, nor did the form of punishment obtain for a long time. In 1681 two women were sentenced to sit during service on a high stool in the middle alley of the Salem meeting-house, having on their heads a paper bearing the name of their crime; and a woman in Agamenticus at about the same date was ordered "to stand in a white sheet publicly two several Sabbath-Days with the mark of her offence on her forehead." These are the latest records of this punishment that I have chanced to see.

Thus, from old church and town records, we plainly discover that each laic, deacon, elder, criminal, singer, and even the ungodly boy had his alloted place as absolutely assigned to him in the old meeting-house as was the pulpit to the parson. Much has been said in semi-ridicule of this old custom of "seating" and "dignifying," yet it did not in reality differ much from our modern way of selling the best pews to whoever will pay the most. Perhaps the old way was the better, since, in the early churches, age, education, dignity, and reputation were considered as well as wealth.

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