committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs







The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891

by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother

Chapter 6.

The Tithingman and the Sleepers.

The most grotesque, the most extraordinary, the most highly colored figure in the dull New England church-life was the tithingman. This fairly burlesque creature impresses me always with a sense of unreality, of incongruity, of strange happening, like a jesting clown in a procession of monks, like a strain of low comedy in the sober religious drama of early New England Puritan life; so out of place, so unreal is this fussy, pompous, restless tithingman, with his fantastic wand of office fringed with dangling foxtails,--creaking, bustling, strutting, peering around the quiet meeting-house, prodding and rapping the restless boys, waking the drowsy sleepers; for they slept in country churches in the seventeenth century, notwithstanding dread of fierce correction, just as they nod and doze and softly puff, unawakened and unrebuked, in village churches throughout New England in the nineteenth century.

This absurd and distorted type of the English church beadle, this colonial sleep banisher, was equipped with a long staff, heavily knobbed at one end, with which he severely and pitilessly rapped the heads of the too sleepy men, and the too wide-awake boys. From the other end of this wand of office depended a long foxtail, or a hare's-foot, which he softly thrust in the faces of the sleeping Priscillas, Charitys, and Hopestills, and which gently brushed and tickled them into reverent but startled wakefulness.

One zealous but too impetuous tithingman in his pious ardor of office inadvertently applied the wrong end, the end with the heavy knob, the masculine end, to a drowsy matron's head; and for this severely ungallant mistake he was cautioned by the ruling elders to thereafter use "more discresing and less heist."

Another over-watchful Newbury "awakener" rapped on the head a nodding man who protested indignantly that he was wide-awake, and was only bowing in solemn assent and approval of the minister's arguments. Roger Scott, of Lynn, in 1643 struck the tithingman who thus roughly and suddenly wakened him; and poor sleepy and bewildered Roger, who is branded through all time as "a common sleeper at the publick exercise," was, for this most naturally resentful act, but also most shockingly grave offence, soundly whipped, as a warning both to keep awake and not to strike back in meeting.

Obadiah Turner, of Lynn, gives in his Journal a sad, sad disclosure of total depravity which was exposed by one of these sudden church-awakenings, and the story is best told in the journalist's own vivid words:--

"June 3, 1616.--Allen Bridges hath bin chose to wake ye sleepers in meeting. And being much proude of his place, must needs have a fox taile fixed to ye ende of a long staff wherewith he may brush ye faces of them yt will have napps in time of discourse, likewise a sharpe thorne whereby he may pricke such as be most sound. On ye last Lord his day, as hee strutted about ye meeting-house, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, hys head kept steadie by being in ye corner, and his hand grasping ye rail. And soe spying, Allen did quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard and give him a grievous prick upon ye hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins did spring vpp mch above ye floore, and with terrible force strike hys hand against ye wall; and also, to ye great wonder of all, prophanlie exclaim in a loud voice, curse ye wood-chuck, he dreaming so it seemed yt a wood-chuck had seized and bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and ye greate scandall he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again goe to sleepe in meeting."

How clear the picture! Can you not see it?--the warm June sunlight streaming in through the narrow, dusty windows of the old meeting-house; the armed watcher at the door; the Puritan men and women in their sad-colored mantles seated sternly upright on the hard narrow benches; the black-gowned minister, the droning murmur of whose sleepy voice mingles with the out-door sounds of the rustle of leafy branches, the song of summer birds, the hum of buzzing insects, and the muffled stamping of horses' feet; the restless boys on the pulpit-stairs; the tired, sleeping Puritan with his head thrown back in the corner of the pew; the vain, strutting, tithingman with his fantastic and thornéd staff of office; and then--the sudden, electric wakening, and the consternation of the whole staid and pious congregation at such terrible profanity in the house of God. Ah!--it was not two hundred and forty years ago; when I read the quaint words my Puritan blood stirs my drowsy brain, and I remember it all well, just as I saw it last summer in June.

Another catastrophe from too fierce zeal on the part of the tithingman is recorded. An old farmer, worn out with a hard Saturday's work at sheep-washing, fell asleep ere the hour-glass had once been turned. Though he was a man of dignity, for he sat in his own pew, he could not escape the rod of the pragmatical tithingman. Being rudely disturbed, but not wholly wakened, the bewildered sheep-farmer sprung to his feet, seized his astonished and mortified wife by the shoulders and shook her violently, shouting at the top of his voice, "Haw back! haw back! Stand still, will ye?" Poor goodman and goodwife! many years elapsed ere they recovered from that keen disgrace.

The ministers encouraged and urged the tithingmen to faithfully perform their allotted work. One early minister "did not love sleepers in ye meeting-house, and would stop short in ye exercise and call pleasantlie to wake ye sleepers, and once of a warm Summer afternoon he did take hys hat off from ye pegg in ye beam, and put it on, saying he would go home and feed his fowles and come back again, and maybe their sleepe would be ended, and they readie to hear ye remainder of hys discourse." Another time he suggested that they might like better the Church of England service of sitting down and standing up, and we can be sure that this "was competent to keepe their eyes open for a twelvemonth."

All this was in the church of Mr. Whiting, of Lynn, a somewhat jocose Puritan,--if jocularity in a Puritan is not too anomalous an attribute to have ever existed. We can be sure that there was neither sleeping nor jesting allusion to such an irreverence in Mr. Mather's, Mr. Welde's, or Mr. Cotton's meetings. In many rigidly severe towns, as in Portsmouth in 1662 and in Boston in 1667, it was ordered by the selectmen as a proper means of punishment that a "cage be made or some other means invented for such as sleepe on the Lord's Daie." Perhaps they woke the offender up and rudely and summarily dragged him out and caged him at once and kept him thus prisoned throughout the nooning,--a veritable jail-bird.

A rather unconventional and eccentric preacher in Newbury awoke one sleeper in a most novel manner. The first name of the sleeping man was Mark, and the preacher in his sermon made use of these Biblical words: "I say unto you, mark the perfect man and behold the upright." But in the midst of his low, monotonous sermon-voice he roared out the word "mark" in a loud shout that brought the dozing Mark to his feet, bewildered but wide awake.

Mr. Moody, of York, Maine, employed a similar device to awaken and mortify the sleepers in meeting. He shouted "Fire, fire, fire!" and when the startled and blinking men jumped up, calling out "Where?" he roared back in turn, "In hell, for sleeping sinners." Rev. Mr. Phillips, of Andover, in 1755, openly rebuked his congregation for "sleeping away a great part of the sermon;" and on the Sunday following an earthquake shock which was felt throughout New England, he said he hoped the "Glorious Lord of the Sabbath had given them such a shaking as would keep them awake through one sermon-time." Other and more autocratic parsons did not hesitate to call out their sleeping parishioners plainly by name, sternly telling them also to "Wake up!" A minister in Brunswick, Maine, thus pointedly wakened one of his sweet-sleeping church-attendants, a man of some dignity and standing in the community, and received the shocking and tautological answer, "Mind your own business, and go on with your sermon."

The women would sometimes nap a little without being discovered. "Ye women may sometimes sleepe and none know by reason of their enormous bonnets. Mr. Whiting doth pleasantlie say from ye pulpit hee doth seeme to be preaching to stacks of straw with men among them."

From this seventeenth-century comment upon the size of the women's bonnets, it may be seen that objections to women's overwhelming and obscuring headgear in public assemblies are not entirely complaining protests of modern growth. Other records refer to the annoyance from the exaggerated size of bonnets. In 1769 the church in Andover openly "put to vote whether the parish Disapprove of the Female sex sitting with their Hats on in the Meeting-house in time of Divine Service as being Indecent." The parish did Disapprove, with a capital D, for the vote passed in the affirmative. There is no record, however, to tell whether the Indecent fashion was abandoned, but I warrant no tithingman was powerful enough to make Andover women take off their proudly worn Sunday bonnets if they did not want to. Another town voted that it was the "Town's Mind" that the women should take off their bonnets and "hang them on the peggs," as did the men their headgear. But the Town's Mind was not a Woman's Mind; and the big-bonnet wearers, vain though they were Puritans, did as they pleased with their own bonnets. And indeed, in spite of votes and in spite of expostulations, the female descendants of the Puritans, through constantly recurring waves of fashion, have ever since been indecently wearing great obscuring hats and bonnets in public assemblies, even up to the present day.

The tithingman had other duties than awakening the sleepers and looking after "the boyes that playes and rapping those boyes,"--in short, seeing that every one was attentive in meeting except himself,--and the duties and powers of the office varied in different communities. Several of these officers were appointed in each parish. In Newbury, in 1688, there were twenty tithingmen, and in Salem twenty-five. They were men of authority, not only on Sunday, but throughout the entire week. Each had several neighboring families (usually ten, as the word "tithing" would signify) under his charge to watch during the week, to enforce the learning of the catechism at home, especially by the children, and sometimes he heard them "Say their Chatachize." These families he also watched specially on the Sabbath, and reported whether all the members thereof attended public worship. Not content with mounting guard over the boys on Sundays, he also watched on weekdays to keep boys and "all persons from swimming in the water." Do you think his duties were light in July and August, when school was out, to watch the boys of ten families? One man watching one family cannot prevent such "violations of the peace" in country towns now-a-days. He sometimes inspected the "ordinaries" and made complaint of any disorders which he there discovered, and gave in the names of "idle tiplers and gamers," and he could warn the tavern-keeper to sell no more liquor to any toper whom he knew or fancied was drinking too heavily. Josselyn complained bitterly that during his visit to New England in 1663 at "houses of entertainment called ordinaries into which a stranger went, he was presently followed by one appointed to that office who would thrust himself into his company uninvited, and if he called for more drink than the officer thought in his judgment he could soberly bear away, he would presently countermand it, and appoint the proportion beyond which he could not get one drop." The tithingman had a "spetial eye-out" on all bachelors, who were also carefully spied upon by the constables, deacons, elders, and heads of families in general. He might, perhaps, help to collect the ministerial rate, though his principal duty was by no means the collecting of tithes. He "worned peple out of ye towne." This warning was not at all because the new-comers were objectionable or undesired, but was simply a legal form of precaution, so that the parish would never be liable for the keeping of the "worned" ones in case they thereafter became paupers. He administered the "oath of fidelity" to new inhabitants. The tithingman also watched to see that "no young people walked abroad on the eve of the Sabbath,"--that is, on a Saturday night. He also marked and reported all those "who lye at home," and others who "prophanely behaved, lingered without dores at meeting time on the Lordes Daie," all the "sons of Belial strutting about, setting on fences, and otherwise desecrating the day." These last two classes of offenders were first admonished by the tithingman, then "Sett in stocks," and then cited before the Court. They were also confined in the cage on the meeting-house green, with the Lord's Day sleepers. The tithingman could arrest any who walked or rode at too fast a pace to and from meeting, and he could arrest any who "walked or rode unnecessarily on the Sabath." Great and small alike were under his control, as this notice from the "Columbian Centinel" of December, 1789, abundantly proves. It is entitled "The President and the Tything man:"--

    "The President, on his return to New York from his late tour through Connecticut, having missed his way on Saturday, was obliged to ride a few miles on Sunday morning in order to gain the town at which he had previously proposed to have attended divine service. Before he arrived however he was met by a Tything man, who commanding him to stop, demanded the occasion of his riding; and it was not until the President had informed him of every circumstance and promised to go no further than the town intended that the Tything man would permit him to proceed on his journey."

Various were the subterfuges to outwit the tithingman and elude his vigilance on the Sabbath. We all remember the amusing incident in "Oldtown Folks." A similar one really happened. Two gay young sparks driving through the town on the Sabbath were stopped by the tithingman; one offender said mournfully in excuse of his Sabbath travel, "My grandmother is lying dead in the next town." Being allowed to drive on, he stood up in his wagon when at a safe distance and impudently shouted back, "And she's been lying dead in the graveyard there for thirty years."

Thus it may be seen that the ancient tithingman was pre-eminently a general snook, to use an old and expressive word,--an informer, both in and out of meeting,--a very necessary, but somewhat odious, and certainly at times very absurd officer. He was in a degree a constable, a selectman, a teacher, a tax-collector, an inspector, a sexton, a home-watcher, and above all, a Puritan Bumble, whose motto was Hie et ubique. He was, in fact, a general law-enforcer and order-keeper, whose various duties, wherever still necessary and still performed, are now apportioned to several individuals. The ecclesiastical functions and authority of the tithingman lingered long after the civil powers had been removed or had gradually passed away from his office. Persons are now living who in their early and unruly youth were rapped at and pointed at by a New England tithingman when they laughed or were noisy in meeting.

Home    Puritans   The Sabbath in Puritan New England   Contents

Share This Page Using:
The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved