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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 7.

The Length of the Service.

Watches were unknown in the early colonial days of New England, and for a long time after their introduction both watches and clocks were costly and rare. John Davenport of New Haven, who died in 1670, left a clock to his heirs; and E. Needham, who died in 1677, left a "Striking clock, a watch, and a Larum that dus not Strike," worth £5; these are perhaps the first records of the ownership of clocks and watches in New England. The time of the day was indicated to our forefathers in their homes by "noon marks" on the floor or window-seats, and by picturesque sundials; and in the civil and religious meetings the passage of time was marked by a strong brass-bound hour-glass, which stood on a desk below or beside the pulpit, or which was raised on a slender iron rod and standard, so that all the members of the congregation could easily watch "the sands that ran i' the clock's behalf." By the side of the desk sat, on the Sabbath, a sexton, clerk, or tithingman, whose duty it was to turn the hour-glass as often as the sands ran out. This was a very ostentatious way of reminding the clergyman how long he had preached; but if it were a hint to bring the discourse to an end, it was never heeded; for contemporary historical registers tell of most painfully long sermons, reaching up through long sub-divisions and heads to "twenty-seventhly" and "twenty-eighthly."

At the planting of the first church in Woburn, Massachusetts, the Rev. Mr. Symmes showed his godliness and endurance (and proved that of his parishioners also) by preaching between four and five hours. Sermons which occupied two or three hours were customary enough. One old Scotch clergyman in Vermont, in the early years of this century, bitterly and fiercely resented the "popish innovation and Sabbath profanation" of a Sunday-school for the children, which some daring and progressive parishioners proposed to hold at the "nooning." This canny Parson Whiteinch very craftily and somewhat maliciously prolonged his morning sermons until they each occupied three hours; thus he shortened the time between the two services to about half an hour, and victoriously crowded out the Sunday-school innovators, who had barely time to eat their cold lunch and care for their waiting horses, ere it was time for the afternoon service to begin. But one man cannot stop the tide, though he may keep it for a short time from one guarded and sheltered spot; and the rebellious Vermont congregation, after two or three years of tedious three-hour sermons, arose in a body and crowded out the purposely prolix preacher, and established the wished-for Sunday-school. The vanquished parson thereafter sullenly spent the noonings in the horse-shed, to which he ostentatiously carried the big church-Bible in order that it might not be at the service of the profaning teachers.

An irreverent caricature of the colonial days represents a phenomenally long-preaching clergyman as turning the hour-glass by the side of his pulpit and addressing his congregation thus, "Come! you are all good fellows, we'll take another glass together!" It is recorded of Rev. Urian Oakes that often the hour-glass was turned four times during one of his sermons. The warning legend, "Be Short," which Cotton Mather inscribed over his study door was not written over his pulpit; for he wrote in his diary that at his own ordination he prayed for an hour and a quarter, and preached for an hour and three quarters. Added to the other ordination exercises these long Mather addresses must have been tiresome enough. Nathaniel Ward deplored at that time, "Wee have a strong weakness in New England that when wee are speaking, wee know not how to conclude: wee make many ends before wee make an end."

Dr. Lord of Norwich always made a prayer which was one hour long; and an early Dutch traveller who visited New England asserted that he had heard there on Fast Day a prayer which was two hours long. These long prayers were universal and most highly esteemed,--a "poor gift in prayer" being a most deplored and even despised clerical short-coming. Had not the Puritans left the Church of England to escape "stinted prayers"? Whitefield prayed openly for Parson Barrett of Hopkinton, who could pray neither freely, nor well, that "God would open this dumb dog's mouth;" and everywhere in the Puritan Church, precatory eloquence as evinced in long prayers was felt to be the greatest glory of the minister, and the highest tribute to God.

In nearly all the churches the assembled people stood during prayer-time (since kneeling and bowing the head savored of Romish idolatry) and in the middle of his petition the minister usually made a long pause in order that any who were infirm or ill might let down their slamming pew-seats and sit down; those who were merely weary stood patiently to the long and painfully deferred end. This custom of standing during prayer-time prevailed in the Congregational churches in New England until quite a recent date, and is not yet obsolete in isolated communities and in solitary cases. I have seen within a few years, in a country church, a feeble, white-haired old deacon rise tremblingly at the preacher's solemn words "Let us unite in prayer," and stand with bowed head throughout the long prayer; thus pathetically clinging to the reverent custom of the olden time, he rendered tender tribute to vanished youth, gave equal tribute to eternal hope and faith, and formed a beautiful emblem of patient readiness for the last solemn summons.

Sometimes tedious expounding of the Scriptures and long "prophesying" lengthened out the already too long service. Judge Sewall recorded that once when he addressed or expounded at the Plymouth Church, "being afraid to look at the glass, ignorantly and unwittingly I stood two hours and a half," which was doing pretty well for a layman.

The members of the early churches did not dislike these long preachings and prophesyings; they would have regarded a short sermon as irreligious, and lacking in reverence, and besides, would have felt that they had not received in it their full due, their full money's worth. They often fell asleep and were fiercely awakened by the tithingman, and often they could not have understood the verbose and grandiose language of the preacher. They were in an icy-cold atmosphere in winter, and in glaring, unshaded heat in summer, and upon most uncomfortable, narrow, uncushioned seats at all seasons; but in every record and journal which I have read, throughout which ministers and laymen recorded all the annoyances and opposition which the preachers encountered, I have never seen one entry of any complaint or ill-criticism of too long praying or preaching. Indeed, when Rev. Samuel Torrey, of Weymouth, Massachusetts, prayed two hours without stopping, upon a public Fast Day in 1696, it is recorded that his audience only wished that the prayer had been much longer.

When we consider the training and exercise in prayer that the New England parsons had in their pulpits on Sundays, in their own homes on Saturday nights, on Lecture Days and Fast Days and Training Days, and indeed upon all times and occasions, can we wonder at Parson Boardman's prowess in New Milford in 1735? He visited a "praying" Indian's home wherein lay a sick papoose over whom a "pow-wow" was being held by a medicine-man at the request of the squaw-mother, who was still a heathen. The Christian warrior determined to fight the Indian witch-doctor on his own grounds, and while the medicine-man was screaming and yelling and dancing in order to cast the devil out ol the child, the parson began to pray with equal vigor and power of lungs to cast out the devil of a medicine-man. As the prayer and pow-wow proceeded the neighboring Indians gathered around, and soon became seriously alarmed for the success of their prophet. The battle raged for three hours, when the pow-wow ended, and the disgusted and exhausted Indian ran out of the wigwam and jumped into the Housatonic River to cool his heated blood, leaving the Puritan minister triumphant in the belief, and indeed with positive proof, that he could pray down any man or devil.

The colonists could not leave the meeting-house before the long sen ices were ended, even had they wished, for the tithingman allowed no deserters. In Salem, in 1676, it was "ordered by ye Selectmen yt the three Constables doe attend att ye three greate doores of ye meeting-house every Lordes Day att ye end of ye sermon, both forenoone and afternoone, and to keep ye doores fast and suffer none to goe out before ye whole exercises bee ended." Thus Salem people had to listen to no end of praying and prophesying from their ministers and elders for they "couldn't get out."

As the years passed on, the church attendants became less referential and much more impatient and fearless, and soon after the Revolutionary War one man in Medford made a bargain with his minister--Rev. Dr. Osgood--that he would attend regularly the church services every Sunday morning, provided he could always leave at twelve o'clock. On each Sabbath thereafter, as the obstinate preacher would not end his sermon one minute sooner than his habitual time, which was long after twelve, the equally stubborn limited-time worshipper arose at noon, as he had stipulated, and stalked noisily out of meeting.

A minister about to preach in a neighboring parish was told of a custom which prevailed there of persons who lived at a distance rising and leaving the house ere the sermon was ended. He determined to teach them a lesson, and announced that he would preach the first part of his sermon to the sinners, and the latter part to the saints, and that the sinners would of course all leave as soon as their portion had been delivered. Every soul remained until the end of the service.

At last, when other means of entertainment and recreation than church-going became common, and other forms of public addresses than sermons were frequently given, New England church-goers became so restless and rebellious under the regime of hour-long prayers and indefinitely protracted sermons that the long services were gradually condensed and curtailed, to the relief of both preacher and hearers.

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