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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 8.

The Icy Temperature of the Meeting-House.

In colonial days in New England the long and tedious services must have been hard to endure in the unheated churches in bitter winter weather, so bitter that, as Judge Sewall pathetically recorded, "The communion bread was frozen pretty hard and rattled sadly into the plates." Sadly down through the centuries is ringing in our ears the gloomy rattle of that frozen sacramental bread on the Church plate, telling to us the solemn story of the austere and comfortless church-life of our ancestors. Would that the sound could bring to our chilled hearts the same steadfast and pure Christian faith that made their gloomy, freezing services warm with God's loving presence!

Again Judge Sewall wrote: "Extraordinary Cold Storm of Wind and Snow. Blows much more as coming home at Noon, and so holds on. Bread was frozen at Lord's Table. Though 't was so cold John Tuckerman was baptized. At six o'clock my ink freezes, so that I can hardly write by a good fire in my Wives chamber. Yet was very Comfortable at Meeting." In the penultimate sentence of this quotation may be found the clue and explanation of the seemingly incredible assertion in the last sentence. The reason why he was comfortable in church was that he was accustomed to sit in cold rooms; even with the great open-mouthed and open-chimneyed fireplaces full of blazing logs, so little heat entered the rooms of colonial dwelling-houses that one could not be warm unless fairly within the chimney-place; and thus, even while sitting by the fire, his ink froze. Another entry of Judge Sewall's tells of an exceeding cold day when there was "Great Coughing" in meeting, and yet a new-born baby was brought into the icy church to be baptized. Children were always carried to the meeting-house for baptism the first Sunday after birth, even in the most bitter weather. There are no entries in Judge Sewall's diary which exhibit him in so lovable and gentle a light as the records of the baptism of his fourteen children,--his pride when the child did not cry out or shrink from the water in the freezing winter weather, thus early showing true Puritan fortitude; and also his noble resolves and hopes for their future. On this especially cold day when a baby was baptized, the minister prayed for a mitigation of the weather, and on the same day in another town "Rev. Mr. Wigglesworth preached on the text, Who can stand before His Cold? Then by his own and people's sickness three Sabbaths passed without public Worship." February 20 he preached from these words: "He sends forth his word and thaws them." And the very next day a thaw set in which was regarded as a direct answer to his prayer and sermon. Sceptics now-a-days would suggest that he chose well the time to pray for milder weather.

Many persons now living can remember the universal and noisy turning up of great-coat collars, the swinging of arms, and knocking together of the heavy-booted feet of the listeners towards the end of a long winter sermon. Dr. Hopkins used to say, when the noisy tintamarre began, "My hearers, have a little patience, and I will soon close."

Another clergyman was irritated beyond endurance by the stamping, clattering feet, a supplosio pedis that he regarded as an irreverent protest and complaint against the severity of the weather, rather than as a hint to him to conclude his long sermon. He suddenly and noisily closed his sermon-book, leaned forward out of his high pulpit, and thundered out these Biblical words of rebuke at his freezing congregation, whose startled faces stared up at him through dense clouds of vapor. "Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. Knowest thou the ordinance of heaven? Canst thou set the dominion thereof on the earth? Great things doth God which we cannot comprehend. He saith to the snow, Be thou on the earth. By the breath of God frost is given. He causeth it to come, whether for correction, or for his land, or for mercy. Hearken unto this. Stand still, and consider the wondrous works of God." We can believe that he roared out the words "stand still," and that there was no more noise in that meeting-house on cold Sundays during the remainder of that winter.

The ministers might well argue that no one suffered more from the freezing atmosphere than they did. In many records I find that they were forced to preach and pray with their hands cased in woollen or fur mittens or heavy knit gloves; and they wore long camlet cloaks in the pulpit and covered their heads with skull caps--as did Judge Sewall--and possibly wore, as he did also, a hood. Many a wig-hating minister must, in the Arctic meeting-house, have longed secretly for the grateful warmth to his head and neck of one of those "horrid Bushes of Vanity," a full-bottomed flowing wig.

On bitter winter days Dr. Stevens of Kittery used to send a servant to the meeting-house to find out how many of his flock had braved the piercing blasts. If only seven persons were present, the servant asked them to return with him to the parsonage to listen to the sermon; but if there were eight members in the meeting-house he so reported to the Doctor, who then donned his long worsted cloak, tied it around his waist with a great handkerchief, and attired thus, with a fur cap pulled down over his ears, and with heavy mittens on his hands, ploughed through the deep snow to the church, and in the same dress preached his long, knotty sermon in his pulpit, while fierce wintry blasts rattled the windows and shook the turret, and the eight godly, shivering souls wished profoundly that one of their number had "lain at home in a slothfull, lazey, prophane way," and thus permitted the seven others and the minister to have the sermon in comfort in the parsonage kitchen before the great blazing logs in the open fireplace.

Ah, it makes one shiver even to think of those gloomy churches, growing colder, and more congealed through weeks of heavy frost and fierce northwesters until they bore the chill of death itself. One can but wonder whether that fell scourge of New England, that hereditary curse--consumption--did not have its first germs evolved and nourished in our Puritan ancestors by the Spartan custom of sitting through the long winter services in the icy, death-like meeting-houses.

Of the insufficient clothing of the church attendants of olden times it is unnecessary to speak with much detail. The goodmen with their heavy top-boots or jack-boots, their milled or frieze stockings, their warm periwigs surmounted by fur caps or beaver hats or hoods; and with their many-caped great-coats or full round cloaks were dressed with a sufficient degree of comfort, though they did not possess the warm woollen and silken underclothing which now make a man's winter attire so comfortable. They carried muffs too, as the advertisements of the times show. The "Boston News Letter" of 1716 offers a reward for a man's muff lost on the Sabbath day in the street. In 1725 Dr. Prince lost his black bearskin muff, and in 1740 a "sableskin man's muff" was advertised as having been lost.

But the Puritan goodwives and maidens were dressed in a meagre and scanty fashion that when now considered seems fairly appalling. As soon as the colonies grew in wealth and fashion, thin silk or cotton hose were frequently worn in midwinter by the wives and daughters of well-to-do colonists; and correspondingly thin cloth or kid or silk slippers, high-channelled pumps, or low shoes with paper soles and "cross-cut" or wooden heels were the holiday and Sabbath-day covering for the feet. In wet weather clogs and pattens formed an extra and much needed protection when the fair colonists walked. Linen underclothing formed the first superstructure of the feminine costume and threw its penetrating chill to the very marrow of the bones. Often in mid-winter the scant-skirted French calico gowns were made with short elbow sleeves and round, low necks, and the throat and shoulders were lightly covered with thin lawn neckerchiefs or dimity tuckers. The flaunting hooped-petticoat of another decade was worn with a silk or brocade sacque. A thin cloth cape or mantle or spencer, lined with sarcenet silk, was frequently the only covering for the shoulders. In examining the treasured contents of old wardrobes, trunks, and high-chests, and in reading the descriptions of women's winter attire worn throughout the eighteenth and half through the nineteenth century, I am convinced that the only portions of Puritan female anatomy that were clothed with anything approaching respectable regard for health in the inclement New England climate were the head and the hands. The hands of "New English dames" were carefully protected with embroidered kid or leather gloves (for the early New Englanders were great glove wearers) or with warm knit woollen mittens, though mittens for women's wear were always fingerless. The well-gloved hands were moreover warmly ensconced in enormous stuffed muffs of bearskin which were almost as large as a flour barrel, or in smaller muffs of rabbit-skin or mink or beaver. The goodwives' heads bore, besides the close caps so universally worn, mufflers and veils and hoods,--hoods of all kinds and descriptions, from the hoods of serge and camlet and gauze and black silk that Mistress Estabrook, wife of the Windham parson, proudly owned and wore, from the prohibited "silk and tiffany hoods" of the earliest planters down through the centuries' inflorescence of "hoods of crimson colored persian," "wild bore and hum-hum long hoods," "pointed velvet capuchins," "scarlet gipsys," "pinnered and tasselled hoods," "shirred lustring hoods," "hoods of rich pptuna," "muskmelon hoods," to the warm quilted "punkin hoods" worn within this century in country churches. These "punkin-hoods" were quilted with great rolls of woollen wadding and drawn tight between the rolls with strong cords. They formed a deafening and heating head-covering which always had to be loosened and thrust back when the wearer was within doors. It was only equalled in shapeless clumsiness and unique ugliness by its summer-sister of the same date, the green silk calash,--that funniest and quaintest of all New England feminine headgear,--a great sunshade that could not be called a bonnet, always made of bright green silk shirred on strong lengths of rattan or whalebone, and extendible after the fashion of a chaise top. It could be drawn out over the face by a little green ribbon or "bridle" that was fastened to the extreme front at the top; or it could be pushed in a close-gathered mass on the back of the head These calashes were frequently a foot and a half in diameter, and thus stood well up from the head and did not disarrange the hair nor crush the headdress or cap. They formed a perfect and easily-adjusted shade from the sun. Masks, too, the fair Puritans wore to further protect their heads and faces,--masks of green silk or black vehet, with silver mouthpieces to place within the lips and thus enable the wearer to keep the mask firmly in place. Sometimes two little strings with a silver bead at one end were fastened to the mask, and seined as mouthpieces. With a string and bead at either corner of the mouth the mask-wearer could talk quite freely while still retaining her face-covering in its protecting position. These masks were never worn within doors. In the list of goods ordered by George Washington from Europe for his fair bride Martha were several of these riding-masks, and the kind step-father even ordered a supply of small masks for "Miss Custis," his little step-daughter.

In bitter winter weather women carried to meeting little foot-stoves,--metal boxes which stood on legs and were filled with hot coals at home, and a second time during the morning from the hearthstone of a neighboring farm-house or a noon-house. These foot-warmers helped to make endurable to the goodwives the icy chill of the meeting-house; and round their mother's foot-stove the shivering little children sat on their low crickets, warming their half-frozen fingers.

Some of these foot-stoves were really pretentious church-furnishings. I have seen one "brassen foot-stove" which had the owner's cipher cut out of the sheet metal, and from the side was hung a wrought brass chain. By this chain, a century ago, the shining polished brass stove was carried into church in the hands of a liveried black man, who held it ostentatiously at arms' length, that neither ash nor scorch might touch his scarlet velvet breeches. And after he had tucked it under my lady's tiny feet as she sat in her pew, he retired to his freezing loft high up among the beams,--the "Nigger Pew,"--where, I am sorry to record, he more than once solaced and warmed himself with a bottle of "kill-devil" which he had smuggled into church, until he fell ignominiously asleep and his drunken snores so disturbed the minister and the congregation, that two tithingmen were forced to climb the ladder-like staircase and pull him down and out of the church and to the neighboring tavern to sleep off the effects of the liquor. For being "a man and a brother" and, above all, in spite of his petty idiosyncrasies, a very good and cherished servant, he could not be thrust out into the snow to freeze to death.

But with the extreme Puritan contempt of comfort even foot-stoves were not always allowed. The First Church of Roxbury, after having one church edifice destroyed by fire in 1747, prohibited the use of footstoves in meeting, and the Roxbury matrons sat with frozen toes in their fine new meeting-house. The Old South Church of Boston was not so rigid, though it felt the same dread of fire; for we find this entry on the records of the church under the date of January 10, 1771: "Whereas, danger is apprehended from the [foot] stoves that arc frequently left in the meeting-house after the publick worship is over; Voted, that the Saxton make diligent search on the Lord's Day evening and in the evening after a lecture, to see if any stoves are left in the house, and that if he find any there he take them to his own house; and it is expected that the owners of such stoves make reasonable satisfaction to the Saxton for his trouble before they take them away."

In Hardwicke, in 1792, it was ordered that "no stows be carried into our new meeting-house with fire in them." The Hardwicke women may have found comfort in a contrivance which is thus described in by an "old inhabitant:"

      "There to warm their feet
  Was seen an article now obsolete,
  A sort of basket tub of braided straw
  Or husks, in which is placed a heated stone,
  Which does half-frozen limbs superbly thaw.
  And warms the marrow of the oldest bone."

In some of the early, poorly built log meeting-houses, fur bags made of coarse skins, such as wolf-skin, were nailed or tied to the edges of the benches, and into these bags the worshippers thrust their feet for warmth. In some communities it was the custom for each family to bring on cold days its "dogg" to meeting; where, lying at or on his master's feet, he proved a source of grateful warmth. These animal stoves became such an abounding nuisance, however, that dog-whippers had to be appointed to serve on Sundays to drive out the dogs. All through the records of the early churches we find such entries as this: "Whatsoever doggs come into the meeting-house in time of public worship, their owners shall each pay sixpence." Sixpence seems little, but the thrifty and poor Puritans would rather freeze their toes than pay sixpence for their calorific dogs.

The church members made many rules and regulations to keep the cold out of the meeting-house during service-time, or perhaps we should say to keep the wind out. Thus in Woodstock, Connecticut, in 1725 it was ordered that the "several doors of the meeting-house be taken care of and kept shut in very cold and windy seasons according to the lying of the wind from time to time; and that people in such windy weather come in at the leeward doors only, and take care that they are easily shut both to prevent the breaking of the doors and the making of a noise." In other churches it was ordered that "no doors be opened to the windward and only one door to the leeward" during winter weather.

The first church of Salem built a "cattied chimney twelve feet long" in its meeting-house in 1662, but five years later it was removed, perhaps through the colonists' dread lest the building be destroyed by a conflagration caused by the combustible nature of the materials of which the chimney was composed. Felt, in his "Annals of Salem," asserts that the First Church of Boston was the first New England congregation to have a stove for heating the meeting-house at the time of public worship; this was in 1773. This statement is incorrect. Mr. Judd says the Hadley church had an iron stove in their meeting-house as early as 1734--the Hadley people were such sybarites and novelty-lovers in those early days! The Old South Church of Boston followed in the luxurious fashion in 1783, and the "Evening Post" of January 25, 1783, contained a poem of which these four lines show the criticising and deprecating spirit:--

  "Extinct the sacred fire of love,
    Our zeal grown cold and dead,
  In the house of God we fix a stove
    To warm us in their stead."

Other New England congregations piously froze during service-time well into this century. The Longmeadow church, early in the field, had a stove in 1810; the Salem people in 1815; and the Medford meeting in 1820. The church in Brimfield in 1819 refused to pay for a stove, but ordered as some sacrifice to the desire for comfort, two extra doors placed on the gallery-stairs to keep out draughts; but when in that town, a few years later, a subscription was made to buy a church stove, one old member refused to contribute, saying "good preaching kept him hot enough without stoves."

As all the church edifices were built without any thought of the possibility of such comfortable furniture, they had to be adapted as best they might to the ungainly and unsightly great stoves which were usually placed in the central aisle of the building. From these cast-iron monsters, there extended to the nearest windows and projected through them, hideous stove-pipes that too often spread, from every leaky and ill-fastened joint, smoke and sooty vapors, and sometimes pyroligneous drippings on the congregation. Often tin pails to catch the drippings were hung under the stove-pipes, forming a further chaste and elegant church-decoration. Many serious objections were made to the stoves besides the aesthetic ones. It was alleged that they would be the means of starting many destructive conflagrations; that they caused severe headaches in the church attendants; and worst of all, that the heat warped the ladies' tortoise-shell back-combs.

The church reformers contended, on the other hand, that no one could properly receive spiritual comfort while enduring such decided bodily discomfort. They hoped that with increased physical warmth, fervor in religion would be equally augmented,--that, as Cowper wrote,--

  "The churches warmed, they would no longer hold
  Such frozen figures, stiff as they are cold."

Many were the quarrels and discussions that arose in New England communities over the purchase and use of stoves, and many were the meetings held and votes taken upon the important subject.

"Peter Parley"--Mr. Samuel Goodrich--gave, in his "Recollections," a very amusing account of the sufferings endured by the wife of an anti-stove deacon. She came to church with a look of perfect resignation on the Sabbath of the stove's introduction, and swept past the unwelcome intruder with averted head, and into her pew. She sat there through the service, growing paler with the unaccustomed heat, until the minister's words about "heaping coals of fire" brought too keen a sense of the overwhelming and unhealthful stove-heat to her mind, and she fainted. She was carried out of church, and upon recovering said languidly that it "was the heat from the stove." A most complete and sudden resuscitation was effected, however, when she was informed of the fact that no fire had as yet been lighted in the new church-furnishing.

Similar chronicles exist about other New England churches, and bear a striking resemblance to each other. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher in an address delivered in New York on December 20, 1853, the anniversary of the Landing of the Pilgrims, referred to the opposition made to the introduction of stoves into the old meeting-house in Litchfield, Connecticut, during the ministry of his father, and gave an amusing account of the results of the introgression. This allusion called up many reminiscences of anti-stove wars, and a writer in the "New York Enquirer" told the same story of the fainting woman in Litchfield meeting, who began to fan herself and at length swooned, saying when she recovered "that the heat of the horrid stove had caused her to faint." A correspondent of the "Cleveland Herald" confirmed the fact that the fainting episode occurred in the Litchfield meeting-house. The editor of the "Hartford Daily Courant" thus added his testimony:--

    "Violent opposition had been made to the introduction of a stove in the old meeting-house, and an attempt made in vain to induce the soc to purchase one. The writer was one of seven young men who finally purchased a stove and requested permission to put it up in the meeting-house on trial. After much difficulty the committee consented. It was all arranged on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday we took our seats in the Bass, rather earlier than usual, to see the fun. It was a warm November Sunday, in which the sun shone cheerfully and warmly on the old south steps and into the naked windows. The stove stood in the middle aisle, rather in front of the Tenor Gallery. People came in and stared. Good old Deacon Trowbridge, one of the most simple-hearted and worthy men of that generation, had, as Mr. Beecher says, been induced to give up his opposition. He shook his head, however, as he felt the heat reflected from it, and gathered up the skirts of his great as he passed up the broad aisle to the deacon's seat. Old Uncle Noah Stone, a wealthy farmer of the West End, who sat near, scowled and muttered at the effects of the heat, but waited until noon to utter his maledictions over his nut-cakes and cheese at the intermission. There had in fact been no fire in the stove, the day being too warm. We were too much upon the broad grin to be very devotional, and smiled rather loudly at the funny things we saw. But when the editor of the village paper, Mr. Bunce, came in (who was a believer in stoves in churches) and with a most satisfactory air warmed his hands by the stove, keeping the skirts of his great-coat carefully between his knees, we could stand it no longer but dropped invisible behind the breastwork. But the climax of the whole was (as the Cleveland man says) when Mrs. Peck went out in the middle of the service. It was, however, the means of reconciling the whole society; for after that first day we heard no more opposition to the warm stove in the meeting-house."

With all this corroborative evidence I think it is fully proved that the event really happened in Litchfield, and that the honor was stolen for other towns by unveracious chroniclers; otherwise we must believe in an amazing unanimity of church-joking and sham-fainting all over New England.

The very nature, the stern, pleasure-hating and trial-glorying Puritan nature, which made our forefathers leave their English homes to come, for the love of God and the freedom of conscience, to these wild, barren, and unwelcoming shores, made them also endure with fortitude and almost with satisfaction all personal discomforts, and caused them to cling with persistent firmness to such outward symbols of austere contempt of luxury, and such narrow-minded signs of love of simplicity as the lack of comfortable warmth during the time of public worship. The religion which they had endured such bitter hardships to establish, did not, in their minds, need any shielding and coddling to keep it alive, but thrived far better on Spartan severity and simplicity; hence, it took two centuries of gradual and most tardy softening and modifying of character to prepare the Puritan mind for so advanced a reform and luxury as proper warmth in the meeting-houses in winter.

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