Certain days and certain seasons of the year serve to remind us in a special way of particular events of history. And so, too, Thanksgiving Day has its special signification and reminds us among other things of those early Pilgrims who came to the shores of the New World, seeking the right of free worship of God according to their convictions.
It is not, however, our purpose to review once more the history of the sufferings and hardships of these early settlers. Rather we would retrace our thoughts to that period of history immediately following the coming of the Pilgrims, and catch a few glimpses of the habits and customs prevalent during the colonial era in general—echoes, as it were, of a way of life utterly foreign to our own times. And in order to remain within definite bounds we will limit ourselves to a few random thoughts and observations of life in the colonies on the Sabbath day. Strange. Distinctly different. So would a colonial Sabbath appear to modern America. All work was strictly taboo. Hardly a sound disturbed the quiet of the day. Dancing, card playing, racing, bowling, riding, and boating were forbidden pleasures. All travel, unless strictly necessary, was forbidden. Violators of those regulations were promptly punished. New York City punished Sabbath desecrators by locking them up in a cage in City Hall Park. In other communities violators were committed to the stocks, and in some sections, it cost colonial boys and girls five shillings ($1.21) to smile during church services.
Many and varied were the means used to summon the colonists to worship. The peel of a bell, the rattle of drums, the blast of a horn, or the waving of a flag, all were employed by the colonists. As the hour of worship drew near all avenues of approach teemed with worshippers. Some came on foot, others rode on hard, lumbering wagons, and if the meeting house happened to be in the vicinity of a stream, boats were used also. Few of the families assembling for worship failed to bring their dogs. In some communities, the young women of the congregation had a special duty to perform before entering the church. They would remove old footwear and put on their best shoes, which had been carried to the meeting house to avoid unnecessary wear.
As one entered the meeting house, particularly in New England, he would frequently find the walls of the edifice littered with copies of laws, sales reports, notices of lost or impounded swine, marriage announcements, and the like. Oftentimes gun powder was stored away in the churches. If a thunder shower broke during the time of worship, the congregation would leave their powder laden house of prayer and stand at a safe distance until the storm passed. A church in the Connecticut valley, located in a township where the smoking of tobacco was prohibited on public streets, used its church loft to store and dry tobacco. When cured and ready for use it was sold to the “ungodly Dutch”.
.By the time the service opened the dingy, dark interior of the meeting house was usually well filled. Dingy and dark because window’s were small and few in number, while the use of paint was considered extravagant and vainglorious. And well filled because anyone absenting himself from a service of worship without valid excuse would inevitably be fined.
The winter season found these houses of worship extremely cold and uncomfortable. Heavy overcoats, fur caps and mittens were standard equipment. Both men and women carried muffs. Foot stoves were common, and here and there a dog lay at his master’s feet, supplying grateful warmth to cold digits. Frequently the water in the baptism fount would freeze so that the ice had to be broken before baptism could be administered.
In New York, the Dutch smoked their elongated pipes to supply warmth. A custom quite necessary, for until 1802 New Yorkers insisted on keeping church doors open even in winter, with the result that snow frequently drifted up the aisles. Yet with the advent of stoves a “heated” controversy ensued, and many a colonist yearned for the good old days when the sacred fire of love, rather than a stove, supplied needed warmth.
However, despite the bleak discomfort of these surroundings, the colonists usually awaited the services with eager anticipation. As the minister entered the church he would ascend a steep staircase which led to the pulpit far above his audience. In some communities the deaf of the congregation shared the pulpit with their pastor, frequently adjusting their great tin ear trumpets directly before the minister’s face, to the great annoyance of the latter.
The service usually opened with a prayer thirty minutes in length. Then the precentor, whose only qualification for the job was a strong voice, mounted the pulpit stairway, announced the psalm, tuned it with his pine pitch pipe, and began singing. The congregation followed, slowly and discordantly. The dogs in and about the meeting house, distressed by the strange and melancholy sound, would set up a mournful howling. That the singing was poor can be gathered from a quotation in the Old Bay Psalm Book widely used in New England which spoke of singing “without squeaking above or grumbling below”. Yet with the advent of organs and other musical accompaniment the colonists were loathe to accept these improvements. An organ was termed a “box of whistles” or a “tooting tub”. In one place, where a clarinet was introduced, an objector brought a fish horn to the meeting, which was blown loud and long in competition with the choir and the clarinet. Thus did this dissenter blow his disapproval.
At the completion of the first song the minister would offer another long prayer. Then followed the setting of the hour glass by the church sexton and the sermon would begin. After the first hour the sexton again set the hour glass. Frequently weary heads would nod visibly, but not for long. The ever present sexton armed with a long staff heavily knobbed at one end, would mercilessly rap the heads of nodding men and restless boys, while sleep-loving women and girls were tickled into startled wakefulness by a rabbit’s foot suspended from the other end of this staff of order. Should the minister fail to conclude his sermon by the end of the second hour, many congregations empowered their sexton to give the pulpit three sharp raps of warning with his staff, thus automatically terminating the sermon. Where no restrictions were in force, however, sermons preached in early colonial times sometimes reached the astounding length of four or five hours, and prayers too were lengthy. One zealous and strong lunged parson is said to have prayed for three hours over a sick Indian papoose in competition with a medicine man. The latter finally jumped into the river to cool his heated blood. The colonists, however, desired long sermons and prayers. They wanted them, despite the attendant inconveniences of penetrating cold in winter, suffocating heat in summer, and hard, uncomfortable benches at all times.
At some point during the service an offering would be received. Black velvet bags attached to the end of a long stick were used for this purpose. Bells were attached below the bags to give warning of the deacon’s coming. One church is said to have placed a bell in the bottom of the bag where it would sound only if a contribution was made.
At the completion of the morning service many a colonial congregation, particularly in rural sections, would retire in a body to the “noon-house”, a combined horse stable, restaurant, and lobby. During the winter season hands and feet, numb with cold after a session in a fireless church, would be warmed before the great open fireplace. As they ate their meals the parishioners would discuss the sermon or exchange such other bits of gossip as might be of interest. In some localities, the “wretched boys’’ would have a sermon read to them to keep them out of mischief. Sharing the noon-house with the worshippers were their horses. They had been schooled to cope with any and all inconveniences. After dining the colonists returned to the church for the second service of the day.
At the conclusion of the day’s services the colonists would return to their homes and the family cooks would prepare and serve the best meal of the week. Following the repast the young folks would separate into groups unhampered by parental restraints, and children played games. Those more advanced in years among the men present would discuss theology, politics, or crops, while the women would exchange thoughts regarding their varied domestic duties, as well as the perennially feminine subject of clothes.
And so, our Sunday in the colonies comes to an end. The question might be asked, after reading an article of this kind, “Were the colonists not inclined to make mockery of things holy by the actions and customs they followed on the Lord’s Day?’’ The answer must be an emphatic no. They were a frontiers people and, therefore cared very little for the politeness of thought and action which characterizes our present time. Hence you see them solving their problem of order in church with the knobbed staff of the church warden, something which would be a constant source of amusement in our own times. The colonists, however, never regarded the work of their church warden in any other light than that of a solemn obligation to maintain order in the house of God.
To keep the Sabbath Day holy was the spirit that pervaded all their actions on that day, and as we say goodbye to our friends of the yesteryears may we not forget even as we smile at some of the ideas and customs they embraced, to strive to emulate their unstinted loyalty and devotion to the cause of Christ, and their evident willingness to endure hardships as good soldiers in Christ’s army— qualities that are sorely need in this Thanksgiving season of 1941.