"Remembering the Sabbath": Worship in New England Meetinghouses


The Reverend George Allen's pulpit in the meetinghouse in Shrewsbury, Mass. Allen was responsible for the redecoration of the pulpit and the hanging of the elaborate drapery. His other major reform was banning the attendance of dogs at Sunday service. Boston Mechanics Magazine, July 1835.

How rural New Englanders spent their Sundays a century-and-a-half ago For many of us today, a graceful white meetinghouse in a picturesque village is the symbol of rural New England. Many such buildings, dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, still serve their communities in important ways. They also can evoke for us strong images of the past. We may visualize carpenters of long ago shaping mighty posts and beams, and a hundred or more men toiling together to raise the frame. Or we may imagine crowded congregations of worshipers, listening to lengthy sermons, and wonder what it was like to keep the New England Sabbath five or six generations ago.

Very few communities had only one place of worship. There was a rapid growth of denominations in the early 19th century, and a Sunday census taker would have counted, in addition to the majority who were still in the Congregationalist "mainstream," rural New Englanders worshiping in Baptist and Universalist meetinghouses, Methodist chapels and Episcopal churches. He might also have found a few Roman Catholics attending Mass in private houses. But we will focus on the Congregationalist majority in this article, hoping in the future to put other aspects of New England's religious life in the spotlight.

In the 1830s, some New Englanders called the first day of the week "Sunday," as was the custom in England and most other parts of the United States. But many rural people continued the regional tradition of "the Sabbath," "Sabbathday," or in its most rustic form, "Sabbahday." In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Sabbath had been regarded as a day out of ordinary time. The Puritans had come to insist on strict and unvarying observance of the Sabbath, at the same time that they had eliminated all saints' days and holidays, including Christmas, from the calendar.

Following Old Testament precedent, all forms of recreation, all but the most necessary work, and all travel except to and from meeting had been forbidden. Gradually, though, some of the most extreme forms of Sabbath regulation had been abandoned. The English traveler William Strickland observed of Connecticut in 1795 that "the custom of stopping [travel] on the Sabbath is fast wearing out, the law becoming obsolete." But the day's contrast with the rest of the week remained striking. There was no work in the fields, while shops and stores were shuttered and mills did not run.

Not everyone went to meeting every week. Attendance fluctuated, depending on the weather, the state of the roads, how recently the church had experienced a revival and the popularity of the minister. Looking back in 1812 over his lengthy pastorate, Joseph Sumner of Shrewsbury, Mass., thought attendance had fallen off in the tumultuous years of the Revolution and the early republic: "Did the inhabitants of the town attend public worship, as universally at the present day, as they did fifty years ago, this house would scarcely contain our assembly." In the next 25 years, Shrewsbury experienced several revivals, and church attendance considerably increased. Yet, on a wintry "Sabbath eve" in 1838, Thomas Ward could write with disappointment that "there were many vacant seats in our church today."

Individual patterns of attendance also varied. At one end of the scale were women like Mary Avery White of West Boylston, Mass., whose diary shows remarkably consistent, weekly appearance at worship. A young man living on his own, such as Edward Jenner Carpenter, a cabinetmaker's apprentice in Greenfield, Mass., was more likely to miss meeting. He spent most of his Sundays taking excursions and reading fiction.

There were a few in each town who chose to defy community norms. They were most likely to be found in outlying districts. Included in their number were the "actively ungodly," who refused to attend worship, preferred to spend the day "idling and drinking," and forbade their children to attend. There were also the "passive ungodly" — individuals who "had need of rest" on the Sabbath and simply stayed home. Their behavior helped define the boundaries between the "respectable" members of the community and those who were not.

Judged against any standards but its own, though, New England was remarkable for regular religious observance. Most households went to worship at least several times a year, and for many it was the central event of the week.

Bearing in mind all these qualifications, we can sketch the way a "typical" rural New England family observed the Sabbath. "Preparations ... were begun the day previous," Francis Underwood remembered:

"Farmers made ready, as far as possible, for the care of their animals, and got a supply of wood into the house. Women baked bread and prepared dishes, and attended to darning and mending, so as to leave a minimum of work for the holy day. In the evening, the Bible lessons were studied, and at the close diligent children were allowed roasted apples and fresh cider."

In sharp contrast to how even most churchgoers arrange things today, New Englanders rose as early on a Sabbath morning as they did during the rest of the week. Faces and hands were scrubbed, and best clothes were put on and given a rigorous inspection. After a cold breakfast, cooked the day before, families gathered for prayer before setting out for the meetinghouse. Those who lived at a distance sometimes had to allow themselves an hour or more. They came on horseback, in carriages or wagons, and even on foot.

For children, Sabbath restrictions could be a heavy burden. Play, non-religious conversation, and even laughter often were forbidden. One author told of a seven-year-old girl who could describe a frightening occurrence only by saying, "It is a great deal worse even than going to meeting." But other New Englanders remembered the Sundays of their childhood much more positively. For Mary Preston Holmes, "Very pleasant recollections come to me of those Sabbaths — consecrated days they surely were, never gloomy, tedious or unwelcome."

Sober as it was, the Sabbath was a central social event for rural New Englanders. While the countryside was hushed, the center village with its meetinghouses was a noisy, bustling place as congregations streamed in to worship. Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictional storyteller, Sam Lawson, described a well-attended Sabbath as "sich a row of waggins tied along by the meetin'-house that the sheds was all full, and all the hitchin'-posts was full clean up to the tavern ...."

Ties of friendship and kinship were renewed; families exchanged a week's worth of town and neighborhood news. For young men and women, the intervals before and between worship services were also times for shy socialization.

After filing into the meetinghouse, families found their pews or took unassigned seats. During most of the 18th century, the town or religious society had "seated" the meetinghouse — that is, the more or less desirable seats were allocated to the head of a household on the basis of a collective judgment of his status and worth. With the gradual ending of religious taxation in the early 19th century, these arrangements largely disappeared. Voluntary support for worship meant that in most communities pews were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Some special seating arrangements remained. "Singers' seats" were usually set aside in the gallery. In some towns, blacks had to sit in a specially designated pew.

Children of all ages usually accompanied their parents to meeting and sat in the family pew. Relatively young children, however, were occasionally left home by themselves. Thus, in February 1799, six-year-old Nathan and four-year-old Artemas Goddard of Shrewsbury accidentally set fire to their house while the rest of the family was at meeting; the parents and older children returned to find the boys luckily escaped, but the house burned to the ground.

The order of worship followed a traditional form laid down by English Puritan reformers in the early 17th century. Henry Dana Ward described it in 1823 as "consisting of a psalm or hymn, an extemporaneous prayer, a psalm or hymn, a written sermon, anthem, prayer, psalm or hymn." The "usual service," of course, was held in both the morning and the afternoon, and each half was quite long by modern standards. From 10 A.M. until late in the afternoon, with an hour or so for dinner, congregations prayed, sang, heard choral anthems and long passages of scripture and listened to two sermons.

New Englanders had what seems now an almost incredible appetite for the spoken word. One-hour sermons — a single turn of the pulpit hourglass — were common, and two-hour ones were not unknown. Even the most devout sometimes found their attention wandering during the long hours of worship. In the Summer, "to be sleepy during sermon-time was the universal failing," noted Francis Underwood, and it was customary "to carry sprigs of caraway, dill or coriander, to nibble at when the eyelids began to droop." In Winter, even with two box stoves in the meetinghouse, "the greater part of the interior was as cold as the adjacent graveyard" and "on cold days both men and boys found that the sermon had a great many heads."

Between services, the congregation broke up for dinner. Those who lived nearby went home to eat, often bringing guests from farther away. In good weather, families from the countryside ate outdoors on the grass or sitting on the meetinghouse steps; in rain, cold or snow they could often be found taking the noon meal in their pews. After the concluding benediction, the worshipers left the meetinghouse for home, supper and sometimes for continued religious activity.

When at last it was time to go to bed, "it seemed to children that the bell in the meeting-house steeple had been ringing all day; that services had been going on all day, and that they had read the Bible and Catechism all day."

Despite their Sabbatarian strictness and grueling services, New Englanders sometimes conducted themselves in the meetinghouse with striking informality, behavior which may challenge our notions of "sacred" space and religious decorum. In a predominantly agricultural society, animals went well-nigh everywhere, as a Shrewsbury diary recorded in August of 1815:

"This day in the afternoon a young turkey was driven into the church, and it by degrees flew on to the pulpit beside Dr. Sumner while he was at prayer, and without any noise stood upon the Bible with as little concern as it would have done on the ground.... When we sat down to sing the last tune it left the pulpit and went on to the beam over Dea. Goddard's pew, all this, except when he first came in the house, and until we were dismissed, was without one peep or noise from the turkey." Dogs followed their masters to meeting and frequently into the building itself. Artemas Williams of Shrewsbury recalled that they "thought it was fine sport to come to church and so during service they used to cup up all kinds of extras, chasing one another round and round the church." But a new minister, George Allen, arrived in 1823 and resolved to change the order of things. He and the sexton decided to remove dogs permanently from the meetinghouse, and it was remembered how Josiah Maynard dealt with them: "He soon put a stop to their fun. He caught one or two and whipt them.... Some of the congregation complained because he did not whip them out of church. But, he thought different and so he whipt them in church."

In other meetinghouses, the unwary could find different hazards. At a Sabbath service in Willington, Connecticut, the Englishman, Edward Kendall, found himself in some danger from a group of tobacco-chewing young men sitting behind him. They used the center aisle as a spittoon. The singers, prominently seated in the gallery, were sometimes responsible for behavior that would seem highly distracting today. It was a "habit of inveterate standing" for each singer to beat time on his own account"; the result was often a chaos of rhythmically moving limbs, with some members "ostentatious in wielding an arm to its full extent," others "equally ostentatious in using only a finger." Male singers often lost or neglected to obtain music books, so that four, five or even more singers could be seen trying to use the same book; those too far away to read the verses sometimes invented their own, much to everyone's confusion.

On at least one occasion, a group of singers even rejected a visiting minister's selection of hymns on theological grounds, and there was no music that day. These "improprieties" were not examples of conscious irreverence, but an 18th-century inheritance persisting in a time of transition. In the Puritan tradition, the meetinghouse had never been considered a sacred space like an Anglican or Roman Catholic church.

Such incidents were declining in the 1820s and 30s. Many ministers and laymen, defining new standards of proper behavior, were working to eliminate them and to introduce bass viols, organs, stoves, architectural and decorative refinements into worship. They had succeeded so completely by the mid-19th century that few irregularities remained. New Englanders of the 1850s could look on the situation of two or three decades before as "the endurance of an old custom, which it occurred to no one to take the proper steps to remove."

This picture of early-19th-century worship has been a portrayal of a changing society. In following a day's Sabbath observance, we have explored a way of life very different from ours. We have seen both surprising severity and surprising laxity, recent innovations and survivals from the past, incidents both serious and amusing. Studied from a similar perspective, aspects of our own lives may well look much the same to future generations.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.