Colonists’ Sunday church rituals


Sunday’s “go-to meeting” was not only customary but a heartfelt honor of God and his grace to all his creations. Only on rare occasions did the colonists miss services.

The first meeting of the Pilgrims was held in a fort where the assembly marched silently and solemnly. These men were armed with guns and swords. This building served as the church until 1648 when the first meeting house was constructed.

Other New England areas used any suitable shelter that could be obtained – for example, tents, under trees and private homes.

Boston’s first meeting house was quite crude with mud walls, dirt floors and the Old World thatch roof. This shelter served its purpose until 1640.

Most, if not all, structures were made of logs, chinked to keep the elements out. The floors were mostly made of dirt with reed or long grass-thatched roofing. Only the local folks knew which was a private home, town hall or meeting house.

New building. Later a more stately building was constructed of more refined materials. It was a large, two-story lumber, square in form, structure with a truncated pyramidal roof and a belfry.

This meeting house has withstood the ages and is, or was the last time my family and I saw it, still standing. Constructed in 1681 and named Old Ship, it was a dignified building.

The third style of meeting house had the prominent lofty steeple at one end that is so often seen scattered across the New England area.

Windows. Glass was a rare and expensive part of dwellings, which meant that churches and most homes used oiled paper for letting light inside.

All windows had what was termed heavy-current side shutters.

The exterior of the structure was never stained and the boards were left to weather to various shades of gray hues. Sometimes, when they were damp, moss and fungus collected on the outside walls. The exterior was often festooned with dead wolf heads, sort of a notice that one more predator was gone.

The outside was also used as a community bulletin board due to the fact that all area residents came to the location on Sundays and would see the board and advertisements. At this time, this was the only place everyone gathered.

The area in front of the church also contained the stocks for wrong-doers – a pillory and whipping posts.

Where the horses were tethered was usually a series of stepping stones or horse blocks, where a rider could step down comfortably from the horse. Of course, there was also a wooden or hewed-out large sandstone watering trough. The trough looked similar to the one that used to be next to Route 224 and Route 46 in Canfield, Ohio.

Call to service. Several methods were used in New England to call the congregation to service. The bell summoned folks to the Catholic, Episcopal and Dutch Reformed church. A drum beat was used in Jamestown, Va. New England Puritans were notified by either a drum or conch shell horn.

These all occurred at 9 a.m. Sermons were usually two to three hours and prayers were then offered for one to two hours.

The interior was plain and sanded with earthen floors, unpainted pews and pulpit or scaffold in front. Pews were shaped like a box with high walls and folding narrow benches to sit on.

Inside the church. Instead of the word pew, it was originally a pue or pits. The narrow benches were hinged and folded against the pew walls during the psalms and prayer. This allowed folks to lean on the walls while standing.

When the benches dropped, there was a loud resounding clatter that carried into the surrounding neighborhood. The sound was likened to musketry in a fierce encounter.

Seating in many churches was assigned by the seating committee. If a person sat in an unassigned pew, they were fined many shillings. If a person was persistent in sitting in the wrong seat week after week, they were fined as high as 27 pounds in Newbury.

Cold prayer. Most of the churches were unheated until the late 1800s. During damp and cold days, the many hours of inactivity during services was undoubtedly almost unbearable and most people probably looked forward to the services being over.

A few of the early meeting houses had bags made of wolf skins nailed to the pews. During cold weather, the congregation could put their legs in them.

If a person had a dog, he or she was permitted to bring it in so it could sit on the owner’s feet. To control unruly dogs, a dog whipper or dog pelter was assigned to control the dog.

Foot warmers, a small pierced metal box that contained hot coals, was often used by fortunate individuals.

Halfway through the services in the winter there was a break, which allowed people to go to a local heated building to warm up.

Noon house. This was referred to as a sabba day or noon house. It was located near the church with a large fireplace or stove at one end and horse stalls at the other. No one was allowed to talk loudly or engage in any inappropriate activity or conversation.

Occasionally a family would construct their own noon house, or what was also called a society house. The latter was for children’s noon break.

The children would enter and sit quietly while a deacon talked to them about the sermon. This was referred to as nooning and questions and answers then followed. It was an early form of Sunday school.

The preacher would refer to Sunday as the “good fare of brown bread and the gospel.”

During this nooning, luncheons of brown bread, doughnuts or gingerbread were passed out.


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