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Church Customs - The Old First Church, Bennington Vermont, built in 1805.
The Old First Church, Bennington Vermont, built in 1805.
During the Sabbath
in colonial times, the man of the house would put aside his business duties, the housewife ceased all housework, and the children would would store away their toys and refrain from playing. Sunday was a strict observance of the Sabbath. For many settlers, it was a laborious task to attend church services. The colonists would travel on foot or horse for miles, sometimes on a path only eight feet wide which was not designed for a wagon. Without bridges, it would be necessary for colonists to ford creeks and rivers with children on their backs or travel by boats. Think of the dangers they had to face with ice jams on the rivers in winter months.

Despite the longs walks and hardships the colonists had to endure, they gladly made their journeys to meetinghouses. They would enjoy the spiritual and emotional bond that church provided to them. It was most likely lonely on the frontier. This was their one social gathering for the week prior to beginning a week's new chores. Yet there were stringent laws enforced on the Sabbath.

If those laws were broken, fines would be implemented or floggings would take place. It was possible that one could be excommunicated or placed in stockades. Early worshippers were forbidden to loiter, cut hair, ride or walk fast, cook, make beds, travel unnecessarily, or perform gardening chores. In Jonas Heinrich Gudehus journal in our Biography section, he states:

Except for dire need, there is no work done on Sunday; no woman takes a darning or needle instrument in her hand, no business man may do the slightest buying or selling, also no games, no music and dance are allowed; all of this is against the law and forbidden by severe punishment.


In Connecticut it was decreed that "No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day". In Boston in 1656 Captain Kimble was set in the stocks for two hours for his "lewd and unseemly behavior" because he had kissed his wife on his front doorstep after seeing each other after three years. As late as 1774 the First Church of Roxbury fined non-attendance at public worship. In 1651 Thomas Scott "was fyned ten shillings unless he have learned Mr. Norton's 'Chatacise' by the next court" In 1760 the legislature of Massachusetts passed the law that "any person able of Body who shall absent themselves from publick worship of God on the Lord's Day shall pay ten shillings fine." By the Connecticut code ten shillings was the fine, and the law was not suspended until the year 1770.

Church Customs - The Old Log Church, Schellsburg Pennsylvania, built in 1806.
The Old Log Church, Schellsburg Pennsylvania, built in 1806.
Worship would be held early on in a plain square log structure with clay-filled chinks surmounted by steep roofs thatched with long straw or grass, and often with only the beaten earth for a floor. In the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania long before the layout of the county seat, an outdoor pulpit was used for fourteen months for sermons provided by an itinerant missionary before permission was given to build a meetinghouse. If the weather wouldn't cooperate, meetings would be held in family log cabins.

Most of the meetinghouses in rural Pennsylvania in the Cumberland Valley would be built of log along the creek which would provide a source for good drinking water which was essential for both man and animal. In colonial days, members of the church came to worship in the morning and stay the better part of the day.

Meeting House Springs Church in Carlisle was erected around 1737 and by the 1830's had disappeared into the pastoral landscape from which it came. A brief description given in a historical address in 1927 as it was once remembered:

"The wall were doubtless of logs hewn on the inner and perhaps outer side, united in a peculiar manner at the corners and with the interstices filled with clay plaster. The floor and ceilings were of split logs as were also the seats of the worshippers. The doors were at one end and the pulpit at the other, with windows at the sides and one large window over the pulpit. The men and women occupied separate ranges of seats as was customary in former times and one bench under the pulpit was intended for the clerk who gave out the psalms and tunes which were to be sung in worship. The elders were also assigned a seat by themselves where they could see the congregation and attend order. The whole building is said to have been low in elevation and not very extensive on the ground."


Church Customs - St Peter's Kierch, Middletown, Pennsylvania built in 1767.
St Peter's Kierch, Middletown, Pennsylvania built in 1767.
Except for the Meeting House Springs Church, all other structures on this creek were replaced with a limestone structure. St Peters Kierch is a colonial church that has prominence in Lutheran history. It was erected in Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1767 and dedicated in 1769 by Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, patriarch of American Lutheranism. The land was purchased for seven shillings and six pence and one grain of wheat per year was charged for rent.

Churches of New England later were square wooden buildings, crowned with a truncated pyramidal roof which was surmounted with a belfry or turret containing a bell, usually unpainted until the middle of the 18th century when paint became more readily available. They were painted a bright red, yellow as in Pomfret Connecticut, or orange as in Brooklyn, not the quintessential white we know of today.

Hanging on the outside of the front of the churches were regulations, notices, and bills- notices of town meetings, prohibitions from selling guns and powder to the Indians, intentions of marriages, scandalous and insulting libels, and other postings. In the earlier log churches, a grinning severed wolf head was sometimes nailed under the window and by the side of the door with blood reddening the logs beneath.

When Indian attacks threatened the worshippers, loopholes for guns were cut in the sides of the structure, cannons decorated the roofs, a lookout was stationed if available, turrets and armed watches might pace the streets outside. The settlers took their muskets with them to worship. Men would sometimes wear armor- a coat basted with cotton wool.

Church Customs -  Inside St Peter's Kierch.
Inside St Peter's Kierch.
Church Customs - Inside St Peter's Kierch, the stove is on the right.
Inside St Peter's Kierch, the stove is on the right.
During the winter months, fires were forbidden inside the church. Windows were boarded up with oiled paper in the windows to cut down on the ferocious winter winds. Gloves, heavy boots, stockings, fur caps, beaver hats, heavy coats were worn. Cold feet could be warmed by foot warmers, fur bags, or skins. Hot bricks and stones were wrapped in old blankets. It wasn't until the 1840's when stoves were introduced into the middle aisles of the worship areas. It was so bitter in the meetinghouses that Judge Sewall pathetically recorded, "The communion bread was frozen pretty hard and rattled sadly into the plates." Judge Sewell also 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."

Church Customs - Inside The Old First Church.
Inside The Old First Church.
The pews of New England churches were wood planks and to be "wounded in the hearts for their original sinne". When financing became available, pews became enclosed with a swinging door. Seating was chosen by a casted system according to position, age, social status, and material goods. When a male owner died, his seat was passed down to an older son, grandson, or brother. The same ownership for women was passed down in the same fashion. Unclaimed seats were reverted to the church. Negroes and deaf people were seated separately.

Law and order was adhered to in church by a deacon or tithingman:

"The most grotesque, the most extraordinary, the most highly colored figure in the dull New England church-life was the tithingman. This fairly burlesque creature impresses me always with a sense of unreality, of incongruity, of strange happening, like a jesting clown in a procession of monks, like a strain of low comedy in the sober religious drams of early New England Puritan life, so out of place, so unreal is this fussy, pompous, restless tithingman, with his fantastic wand of office fringed with dangling foxtails,- creaking, bustling, strutting, peering around the quiet meeting-house, prodding and rapping the restless boys, waking the drowsy sleepers; for they slept in country churches in the seventeenth century. This absurd and distorted type of the English church beadle, this colonial sleep banisher, was equipped with a long staff, heavily knobbed at one end, with which he severely and pitilessly rapped the heads of the too sleepy men, and the too wide-awake boys. From the other end of this wand of office depended a long foxtail, or a hare's foot, which he softly thrust in the faces of the sleeping Priscillas, Charitys, and Hopestills, and which gently brushed and tickled them into reverent but startled wakefulness."


Can you imagine children lasting an entire day in church without some type of outburst of laughter or mischievousness? Punishments were initiated. In some churches the disgraced were forced to sit on a "stool of repentance". wearing a paper which stated the name of the offense. Sometimes it was necessary for the tithingman to be designated as a "whipper person". "Laying downe ye head upon ye arms in a sleeping posture" in church was against the law.

Singing in the early meetinghouses was very important to the colonists; however, the singing was hopelessly forlorn and sung in a horrible manner due to the versification and unknown pitch of the Psalms. There were a few attempts made to guide the singing at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Bay Psalm Book was introduced which had instructions on the last page of the book-"First, observe how many note-compass the tune is next the place of your first note, and how many notes above and below that so as you may begin the tune of your first note, as the rest maybe sung in the compass of your and the peoples voices without Squeaking above or Grumbling below." Psalms had to be first "lined out", that is intoned line by line before the singers "took the Run of the Tune". Musical instruments were frowned upon at first. Pitch pipes, an apple-wood instrument that looked like a mouse trap were the first to be smuggled in to the church services. They helped set the pitch of the Psalm. Little fifes and metal tuning forks were used. Eventually organs, bass viols, and clarinets were introduced. All these instruments helped improve the singing in the meetinghouses Eventually choirs were formed.

The colonist took the Sabbath very seriously, sometimes too radically. However, it was their commitment that inspired our strong customs of religion which extended well into the twentieth century

Source: Text by Bryan Wright

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