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Sunday in the Colonies

All the Colonists were strict in the observance of worship. Sunday was a severe day, and everybody had to be on his best behavior. The first building used for church purposes was the fort, to which every one marched in a body, the men fully armed to protect the congregation from the Indians. Before the fort was finished, the people worshiped under trees, or in tents, or anywhere they could find a place. Many of the earliest meeting-houses were log huts, with mud between the cracks, and with thatched roofs.

These early churches had oiled paper in the windows. When glass was brought over, it was set in by nails, for there was no putty. Neither was there any paint, so the outside of every house was left to turn gray with the weather, or to become moss-covered from the dampness of the grove in which it were usually placed.

Rewards were paid for the killing of wolves, and any one who brought a wolf's head, nailed it to the outside wall of the church, and wrote his name under it. You can imagine what a grim sight the bloody trophies made. All sorts of notices were posted on the church doors, so that everybody might see them—announcements of town meetings, of proposed marriages, of cattle sales, of rules against trading with the Indians; in fact the church door took the place of the newspaper of to-day for spreading the news. It was the only means of advertisement.

In front of the church stood a row of hitching-posts and stepping stones, for nearly everybody rode to meeting. On the green, in front or to one side, were often placed the pillory, stock, and whipping-post.

There were many ways of calling the people to church, such as beating a drum, ringing a bell, or blowing a shell. Many of the churches had a drummer, who went up and down the streets, or else stood in the belfry and drummed. After the signal was given, a man went the rounds of the village, and looked in all the houses, to see that everybody who was able had gone to church. Woe betide the man who was late, or the boy who had skipped away to the woods!

The inside of a Colonial church was simple enough. Overhead, the rafters usually opened to the thatch or clapboard roof; the floors were of earth, or rough boards; and the pews or benches had straight backs and were hard. The pulpit was usually a high desk, reached by a staircase or ladder, with a sounding board over it. There was no heat in these early churches, for a heating stove was unknown. The chill of the building,—dark and closed all the week, and damp from the shadowed grove,—was hard for every one to stand. To keep from suffering during the long service, the women put their feet in bags, made of fur and filled with wool. Dogs were allowed so that their masters might put their feet under them. In fact, churches appointed dog whippers to control the dogs or to drive them out if they became noisy and unbearable. Some of the women and children had foot stoves, which were little metal boxes on legs, with small holes in the top and sides, and with hot coals inside.

The services were very long, no matter how cold it was. The snow might be falling and the wind blowing, but the people had to wrap up in their furs, snuggle down in the benches, and listen to a sermon two or three hours long. Sometimes a single prayer lasted an hour, while the people knelt on the bare floor. When a church was dedicated, the sermon generally lasted three or four hours. We might well wonder what the preacher could find to say, that it took so long a time to say it!

There was a tithing-man, whose duty it was to maintain order, and also to keep everybody awake. The men sat on one side of the church, the women sat on the other, while the boys and girls were made to sit near the pulpit. Up in the loft were places for the negroes and the Indians. The tithing-man kept close watch for sleepers. He had a long stick, with a rabbit's foot on one end and a rabbit's tail on the other. If a man nodded, or a boy made a noise, the tithing-man struck him a sharp blow on the head. If an old lady closed her eyes, the tithing-man gently tickled her nose with the rabbit's tail. He was generally kept pretty busy toward the end of a long sermon!

During the noon intermission, in the winter time, the half frozen congregation went to the nearest house or tavern to get warm, and to eat a simple Sunday meal. In summertime, they sat on the green and talked in low, solemn tones. After two hours' intermission, the congregation assembled again, and the dreary service was resumed. The singing was very doleful. There were few books, so the deacon or leader gave out the hymn, a line or two at a time. Often, the singing of these psalms or hymns lasted a half-hour, during which the people stood. Altogether, we can easily see that a Sunday service, morning and afternoon, would last seven hours.

In all the Colonies, Sunday was strictly observed. Any unseemly conduct was punished by whipping or by fire. It was forbidden to fish, shoot, sail, row a boat, or do any kind of work on that day. Horses were used only to drive or ride to church. There was little or no cooking, but everybody ate cold food on the Lord's Day. No one was allowed to use tobacco near any meeting-house. The Sabbath began at sunset, on Saturday, and lasted until sunset, on Sunday.

After the Colonists grew better off, they built larger and better churches, sometimes of stone, or brick, and often beautiful in their stately architecture. Many of these churches are preserved at the present day, with their high pulpits, and their big, stiff back benches, or box pews, for the whole family. In all of them, however, the same severity of worship was observed, for it was thought thereby to make a God-fearing and God-serving people.