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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Religious Customs in New England

By Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780)

[From The History of Massachusetts. 3d edition. 1795.]

THE MINISTERS of the several churches in the town of Boston have ever been supported by a free weekly contribution. I have seen a letter from one of the principal ministers of the colony expressing some doubts of the lawfulness of receiving a support in any other way. In the country towns, compulsory laws were found necessary; and in the year 1654 the county courts were empowered to assess upon the inhabitants of the several towns which neglected the support of the ministry a sum sufficient to make up the defect.

In Boston, after prayer and before singing, it was the practice for several years for the minister to read and expound a chapter. Whether it was because this carried the service to too great a length, or any other reason could be given for it, in a few years it was laid aside, except when it came in place of a sermon. Exceptions (may we not say cavils?) have been made, by some learned, serious ministers, against reading the Scriptures as part of the divine service without an exposition. The other parts of religious public worship, and the manner of administering the sacraments, not differing from what is at this day the practice of the churches of New England and of the church of Scotland, it is unnecessary to take any notice of them.

From a sacred regard to the religion of the Christian Sabbath, a scruple arose of the lawfulness of calling the first day of the week Sunday; and they always, upon any occasion, whether in a civil or religious relation to it, styled it either the Lord’s-day or the Sabbath. As the exception to the word Sunday was founded upon its superstitious, idolatrous origin, the same scruple naturally followed with respect to the names of all the other days of the week, and of most of the months, which had the same origin; accordingly they changed Monday, Tuesday, etc. into the second and third days of the week; and instead of March and April, used the first and second months; and instead of the third Tuesday in May, the language was, the third third day of the third month; and so of the rest. All their records and other writings are dated in the common form, which they brought from England with them, until the year 1636, when Mr. Vane was governor; but after that, the alteration seems to have been very strictly observed in all public and private writings and discourse, for many years together. In the interregnum it much obtained in England; but the scruple there went off at once, upon the restoration; here, it abated; and it continues scarce any where at this day, except among the people called Quakers. Perhaps the great dislike to some other peculiarities of that people caused the decline of that custom in the colony, and made them consider the singularity in the same light with some others of the same nature, which they condemned. (They began the Sabbath the evening of the last day of the week. It was some time before this custom was settled. Mr. Hooker, in a letter without date, but wrote about the year 1640, says, “The question touching the beginning of the Sabbath is now on foot among us, hath once been spoken to, and we are to give in our arguments each to the other, so that we may ripen our thoughts touching that truth, and if the Lord will it may more fully appear.” And in another letter, March, 1640, “Mr. Huit hath not answered our arguments against the beginning the Sabbath at morning.”)

That everything approaching to an acknowledgment of the authority of the Pope, and his power of canonization, might be avoided, they never used the addition of saint when they spake of the apostles and the ancient fathers of the Christian Church, and even the usual names of places were made to conform. The island of Saint Christophers was always written Christophers, and by the same rule all other places to which saint had been prefixed. If any exception was made, an answer was ready: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had as good right to this appellation as Peter, James and John.

They laid aside the fasts and feasts of the Church of England, and appointed frequently, as occasion required, days of fasting and thanksgiving; but, besides these occasional fasts and thanksgivings, they constantly, every spring, appointed a day for fasting and prayer, to implore the divine blessings upon their affairs in the ensuing year; and in the fall, a day of thanksgiving and public acknowledgment of the favors conferred upon them in the year past. If they more readily fell into this practice from the example of the people of God of old, yet they might well have been justified without any example. It has continued without interruption, I suppose, in any one instance, down to this day. This is a custom to which no devout person of any sect will take exception. By a law of the colony, every person absenting himself from the public worship, on these days, without sufficient excuse, was liable to five shillings fine. It would have been as well, perhaps, if this provision had been omitted.

These were the principal of the special ecclesiastical or religious customs. There were some attempts to introduce singularities into some of the churches; particularly Mr. Davenport, of New Haven, who afterward removed to Boston, required all his congregation to stand up whilst the text was naming; the principal reason which was given for it being that it was the word of God, and deserved peculiar honor; and Mr. Williams, of Salem, required all the women of his congregation to wear veils; but neither of these customs spread, or were of any long continuance. It was observed, as to the latter, that so uncouth an appearance, contrary to the practice of the English nation, would probably draw more eyes than if they were dressed like other women. Mr. Cotton, of Boston, happening to preach at Salem soon after this custom began, he convinced his hearers that it had no sufficient foundation in the Scriptures: the married women had no pretence to wear veils as virgins; neither married nor unmarried would choose to do it from the example of Tamar the harlot, nor need they do it for such purpose as Ruth did in her widowhood. His sermon had so good an effect, that they were all ashamed of their veils, and never appeared covered with them afterward.