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Holidays and Holy Days

The Puritans’ 24-Hour Sabbath Rest & Evangelicals’ 2-Hour Sabbath Disruption

“The church has never really come to terms with the invention of the internal combustion engine.” ~ Carl Trueman in “On Cars, Vows and the Slow Death of the Church” (Reformation21 Blog)

Carl Trueman puts the blame squarely, and rightly, on the automobile for the decline of the church:

Crowded Church Parking (from

Crowded Church Parking (from (click to enlarge)

The thing that is killing the church today is surely the car. In the olden days (and no… I am not talking about the 80s here but rather a hundred or so years ago and beyond), mobility was limited. If you crossed the local priest or minister, you could be in trouble because there might be no way you could go to the next town or village for worship on the Lord’s Day.

Today, I have even had friends who left their wives, took up with someone else, fled church discipline and, guess what?, found a church that would take them in as members in good standing. Today, unlike the olden days… they can simply jump into their car and drive and drive and keep driving until they find a church that will accept them… There is always some place that either does not know them or simply does not care what they have done.

Trueman’s post had me thinking back to the “olden days.” In the first three centuries of Christianity and during the Reformation, believers met for worship at the peril of life and limb. The Puritans of the 17th century walked on the Lord’s Days to their churches through creeks and crags, meadows and mountains, searing heat and freezing cold.

Today, Christians have cars—and yes, jeepneys, buses, and trains—available to them on the Lord’s Day to go to the church of their choosing, “church shopping” as the National Review article says. But many will miss the worship service to go to malls, movies, sports events, family outings, company picnics, vacations, or just to sleep in because they stayed very late on the previous Saturday night doing these things. For many, the Lord’s Day is merely a two-hour “gotta-do-it” disruption of their daily pursuit of pleasures.

A More “Holy” Saturday
In Stories of the Pilgrims by Margaret B. Pumphrey (New York: Rand-McNally, 1910), the author tells her young readers about the everyday life of the Pilgrims in England, Holland, and later, in “New England.” In the last chapter, “Holidays and Holy Days,” she describes what families did on Saturdays (“holidays”) and on the Lord’s Days (“holy days”). On Saturdays, the children had chores to do, but they also played:

Winter Morning Walk by George Henry Boughton, 1864 (click to enlarge)

Winter Morning Walk by G.H. Boughton, 1864 (click to enlarge)

It was Saturday morning. Little Elizabeth Brown sat by a window in the big kitchen, hemming a tiny pink dress for a doll she was making for her little sister Hope… She called it Mary Ellen and carried it about with her wherever she went.

About noon shouts were heard outside, and down the hill came a merry group of boys with axes over their shoulders. They had been cutting wood in the forest all the morning… Then Elizabeth and Hope took their clumsy wooden sled and went to the hill. Many boys and girls of the village were already flying down the long, smooth track. The air rang with their merry voices.

But the “holiday” soon came to an end at the hint of sunset:

All too soon they heard the boom! boom! of the sunset gun. The happy holiday was at an end. “What a pity it gets dark so early in the winter, when we want to coast,” they sighed, as they started toward home.

The parents were also busy, not with recreation, but with preparations for the Sabbath:

Pilgrim Mother and Child Home Life

Pilgrim Mother and Child Home Life (click to enlarge)

In another room their mother was looking over the clothes to be worn to meeting the next day. When the last button was sewed on and the clothes were well brushed, she laid them out on chairs, ready to be put on on Sunday morning. Nothing that could be done on Saturday was ever left over until Sunday. Even the potatoes were peeled, and the meat for Sunday’s dinner was cooked on Saturday.

And so Saturday evenings were spent on preparations for the Lord’s Day:

Puritan Girl at Prayer

Puritan Girl at Prayer (click to enlarge)

For the Puritans the Sabbath began at sunset on Saturday, and no child might play after the sunset gun was heard. When the children reached home, Hope ran to her bed to get Mary Ellen. Presently her mother came in and said, “This is the Sabbath now, Hope. You must not play with your doll on the Sabbath.” The evening was spent in reading the Bible and learning verses from it.

A Truly “Holy Day”
Sundays began early, again in preparation for going to church services:

Early Sunday morning, Mistress Brown came to the children’s bed and awakened them. “Get up, little girls,” she said. “This is the Lord’s Day and we must not waste it in bed.” After breakfast the family had prayers, after which they did such work as must be done, and then dressed for meeting.

Master Brown filled the little tin foot stove with hot coals from the hearth. Then he took down his gun from its hook and looked to see that it was ready for use. In those days no man went anywhere without his gun,—not even to church, for the Indians were likely to come at any time.

Even the walk to church was a solemn procession, and not filled with friendly chatter with other families.

Pilgrims Going to Church by George Henry Boughton, 1833-1905 (click to enlarge)

Pilgrims Going to Church by G.H. Boughton, 1867 (click to enlarge)

There were no bells on the first meetinghouses in New England. Sometimes the firing of a gun was the call to worship. More often a big drum, beaten on the steps of the meetinghouse, told the people it was time to come together. At the sound of the drum Master Brown and his wife, with Elizabeth, Hope, and Aunt Faith, started to church. From every house in the village came men, women, and children. They were always ready when the drum began to beat. It was not the custom to be late to meeting and as for staying away one had to be very ill indeed to do that.

Elizabeth saw her dear friend, Mary, just ahead of her. Do you suppose she skipped along to speak to her, or walked to meeting by her side? No, indeed. “The Sabbath day is not the time for light talk,” her mother told her.

Comfort in a Place of No Comforts & Three-Hour Sermons
The church had no heater or air-conditioner to give comfort to the worshippers, no hymnbooks or multimedia projector, no comfortable theater seats:

Interior of the First Meetinghouse, 1756 (from (click to enlarge)

Interior of the First Meetinghouse, 1756 (from (click to enlarge)

When the meetinghouse was reached, Master Brown led his family to their pew. He opened a little door to let them in. The pew was much like a large box with seats around the sides. The church was very cold, for there was no fire; but the children warmed their toes and fingers by the queer little foot stove their father had brought from home.

When all the people were in their seats, the minister climbed the steps to his high pulpit. Only a very few people had hymn books. The minister read two lines of the hymn and they all sang them to some well-known tune. Then he read two more lines, and all sang them, and so on until they had sung all the verses.

All the children sat with their parents, and they tried their hardest to listen quietly, even through the very long, three-hour sermon which they could not understand.

Elizabeth was four years older than Hope, so she felt quite like a little woman. She sat up beside her mother and looked at the minister almost all the time. But sometimes she had to wink hard to keep awake. Hope enjoyed singing the hymns. She stood up on the footstool at her father’s side and sang with all her might. Then she sat down and tried to listen to the sermon. When she began to stir about a little, her mother shook her head at her. She tried to sit still, but was soon restless again.

Master Brown’s thoughts were all on the sermon, and even Mistress Brown did not notice her for a little time.

The minister had an assistant, called the “tithingman,” who tried his best keep the boys from playing and the grown people from going to sleep. In addition, he keept time. How? Since they had no clocks,

The tithingman must turn the hourglass… When the glass had been turned three times, the minister closed the service. Then the men picked up their muskets and foot stoves, the women wrapped their long capes more closely about them, and all went home.

But the Sabbath was not yet done. They all came back for the afternoon service:

Often there was another service in the afternoon. At sunset the Puritan Sabbath ended. Then the women brought out their knitting or spinning, or prepared for Monday’s washing and the children were free to play until bedtime.

As to the lack of comfort in the meetinghouse, especially during bitterly-cold winters, Alice Morse Earle wrote in The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891:

Baptism of Virginia Dare, postcard from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

Baptism of Virginia Dare, postcard from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition. She was the first European settler to be baptized in the New World. (click to enlarge)

Again Judge Sewall wrote: “Extraordinary Cold Storm of Wind and Snow… Bread was frozen at Lord’s Table. Though ‘t was so cold John Tuckerman was baptized.” Another entry of Judge Sewall’s tells of an exceeding cold day when there was “Great Coughing” in meeting, and yet a new-born baby was brought into the icy church to be baptized. Children were always carried to the meeting-house for baptism the first Sunday after birth, even in the most bitter weather. There are no entries in Judge Sewall’s diary which exhibit him in so lovable and gentle a light as the records of the baptism of his fourteen children,—his pride when the child did not cry out or shrink from the water in the freezing winter weather, thus early showing true Puritan fortitude; and also his noble resolves and hopes for their future.

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