Chronicles of America 

The Cure Of Souls

THERE were many religious denominations in America in the eighteenth century. The Congregationalists predominated in New England, but outside of that region they found little support. The Church of England was dominant in the South and by 1750 had established itself in every colony from New Hampshire to Georgia. This growth was due in part to the fact that most of the Huguenots and many of the Lutherans went over to Anglicanism, but also in largest measure to the activities of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, generally known as the "S. P. G." but frequently called the "Venerable Society."

The Dutch in their Reformed Church constituted the oldest body of Calvinists in America. The Germans — some of them also Calvinists in their own Reformed Church — were in many cases Lutherans or Moravians, chiefly in New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and in other cases were tinctured with pietism and mysticism. The Scotch-Irish were of a sterner religious temper than any of these and, tracing their spiritual ancestry back to the Presbyterianism of Scotland and the north of Ireland, they looked upon their religion as a subject worthy of constant thought and frequent discussion.

Among the denominations associated with no particular race or locality, the Baptists were nevertheless most strongly entrenched in Rhode Island, with a somewhat precarious hold on other parts of New England and on South Carolina. The Friends or Quakers, finding their earliest home also in Rhode Island, became specially prominent in the Middle Colonies, Virginia, and North Carolina, where their meetinghouses were often "in lonesome places in the woods. " The Methodists, at this time with no thought of becoming a separate denomination, began their career as a spiritual force in America with Robert Strawbridge in western Maryland about 1764. Most of the Roman Catholics were to be found in Maryland and a few in other colonies; the Jews had synagogues in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston; but there was no separate African church until the first was set up in Williamsburg in 1791.

Of all these denominations the most powerful and influential were the Congregational and the Anglican, so that the meetinghouse in New England and the church in the Southern Colonies came to be distinctive and conspicuous features in the religious life of America. The meetinghouse, usually built of wood but toward the end of the period sometimes of brick, was situated in the center of the town. It was at first a plain, unadorned, rectangular structure, sometimes painted and sometimes not, without tower or steeple, and not unlike the Quaker meetinghouse and the Wesleyan chapel of a later day. Later buildings were constructed after English models, with the graceful spire characteristic of the work of Sir Christopher Wren, and represented a type to which the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches tended to conform. At one end of the building rose the tower and spire, with a bell and a clock, if the congregation could afford them; at the other end or at the side was the porch. In addition to the pleasing proportions which the building as a whole showed, even the doors and windows manifested a certain striving for architectural beauty of a refined and rather severe kind. The interior was usually bare and unattractive; the pulpit stood on one side, high above the pews, and was made in the shape of an hourglass or with a curved front, and stood under a sounding board, which was introduced less perhaps for its acoustic value than to increase the dignity of the preacher. The body of the house was filled with high square pews, within which were movable seats capable of being turned back for the convenience of the worshipers, who always stood during the long prayers. The pews were the property of the occupiers, who viewed them as part of the family patrimony. Assignment of pews followed social rank; front seats were reserved for the deacons; convenient sittings were set apart for the deaf; the side seats were for those of lesser degree, and the gallery for the children. There were no free seats in colonial days, except for the very poor. In these meetinghouses there were neither fires nor lights, with the result that evening services could not be held. In the winter season the chill of the building must have wrought havoc upon tender physiques and imperiled the lives of those unlucky infants whose fate it was to be baptized with icy water.


Drawing from photograph.


Drawing from photograph.

"It was so cold a Lord's Day," says Checkley in his diary (Jan. 19. 1735), "that the water for Baptism was considerably frozen."


The journey to meeting was frequently an arduous undertaking for those living in the outlying parts of a township, as they sometimes were obliged to cross mountains and rivers in order to be present. From distant points the farmers drove to meeting, bringing their wives and children and prepared to spend the day. In summer they brought their own dinners with them; in winter they found refuge in the "Sabba' day" houses or were entertained at the fireside of friends who lived near the meetinghouse. The gathering of the townspeople at meeting was a social as well as a religious event, for friends had an opportunity for greeting each other, and the farmers exchanged news and talked crops during the noon hour, in the shade of the building, under the wagon sheds where the horses were tied, or sitting on the tombstones in the burying ground near by, while their wives and daughters gossiped in the porch or even in the pews, for in New England no one looked upon the meetinghouse as merely a sacred place. One of the earliest steps taken in the formation of a new town in New England was the erection of a separate meetinghouse for the members who lived too far away for convenient and regular attendance.

The minister was truly the leader of his people. He comforted and reproved them, guided their spiritual footsteps, advised them in matters domestic and civil, and gave unity to their ecclesiastical life. He was the chief citizen of the town, reverenced by the old and regarded with something akin to awe by the young. When a stranger asked Parson Phillips of the South Church at Andover if he were "the parson who serves here, " he received the reply, "I am, Sir, the parson who rules here, " and the external bearing of this colonial minister lent weight to his claim. It was the habit of Parson Phillips to walk with his household in a stately procession from the parsonage to the meeting-house, with his wife on his right, his negro servant on his left, and his children following in the rear.

When he entered the building, the congregation rose and stood until he had taken his place in the pulpit. Though he preached with an hourglass at his side, he never failed to run over the conventional sixty minutes. His sermons, like nearly all those preached in New England, were written out and read with solemnity and rarely with attempts at oratory. They were blunt and often terrifying; they laid down unpalatable ethical standards; they emphasized rigid theological doctrines; and in language which was plain, earnest, and uncompromising, they inveighed against such human weaknesses as swearing, drunkenness, fornication, and sleeping in church. Mather Byles of Boston, another colonial pastor, preached an hour and then turning over the hourglass said, "Now we will take a second glass." Sermons of two hours were not unknown, and there were those who "in one lazy tone, through the long, heavy, painful page" drawled on, making work for the tithingman, whose fur-tipped rod was often needed to waken the slumbering. The thrifty colonial preacher numbered his sermons, stored them away or bound them in volumes, and often repeated them many times.

The hardships of the New England minister were many. Jonathan Lee of Salisbury, Connecticut, occupied, until his log house was finished, a room temporarily fitted up at the end of a blacksmith's shop with stools for chairs and slabs for tables. He even had at times to carry his own corn to the mill to be ground. As country parishes were large and rambling and the congregation was widely scattered, the minister often preached in different sections and was obliged to ride many miles to visit and comfort his parishioners. His salary was small, fifty pounds and upwards, with more if he were married. Jonathan Edwards in 1744 wrote to his people in Northampton that he wanted a fixed salary and not one determined from year to year, as he had a growing family to provide for. Many a minister received a part of his stipend in provisions and firewood, and eked out his meager salary by earning a little money taking pupils. Yet in spite of these hardships men stayed long in the places to which they were called. Pastorates of sixty years are known; Eliphalet Williams of Glastonbury served fifty-five years, and his grandfather, father, and son each ministered half a century or longer. Three generations of Baptist clergymen in Groton served one church 125 years.

The New England ministers did not limit their preaching to the Sabbath day or their sermons to theological and ethical subjects. They officiated on many public occasions — at funerals, installations, and ordinations, on fast days, Thanksgiving days, and election days — and often forced the Governor and deputies to listen to a sermon two or three hours long. Many of these sermons were printed by the colony, by the church, by subscription, or in the case of funeral sermons by special provision in the will of the deceased. Parson Phillips had twenty such sermons printed, and on the title-page of one dealing with some terrifying topic appears an ominous skull and crossbones. Funeral discourses and election sermons are among the commonest which have survived, but, taken as a whole, they are unfortunately among the least trustworthy of historical records.

The Anglican churches in the eighteenth century were generally built of brick but varied considerably in size, shape, and adornment. Except for a few — such as Trinity Church, Newport, which followed the Wren model, King's Chapel, Boston, which was of hewn stone, and McSparran's Narragansett church, which is described as a very dignified and elegant structure — the buildings of this denomination in New England were small and unpretentious and constructed of wood. In the South they were more stately and impressive in both external appearance and internal adornment. St. Mary's at Burlington, Christ Church and St. Peter's at Philadelphia, St. Anne's at Annapolis, Bruton Church at Williamsburg, St. Paul's at Edenton, and St. Philip's at Charleston were all noble structures, and there were many others of less repute which were examples of good architecture. Often these churches were surrounded by high brick walls and the interior was fitted with mahogany seats and stone-flagged aisles. Conspicuous were the altar and pulpit, both richly adorned, the canopied pew for the Governor, and on the walls the tablets to the memory of distinguished parishioners. Not a few of these old churches displayed in full view the royal arms in color, as may still be seen in the church of St. James, Goose Creek, near Charleston. Bells were on all the churches, for the colonists had come from England, "the most bellful country in the world," and they and their descendants preserved to the full their love for the sound of the bell, which summoned them to service, tolled for the dead, or marked at many hours the familiar routine of their daily life. Christ Church, Philadelphia, built in 1744, was distinguished by possessing a set of chimes.

Many a church had its separate vestry and sheds; and in large numbers of Southern parishes there were chapels of ease, small and built of wood, for those whose habitations were so remote that they could not come to the main church. Even so modest a structure as that at Pittsylvania Court House in Virginia — built of wood, with a clapboard roof, a plank floor, a pulpit and desk, two doors, five windows, a small table and benches — had its chapel of ease built of round logs, with a clapboard roof and benches.

Though the New England minister was given a permanent call only after he had been tried as a candidate for half a year or some such period, the Anglican clergyman was generally appointed without regard to the wishes of the parishioners, often by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel as one of its missionaries, in Maryland by the Proprietor, in the royal colonies by the Governor. Many of these clergymen were possessed of superior culture and godly piety and lived in harmony with their vestries and people; but in the South and in the West Indies to an extent greater than in New England, men of inferior ability and character crept into the rectorships and proved themselves incompetent as spiritual guides and unworthy as spiritual examples. But the proved instances of backsliding south of Maryland are not many and one ought not from isolated examples to infer the spiritual incompetency of the mass of the clergy in a colony. On the other hand it is not always safe to take the letters which the missionaries wrote home to the Venerable Society as entirely reliable evidence of their character and work, else the account would show no defects and the burden of defense would rest wholly with the colonists. John Urmston of Albemarle, for example, is known to North Carolinians as a "quarrelsome, haughty, and notoriously wicked clergyman," yet Governor Eden gave him a good character and the Society was satisfied that the fault lay with the country and the vestry. Clement Hall of St. Paul's Church, Edenton, was found to have officiated less than twenty-five Sundays in the year 1755; his salary was reduced accordingly and a new arrangement was made whereby he was to be paid only for what he did; yet Hall was looked upon as one of the most devoted and hard-working missionaries that the Society ever sent to America. Fithian speaks of Parson Gibbern of Virginia as "up three nights successively, drinking and playing at cards, " and he characterizes Sunday there as "a day of pleasure and amusement, " when "the gentlemen go to church as a matter of convenience and account the church a useful weekly resort to do business," yet this testimony, as the observation of a graduate of the College of New Jersey and a not unprejudiced witness, must be construed for what it is worth.

With the clergy in Maryland the case was somewhat different, and the illustrations of unspiritual conduct are too numerous to be ignored. Maynadier of Talbot County was called "a good liver" but a "horrid preacher,' and his curate a "brute of a parson." William Tibbs of St. Paul's parish, Baltimore County, was charged by his vestry with being a common drunkard, and Henry Hall was on one occasion "much disguised with liquor to the great scandal" of his "function and evil examples to others." The people of St. Stephen's parish, Cecil County, complained that their rector was drunk on Sundays, and Bennet Allen, the notorious rector of All Saints, Frederick County, who afterwards fought a duel with a brother of Daniel Dulaney in Hyde Park, London, was not only a cold-blooded seeker of benefices but, according to many of his parishioners, was guilty of immorality also. The letters of Governor Sharpe disclose numerous other cases of "scandalous behavior," "notorious badness," "immoral conduct," and "abandoned and prostituted life and character" on the part of these unfaithful pastors; and by witness of even the clergy themselves the establishment of Maryland deserved to be despised because "it permitted clerical profligacy to murder the souls of men. " The situation reached its climax in the years following 1734, when, by the withdrawal of the Bishop of London's commissary, all discipline from the higher authorities of the Anglican Church was removed and the granting of livings was left solely in the hand of the dissolute Frederick Lord Baltimore until 1771, when, after the death of that degenerate proprietor, the Assembly was able to pass a law subjecting the clergy to rigid scrutiny and to the imposition of punishment in case of guilt.

On the whole it is probably safe to say that there was less religious seriousness and probity of conduct among the Southern clergy and parishioners than among the parsons and people of New England. One cannot easily imagine a New England woman writing as did Mrs. Burgwin of Cape Fear: "There is a clergyman arrived from England with a mission for this parish; he came by way of Charles Town and has been in Brunswick these three weeks. No compliment to his parishioners; but he is to exhibit here next Sunday. His size is said to be surprisingly long, I hope he is good in proportion. "

Sermons occupied a less conspicuous place in the Anglican service than in those of other denominations. The lay reader did not preach, and the sermons of the ordained clergyman were not often more than fifteen or twenty minutes in length. They seem to have been carefully prepared and many are spoken of in terms of high approval; they dwelt, however, less upon the infirmities of the flesh and more upon the abiding grace of God and the duties and functions of the Church. They were therefore rarely denunciatory or threatening but partook of the character of learned essays, frequently pedantic and overladen with classical allusions or quotations from the theological treatises written by the clergy in England. Not only were sermons provided for by will, as in the North, but they were also preached before the House of Burgesses in Virginia — which unlike most legislative bodies in the colonies had its chaplain—before Masonic lodges, and to the militia on Muster Day. Thomas Bray, commissary for Maryland, had many sermons printed, and the Reverend Thomas Bacon, to whom Maryland owes the earliest collection of her laws, printed four sermons preached in St. Peter's Church, Talbot County, two to "black slaves" and two for the benefit of a charitable school in the county. But the number of printed sermons in the South was not nearly as large as in the North.

It was not only in matters of ritual and vestments that the Anglican churches differed from those of nearly all the other denominations. While New England was engaging in a bitter controversy over the introduction of musical instruments into its public worship as well as what was styled the new way of singing by note instead of by rote, the leading Anglican churches were adding richness and beauty to their services by the use of organs and the employment of trained organists from England. The first organ used for religious purposes in the colonies was that bequeathed by Thomas Brattle, of Boston, to the Congregational Church of Brattle Square in 1713.' But, as that society "did not think it proper to use the same in the public worship of God," the organ, according to the terms of the will, went to King's Chapel, where it was thankfully received. This instrument, after a new organ had been purchased for King's Chapel in 1756, was transferred to Newburyport and finally to Portsmouth, where it is still preserved. In 1728 subscriptions were invited for a small organ to be placed in Christ Church, Philadelphia, but probably the purchase was never made, though it is known that both Christ Church

The Reverend Joseph Green of Salem was in Boston on May 29, 1711, and while there heard an organ played. The instrument was undoubtedly that of Brattle. Essex Institute, Historical Collections, vol. x, p. 90.


and St. Peter's in that city had organs before the Revolution. Bishop Berkeley gave an organ to Trinity Church, Newport, as early as 1730, and six years later an organist "who plays exceedingly fine thereon" arrived and entered upon his work. The organ loft in Christ Church, Cambridge, was a very fine specimen of Georgian correctness and grace, superior in its beauty to anything of its kind in the colonies at that time. The first organ in the South was installed in 1752 in Bruton Church, Williamsburg, and Peter Pelham, Jr., whose father married as his second wife the mother of Copley the painter, was the first organist. All the organs used in colonial times, however, were very small, light in tone, and deficient in pipes.

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