Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sunday in the Colonies

What were worship services like in colonial America?  Here's an excerpt from chapter XV "Sunday in the Colonies" in Alice Morse Earle's Home Life in Colonial Days (Grosset & Dunlap, 1898):

The services were not shortened because the churches were uncomfortable. By the side of the pulpit stood a brass-bound hour glass which was turned by the tithing-man or clerk, but it did not hasten the closing of the sermon. Sermons two or three hours long were customary, and prayers from one to two hours in length. When the first church in Woburn was dedicated, the minister preached a sermon nearly five hours long. A Dutch traveler recorded a prayer four hours long on a Fast Day. Many prayers were two hours long. The doors were closed and watched by a tithing-man, and none could leave even if tired or restless unless with good excuse. The singing of the psalms was tedious and unmusical, just as it was in churches of all denominations both in America and England, at that date. Singing was by ear and very uncertain, and the congregation had no notes, and many had no psalm-books and hence no words. So the psalms were “lined” or “deaconed”; that is, a line was read by the deacon, and then sung by the congregation. Some psalms when lined and sung occupied half an hour, during which the congregation stood. There were but eight or nine tunes in general use, and even those were often sung incorrectly. There were no church organs to help keep the singers together but sometimes pitch pipes were used to set the key. Bass-viols, clarinets, and flutes were played at a later date in meeting to help the singing. Violins were too associated with dance music to be thought decorous for church music. Still the New England churches clung to and loved their poor confused psalm-singing as one of their few delights, and whenever a Puritan, even in road or field, heard the distant sound of a psalm tune, he removed his hat and bowed his head in prayer (pp. 376-378).

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