On A Certain Deplorable Tendency Among The Most Respectable Members Of The Community To Abstain From Church-going— As Observed In The Year 1796 (Part Two of Two)

By Prescott Evarts
Read June 10, 1922

Read part one here!

In the following year, Prophaners of the Sabbath were included in a list of other criminals who if they could not or would not pay the fines, should be punished by setting in the Stocks, or putting into the Cage not exceeding three hours; where the Offender has not wherewithal to satisfy the Law in payment of the fine.

But the strictness of the law did not necessarily conduce to piety, and the enforced attendance upon worship often led to ribaldry and contempt. For in a law of 1711, entitled “An Act against Intemperance, Immorality and Prophaneness, and for Reformation of Manners” we find a provision that “whosoever shall be convicted of Composing, Writing, Printing or Publishing, of any Filthy Obscene or Prophane Song, Pamphlet, Libel or Mock-Sermon, in Imitation or in Mimicking of Preaching, or any other part of Divine Worship; every person or persons offending in any of the particulars aforementioned, shall be Punished by Fine to Her Majesty, not exceeding Twenty Pounds; or by standing on the Pillory once or oftner; with an Inscription of his Crime in Capital Letters affixed over his head.”

But the Fathers were sore put to it to enforce the Sabbath Laws; for in 1716 “An Act in Addition to the Act” [of 1692] — already quoted — “Notwithstanding which many Persons do presume to Work and Travel on the said Day. For the more effectual preventing such Immoral & Irreligious Practice: Be it enacted”: etc. Then the amount of the fine imposed in each instance is doubled: for work or play, ten shillings; for travelling, twenty shillings. We come across for the first time the farther provision that “if any Person being able of body and not otherwise necessarily prevented, shall for the space of One Month together absent themselves from the Publick Worship on said Day, the Grand Jurors are hereby directed and required to present such Persons to the General Sessions of the Peace, who, unless they can make proof they have not so absented themselves, but have attended Divine Worship in some Publick Assembly, shall forfeit and pay the sum of Twenty Shillings.” If unable or refusing to pay the fine, they are to be placed in the cage or stocks not exceeding three hours.

But the law did not avail to prevent the growing tendency to disregard the traditions and customs of earlier Puritan days, and ten years later an addition to the law was made with this Preamble: “Notwithstanding the many good and wholesom Laws made to prevent the Prophanation of the Lord’s Day, some wicked and evil disposed Persons do yet presume to do unnecessary Work, take their Recreation and Sport, and Travel on the said Day: For the more effectual Preventing such vile and unlawful Practices: be it enacted.” This law differs little from previous enactments, with the exception that the penalty is increased to fifteen shillings for the first offence and thirty shillings for the second, and four hours in stocks or cage. There was an added clause, forbidding the holding Funerals on the Lord’s Day and the Evening following, “except in extraordinary cases.” All Persons again are strictly forbidden swimming in the water. The fines are to be used, one half for the care of the poor “and the other half to him or them that shall inform and sue for the same.”

We have no further laws till after the Revolutionary War, when in October 1782 an Act was passed “for making more effectual Provision for the due Observation of the Lord’s Day; and for repealing the several Laws heretofore made for that Purpose.” This law limited the Sabbath from midnight of Saturday to sundown on Sunday but in other respects was more comprehensive than any that was passed before, allowing the forcible detention of any person suspected of unnecessary travelling on the Lord’s Day. It appeared to be modelled upon the law of 1727. It contained the provision in regard to the absence from public worship for one month; and the prohibition of funerals on Sunday. Its distinctive feature was the creation of the office of Warden, whose special duty was to see to the keeping of this Sabbath law. At the time of town elections twelve Wardens were to be elected in Boston; and not less than two or more than six in other towns or districts. They were to be persons “of good Substance, and sober Life and Conversation.” Anyone refusing to serve must pay a fine of £10 in Boston and £5 in other towns. Any town failing to elect such Wardens was assessed heavy penalties, £50. Other officers, Justices of the Peace, Constables, tything men, and so on, were still to exercise their authority as before; but the Wardens were specially to enforce this Act. Their office was for one year, and no one was compelled to serve more than once in five years. Their badge of office was a white wand seven feet long.

It was obviously an office not greatly coveted. And the law did not appear to have behind it any strong public support. William Pynchon, a respected lawyer of Salem, who kept a diary from 1776 to 1789, records Sunday April 13, 1783: “After meeting, P.M., a little after 3 o’clock Mr. and Mrs. Oliver and 2 children and the maid, with Mrs. Pynchon, set out in Providence stage, and I following and overtaking them near Newhal’s tavern in Lynn, and we stop at Wait’s at Malden and have tea. . . . At sunset they set out for Cambridge, and I lodge at Wait’s and confer with the warden on the Sabbath Act till 11 at night.” So much for the Sabbath Laws.

Mr. William Pynchon, whose diary I have quoted, was a member of the Episcopal Church in Salem, and I imagine that his sympathies were not greatly with the strict provisions of the law. There are frequent references to his own starting out on a journey and members of his family on Sunday and he seems never to have been interfered with. On Sunday March 16, 1783, he records, “I am so fatigued with the business of Saturday last that I cannot go out, and thro’ application of divers, pretending necessity and mercy, I have neither rest nor enjoyment at home.” Mr. Pynchon himself was a pretty constant attendant at his Church and at times attended the meetinghouses in Salem. Sunday May 25, 1783: “A fine, clear day. No church; I go to hear Mr. Eliot P.M. Set out for Boston and arrive there at 3 o’clock.” Of this Mr. Eliot he writes on Sunday July 25, 1784, “Clear and warm. Mr. Eliot preaches at Mr. Prince’s meeting; I go there to hear so good a rhetorician, so good a preacher, so honest, so good a man.” “Thursday April 6, 1786. Being Fast Day we go to Church at eleven. John plays a fine, grave piece on the organ; P.M., Mr. Fisher [the Rector] goes with me to hear Mr. Bentley, and we are much entertained.”

Many of the stories recorded in enforcing the law both as to behaviour within the Church at Service time, and the enforcement of Sunday restrictions outside the Church, centre about the activities of the tything men, who seemed to combine in their office the characteristics of Beadle, Constable, Exciseman, and Informer. Alice Morse Earle in her book The Sabbath in Old New England quotes from the “Columbian Centinel” of December 1789. “The President & the Tything Man. The President, on his return to New York from his late tour through Connecticut, having missed his way on Saturday, was obliged to ride a few miles on Sunday morning in order to gain the town at which he had previously proposed to have attended divine service. Before he arrived however he was met by a Tything man, who commanding him to stop, demanded the occasion of his riding; and it was not until the President had informed him of every circumstance and promised to go no further than the town intended that the Tything man would permit him to proceed on his journey.” But this was in Connecticut.

The enforcement of the law would naturally create personal enmities, and might conceivably be used to vent personal spite. The law of 1782 was almost practically obsolete, even when it was enacted. For the next twenty years there was much controversy in New England, and earnest men of devout character and from the highest motives strove sincerely to enforce its edicts. It was no easy position for any man to hold any office which required him by his oath to enforce the law. It was a fact that any one who seriously undertook to enforce the provisions of a law that had been upon the statute books only twenty years, though bound by his oath, was considered narrow and fanatical, just as today anyone who undertook to enforce all the provisions of our present very moderate Sunday law, would find little support from public opinion and a grudging support from the Courts.

My grandfather, Jeremiah Evarts, who graduated from Yale in 1802, began life as a young lawyer in New Haven in 1806. Some time between 1806 and 1810, he held the office of Grand Juror. To quote from his Life: “The duties and responsibilities of the office of Grand Juror are not in all cases divided in Connecticut, as in some other states, among a body of men; but it is made the duty of specified individuals in the different towns to present persons guilty of violations of law.” A member of the 105 bar of New Haven, a contemporary, gives the following account of Mr. Evarts’ experience in what he believed the conscientious discharge of his duty: “He suffered not a little, and from some gentlemen of high standing in the profession, for his unyielding firmness. The circumstances respecting which you inquire, arose from the faithful discharge of his duty as one of the Grand Jury for New Haven County, in the prosecution of some individual or individuals for obvious violations of some law of the state that had uniformly been winked at by other persons in the same office. I do not now remember what the offence was: but it was one ‘contra bonos mores’ — perhaps the violation of the Sabbath. Mr. Evarts said to me that his oath bound him to the prosecution; and he could not be governed by the corrupt usages of other men. He accordingly commenced a process, but failed of convicting the offending party. He was opposed by the first lawyers of the state; — and denounced, and greatly and shamefully abused, and by the community at large. He suffered for a long period on this account, and for righteousness’ sake.” Probably this early experience in the practise of the law, made it easier for him in 1810 to accept the position of Editor of the “Panoplist,” move to Boston, and later become Secretary and Treasurer of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. But throughout his life, by example and by word and pen, from deeply religious convictions, he used his influence for the careful observance of Sunday. And in this he was associated with a strong party among the Congregationalists led by the professors of the Andover School, which used every possible pressure upon Government as well as upon public opinion, to enforce the Jewish Sabbath of the earlier Puritan days, upon the Christian Sunday.

We get a glimpse of the general dissatisfaction against the enforcement of the law, and the interference of the tything men, in that mine of information, the Diary of Dr. William Bentley of Salem. In an early entry, 1791, we find, “Notre Francois rode out of Town last Sunday, I reprehended him. This practice has now attained very generally to ride out of Town. I know not the resort but it probably may have great effects on manners. New England has been remarkable in my day for the most careful observance of Sunday. It is not easy to determine which upon the whole is the most salutary method, but it is commonly observed that a thoughtless triumph over old restraints indicates an injury to the moral principle. Much is probably owing to association in our feelings on such subjects & yet much to justice when innovations are made & no useful end proposed. We have a Tything man with his staff, the only one thus paraded in the Town, but his office is to preserve good order in times of service, & to restrain children from too great liberties in the Street.”

“May 5, 1792. The Law of last March respecting observation of Sunday, published in the Gazette. Not at all in the humour of the present City Manners.”

Later when the controversy on the Sabbath Laws arose, Dr. Bentley stood for a more liberal interpretation, and opposed the efforts for the more rigorous Sunday observance.

“Oct. 16, 1814. It is becoming fashionable to have fasts & thanksgivings by Incorporations & private societies. And at first this seems preferable to any forms of Civil authority or religious establishments. But the party which makes the freest use evidently intend to hold the means of awakening the fears & hopes of men at pleasure, & from the public habits to render the civil appointments more frequent & indispensable. … An example lately occurred. The Officers of a Baltimore pravateer on a late Sunday went for Andover to visit their prisoners on parole at that town. On their way they were stopped by a Tything man under the control of one of these associations. A despute ensued. The tything man followed the men back to Salem & had an action against them the next day, & recovered from one of their Justices. The Privateersmen have now an action depending against the Tything man for breach of Sabbath in following them to Salem.”

Sunday December 25, 1814. “Of the meeting at Topsfield to associate to urge the letter of a Jewish Sabbath & to prohibit all passing from town to town on the Sunday we hear little. A beautiful extract from Jeremy Taylor was published in the Salem Gazette to prevent this town from being caught in the snare. I read the law as desired & begged my Tything man who is my Sexton to see that no children or other persons assembled around the Meeting House in time of service with a wish to interrupt no person who should pass peaceably along.”

January 1, 1815. “The Topsfield affair was no jest. … A convention of 43 members from 13 towns. . . . Thus under the garb of religion another association is formed for political purposes.”

In this year strong efforts were made to stop the mails on Sunday, by petitions to the Government, and appeals to the public. Dr. Bentley writes of this activity, “So far as the most strenuous men & places are known to myself, I have the fullest conviction that whatever the serious many may intend, the great incentive to all the zeal is in the political use to be made of it.” [February 29, 1815.]

Again referring to the strict injunctions of the Topsfield Convention he writes, in May 1815, “It was the opinion of Dr. Eliot that the Sunday, Sabbath or Lord’s day was never better observed in N. England. The undue restrictions will prevent the silent & voluntary restraints which obtain.”

In January 1816 he writes, “Our Sabbath or Sunday folks are determined to try again at Topsfield. The present object is to prepare to execute the laws which when obsolete should be repealed & not left to be employed by fanatics for the vexation of quiet citizens.”

His last entry on Sunday observance is as follows: “March 1816. In the late revolution in Salem Police, the Town discovered its sense of the majority respecting the late Sabbath Law our late half taught politicians gave with only one exception, an Andover vote in the Leg. They have been taught better since. But in the choice of Tything men persons were chosen who could not be suspected of any wishes on any account to a rigorous execution of the law. . . . Dr. Worcester who has been very busy … in favour of Sabbath Acts & holy Tything men.”

So we may close this brief survey of laws for keeping Sunday, and of the temper of the times at the end of the eighteenth century in relation to public worship. In the long run the strict observers of the Sunday, so far as controlling the public was concerned, had to yield to the progress of events; they might observe individually and have their families observe the Sunday worship and the Sunday rest; and with advantage to the character and nerves of their descendants. Today practically all restraints or incentives of law or custom in regard to Sunday observance or Public Worship have ceased to exist. The whole matter is considered now to be merely a question of personal predilection. Dr. Bentley speaks of “the silent and voluntary restraints which obtain.” I personally believe that these “silent and voluntary restraints” are entitled to a wider vogue than they have at present, both among young and old. It is quite possible that the spiritual value of golfing and automobiling is largely exaggerated, and the value and importance of Public Worship on Sunday deserves the consideration of all high-minded persons in the community, both for their own good and for the generation that follows them.


This article originally appeared in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, Volume 16 (1922).