In November of 1789, George Washington was traveling through Connecticut returning from his trip through New England. A man stepped out of his house and ordered him to stop and explain why he was traveling on a Sunday. Who was this audacious person who dared interrupt Washington’s journey? It was the Tithingman.
According to the story, Washington’s travel was slowed by rough roads, so he was travelling on a Sunday to get to the town where he intended to spend the Sabbath Day. Only after he explained this was he allowed to proceed.
The story, attributed to the newspaper Columbian Centinel, is not verified by Washington’s account of his trip. But the tithingman was definitely very real. Enforcing the prohibition against traveling on a Sunday was just one of his jobs.
Washington’s journal notes that he was, in fact, delayed in Connecticut by the enforcement of the state’s blue laws, which prohibited just about any activity on a Sunday other than attending church.
Washington’s journal entry for November 8, 1789 reads: “It being contrary to Law & disagreeable to the People of this State (Connecticut) to travel on the Sabbath day and my horses after passing through such intolerable Roads wanting rest, I stayed at Perkins’s Tavern (which by the bye is not a good one) all day—and a meeting House being with in a few rod of the Door, I attended Morning & evening Service, and heard very lame discourses from a Mr. Pond.”
The job of the tithingman, which dates back to the earliest days of the New England colonies, went beyond policing people who were supposed to be in church. A key responsibility was keeping order in church during the long (and sometimes tedious) services.
To assist him in his duties, many tithingmen were given a long staff. One end was rounded or sharp and on the other a soft implement was attached, such as a feathery deer tail or rabbit’s foot. When the tithingman spotted an unruly child acting up, he would get a rap on the head with the hard end. Similarly, a man nodding off during the service might would get a pop on the head to wake him.
Women who dozed off got a tickle with the other end of the pole and a harder poke if that failed to wake them. Women were more often able to get away with a little nap during church because the bonnets or hats they sometimes wore blocked the tithingman’s view of their faces.
Alice Morse Earle, in her book The Sabbath in Puritan New England, tells how most ministers encouraged the tithingman to be vigilant, as they disliked seeing people sleeping in the pews. The tithingman was often busy, especially as the services dragged on. Since many New Englanders spent most of their time working, some took the notion of a day of rest literally.
The wisest course was to simply apologize when the tithingman corrected your behavior, because often they had the power to arrest someone or put them in the stocks if they were unruly.
Outside the church, the tithingmen also were responsible for making sure children were being properly schooled in the Bible and that people in the taverns weren’t getting too drunk. Most towns had several tithingmen to keep an eye on things, as the Puritans were sticklers for rules.
But perhaps the most important duty of the tithingman was to see that people were paying their proper share in contributions to the church.