Religion and Social Movements

Hellfires, Whippings and Woodchuck Bites – The Perils for Puritans Sleeping in Church

In early New England, there were worse sins than Puritans sleeping in church. But few that so entertained the public and infuriated the ministry.


A Tithingman at work

Church meeting ran for hours on end. And the Puritans, trapped in stuffy meeting houses, were susceptible to dozing off. The punishment depended upon the minister, the era and the community.

In some instances, the misbehaving churchgoers were dealt with lightly.

Joseph Moody, the minister at the Second Church of York, Maine, was perturbed when he looked out over his flock, many of them bowed in sleep.

“Fire, fire, fire!” he yelled. When the sleepers in the congregation jumped to their feet and asked where the fire was, he blasted them with an answer: “In hell, for sleeping sinners.”

In Brunswick, Maine, the minister adopted the custom of calling out the names of sleeping parishioners, which generally served to wake and admonish them. In one case, though, a grumpy parishioner retorted:  “Mind your own business, and go on with your sermon.”

But these were later times – the mid-1700s. In the early days of the colonies, sleepers were dealt with more harshly. Boston, in 1667, and Portsmouth, N.H., in 1662, both considered building a cage to imprison and shame churchgoers who fell asleep.

Increase Mather, in 1682, raised the disturbing specter of people deliberately using the sermon as a way of avoiding some other productive activities. “Some woeful Creatures,” he wrote, “have been so wicked as to profess they have gone to hear Sermons on purpose, that so they might sleep, finding themselves at such times much disposed that way.”

Many churches employed a more proactive approach to combatting sleeping parishioners: the Tithingman. This fellow was hired to oversee the congregation. Perched on a balcony or strolling the aisles, he was armed with a long stick. One end was outfitted with a hard knob or point, the other a bit of fur. When he caught men nodding off, he gave them a wrap on the head. Women who dozed got a tickle with the fur.

Despite the occasional instance of a person getting a poke on the head when he was merely nodding in prayer, the Tithingman was generally effective.

Samuel Whiting, minister at Lynn, Mass. from 1636 to 1679, had his complaints about sleeping in church and the Journal of Obadiah Turner recorded how the minister dealt with it:

“Allen Bridges hath bin chose to wake the sleepers in meeting, and being much proud of his place, must needs have a fox tail fixed to the end of a long staff, wherewith he may brush the faces of them that will have naps in time of discourse; likewise a sharp thorn, wherewith he may prick such as be most sound.

“On the last Lords day, as he strutted about the meeting-house, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen did quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard, and give him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins did spring up much above the floor, and with terrible force strike with his hand against the wall, and also, to the great wonder of all, profanely exclaimed in a loud voice: ‘Cuss ye woodchuck;’ he dreaming, as it seemed, that a woodchuck had seized and bit his hand.

“But on coming to know where he was and the great scandal he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go to sleep in meeting.”

Not all incidents ended so easily, however. Essex County court records from Salem, Mass. note: “In 1643 Roger Scott, for repeated sleeping in meeting on the Lord’s Day, and for striking the person who waked him, was, at Salem, sentenced to be severely whipped.”

There was one enemy the tithingman could not defeat: the large bonnet worn by women in the church. Turner recorded:

“The women may sometimes sleep, and none know it by reason of their enormous bonnets. Mr. Whiting doth pleasantly say that from the pulpit, be doth seem to be preaching to stacks of straw, with men sitting here and there among them.”

Thanks to: Some Strange and Curious Punishments, Henry M. Brooks; Lynn and Surroundings, Clarence W. Hobbs and The Sabbath in Puritan New England, Alice Morse Earle.


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