Perhaps nothing revealed the puritanical contempt for comfort so much as the absence of a meetinghouse stove. The Puritans believed their religious zeal could warm them in unheated buildings, even in freezing New England winters.
No matter how cold it was, no matter how much coughing in the meetinghouse, babies were brought in on the Sunday after they were born to be baptized – with cold water.
Alice Morse Earle wrote in 1891 that people still alive remembered a universal and ‘noisy turning up of great-coat collars, the swinging of arms, and knocking together of the heavy-booted feet of the listeners towards the end of a long winter sermon.’
Some Puritan churches like the Old South Meeting House allowed foot stoves, but recognized the danger of fire. In December 1771 the sexton of Old South was instructed to search the meetinghouse for any foot stoves left behind and to take them home. The owner was expected to retrieve them and ‘make reasonable satisfaction’ to the sexton for his trouble.
Other congregations were more puritanical – or at least more fearful of fire. The First Church of Roxbury banned foot stoves in its rebuilt meetinghouse after it burned down in 1747. Congregants warmed their feet instead with hot stones in baskets, or fur bags or even the family dog.
Enter the Meetinghouse Stove
The Puritan congregations gradually relaxed and began to accept the meetinghouse stove. The comfort-loving libertines of Hadley, Mass., bought an iron stove for their meetinghouse in 1734.
Warmth did not come to the Puritan meetinghouse without controversy.
In 1819, the Puritans of Brimfield, Mass., finally acquiesced and decided to buy a meetinghouse stove, but one old parishioner refused to contribute, saying good preaching kept him hot enough without a stove. Members of the Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass., held fast against warmth until 1822, nearly 150 years after it was built in 1681.
The Puritans of Litchfield, Conn., provided an entertaining drama over the introduction of the meetinghouse stove, one that may have been replicated in other towns. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher told the story: The meeting was held on a warm Sunday after the meetinghouse stove was installed and no fire was lit. A deacon’s wife, unalterably opposed to the stove, thought it was lit. She became so overheated by the imaginary fire that she fainted and had to be carried out of the church. A man who favored the meetinghouse stove then approached it, warming his hands and making sure his coat didn’t get scorched.
Even the Puritans thought that was funny.