Customs of the Early Churches in America
Part IV

    A Typical Sabbath Day in An Early Church

The church bell begins to toll and the congregation throngs the meeting-house steps. It is a day of greetings, the social exchange, the news of the day. The pastor emerges from the parsonage in gown and bands and powdered wig, three-cornered hat, knee breeches, woolen stockings, and silver shoe buckles. The bell will not stop tolling until he passes through the the double doors and goes into the high pulpit under the great sounding board. The deacons are seated in their railed pew beneath the pulpit.

There is no stove. For fifty-one years the frosty air of the new meeting house was heated only by the women's foot stoves and the cracking together of frozen boot heels. The parson sometimes preached in a heavy homespun cloak. At noontime, he was grateful indeed for the roaring fire in the great kitchen of the parsonage, at the tavern barroom, and at the hospitable neighbors' open houses.

The congregation stands up to pray--except for those with body infirmities, and it sits down to sing the hymns. The vanished customs of the early American church could fill a lengthy book. Because the church was the center of all village life, it seems odd that its ways have changed so much as they have.

The church bell, for example, was once a sort of town crier; it spoke to tell of births and deaths, of fire and war. After a death, the bell greeted the morning with "three times three for a man, and three times two for a woman." Then after a short silence, the bell pealed out the number of years the dead person had lived.

All church bells rang three times a day, at seven o'clock in the morning, at noon, and at nine o'clock for curfew. Striking each hour is a recent custom. At evening, the last ringing was followed by strokes indicating the day of the month, a signal for many a farmer to turn to his farm diary and complete the day's entry.

The tone and range of its church bell was the talk and pride of every village. The ways of the weather were often sensed by the sound of the bell. Any old-timer could tell you which way the wind was blowing, whether the barometric pressure was up or down, and what tomorrow's weather was going to be by the church bell's muffled hollowness or its crisp clarity.

Excerpted by Maury Tosi
From Eric Sloane's booklet American Yesterday (1956)