Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Religion Ruled the Land

Sitting and pondering ideas the other day I came across one of those intriguing trivial items. On on HistoryOrb's This date page for February 28, I saw this:

1646 - Roger Scott was tried in Mass for sleeping in church
Needless to say that piqued my imagination so I went digging and found an article, Colonial Crimes and Punishment at that looks at some of the colonial era laws. To think of this as early democracy is an interesting exercise in stretching ones imagination.
The English-American colonies were autocratic and theocratic, with a patriarchal system of justice: magistrates and religious leaders, sometimes one and the same, made the laws, and the burden of obeying them fell on the less exalted—the tradesmen, soldiers, farmers, servants, slaves, and the young. That burden could be weighty.
Sometimes, as we look at our American history through the rose-colored glasses of the ideals of the revolutionary era leaders, we forget that democracy is not as we think it was. The early settlers for the most part were not looking to set up freedom for all. They just wanted THEIR freedom and limiting other people who disagreed with them. Many of the laws were theologically based- and often discriminatory and harsh, especially on those of the lower classes.
In the Puritan north a religious message leaps out from almost every page of the early criminal codes. Sin, of course, existed in the eyes of the beholders, and the eyes were everywhere—as you might expect in small, inbred communities. Consider the scrutiny given to observance of the Sabbath. The law usually required churchgoing, and someone was always checking attendance. In early Virginia, every minister was entitled to appoint four men in his fort or settlement to inform on religious scofflaws.
I caught that little phrase above about "small, inbred communities." We forget that these early colonial towns and villages were closed. What we call the great American ideals were not even part of the picture. This was a primitive civilization living on the frontier. That's where the following can happen:
In the early seventeenth century, Boston's Roger Scott was picked up for "repeated sleeping on the Lord's Day" and sentenced to be severely whipped for "striking the person who waked him from his godless slumber."

Colonial strictures on deportment in the pews long applied, even to children, such as in 1758 when young Abiel Wood of Plymouth was hauled before the court for "irreverently behaving himself by chalking the back of one Hezekiah Purrington, Jr., with Chalk, playing and recreating himself in the time of publick worship."

In l668 in Salem, Massachusetts, John Smith and the wife of John Kitchin were fined "for frequent absenting themselves from the public worship of God on the Lord's days." In l682 in Maine it cost Andrew Searle five shillings merely for "wandering from place to place" instead of "frequenting the publique worship of god."
Oh, for the good old days.


The churches would be filled on Sunday, but I'm not sure we would be any more faithful to the ways of God. We would just learn how to put on the masks more completely.

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