Alice Morse Earle, one of America’s early historians, provides us with a wonderful history of the Puritan’s religious life in her book “Sabbath in Puritan New England.”
Her cultural history of New England Puritans gives us a fascinating look at how the Puritans organized and practiced their faith. It is important to understand that so much of our Protestant based religions in American history start with the Puritans. She covers practically every aspect of religious practice and communal rituals, giving us a bird’s eye view of the structure of religion, including the laws and punishments for violating the strict code of religious rituals. While she wrote the book in 1891, she was able to gather together from documents and first hand accounts of how the church of the Puritans was intermeshed with the day-to-day life of the colonists in the New World.
Let’s focus one aspect of the Puritans’ religious life - the length of the services on the Sabbath which was, of course, on Sunday morning. I have been to enough services in the Christian community to see that most of services go about an hour and a half or a bit more. Most congregations today are mindful of brevity, especially with the sermon. I should add that in modern Jewish congregations in the more liberal branches of Judaism, time is also a matter that both clergy and congregants talk about.
In the early days of the Puritans during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Sabbath service was the highlight of the week for the community. According to Earle, watches were a luxury and most Puritans used either a sundial or “noon marks” on the floors or window seats in the house. On the pulpit, there were often times large hour glasses that were used to remind the clergy of the time. It was not unusual to have a sermon last between two to three hours. A minister would say as the hour glass was turned over for the second hour, “Come. You are all good fellows. We’ll take another glass together.” Nathaniel Ward wrote, “ We have a strong weakness in New England that when we are speaking, we know not how to conclude: we make many ends before we make an end.”
Not only were the services approaching three hours, but apparently the tradition was that the congregation had to stand during the prayer service. The Puritans rejected kneeling and bowing since it reminded them of Roman Catholic rituals. Judge Sewell of the Plymouth Church remarked, “Being afraid to look at the glass ignorantly and unwittingly I stood two hours and a half.”
That certainly puts things in perspective for us today when I can hear people rising and sitting with a bit of a moaning sound for a few minutes during a worship service.
Not only did the Puritans stay in church but they were prevented from leaving.
Earle tell us that in Salem, Mass., the church put officials at the door who did not allow anyone to leave the service. As the years went on, church members began to petition the ministers to shorten the services. In one instance, reported by Earle, a minister was about to preach when he learned of a tradition in his congregation where people who lived a long distance from the church would leave before the sermon was concluded. So the minister said he would preach the first part of the sermon to the sinners in the congregation and the second part to the saints in the congregation and that the sinners could all leave when their part of the sermon was over. Of course every person chose to remain in the service the entire time.
I had a conversation with a colleague of mine this week in which we discussed the length of our sermons. We talked about how twenty to twenty five minutes was probably too long and that we should strive for fifteen minutes at the most. People’s attention spans have diminished today. We have so much to do after services and who has the patience to sit in services for over three hours? Is it true that less is more? Does that maxim apply to the quality of our worship services today?
In the days of Puritan New England, the Sunday church was the center of the communal life. In my Orthodox tradition, Saturday services can go for three hours easily. When we have a bar or bat mitzvah at my own temple, our services last a solid two hours. Furthermore during our high holy days, we have services all day long especially on the fast day of Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement.
I have some people who say to me, “Rabbi, I just cannot sit that long in synagogue. It hurts.” I have heard this from those who have confessed it to me in their churches as well.
How lucky they are. If they had sat in a Puritan service would they complain about a twenty-five minute sermon today?