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5. Penalties

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XXII. Sacred Seasons of the Puritans

5. Penalties

Another topic, connected with the fasts and thanksgivings of New England, are the penalties for not duly observing them.

As the magistrates of Plymouth colony ordered such days in 1623, and were empowered by law so to do, in 1637, it is implied that a penalty was affixed there to the violation of them, at a very early period. In 1650, every person neglecting public worship, is required to pay 10s. or be publicly whipped. As this worship appears to have included that of fasts, thanksgivings and lectures, a corresponding inference may be drawn as to the fine of not keeping them. In 1682, "it is enacted that none shall presume to attend servile worke, or labour, or attend any such sports on such dayes, as are or shall be appointed by the Court for humiliation by fasting and prayer, or for publicke Thanksgiving, on penalty of — shillings." The sum here omitted was probably 10s. The law, just described, continued in force till the annexation of Plymouth with Massachusetts.

As the rulers of Massachusetts colony had authority to command the observance of fasts and thanksgivings, they had like power to enforce the keeping of them.

In 1646, the ensuing law was passed. "Whereas the ministry of the word is established according to the order of the gospel throughout this jurisdiction, every person shall duely resort and attend thereunto, respectively on the Lord's dayes and upon such public fast dayes and dayes of thanksgiving, as are to be generally observed by appointment of authority." This law required, that each individual, unnecessarily absent from such public meetings, should be fined 5s. It will be perceived here, that the penalty for neglecting public worship on fasts and thanksgivings, was equal to that of neglecting like service on the sabbath. With such a regulation Edward Randolph found fault, in his statement to the royal council, in 1676. His words were, "Whoever shall observe Christmasse day. or the like festivity, by forbearing to labour, feasting or other way, shall pay 5s.; and whosoever shall not resort to their meetings upon the Lord's day and such days of fasting and thanksgiving as shall be appointed by authority, shall pay 5s. No days, commanded by the lawes of England, to be observed or regarded." How long such a fine was strictly imposed, cannot be particularly told at this late day. It was evidently in force, however, till 1680, because the proclamations, for fasts and thanksgivings to this year, commanded them not to be desecrated with "servile labour." Since the adoption of the Constitution in Massachusetts, all fines, as well as legislation, about these religious occasions, have therein ceased.

During the separate jurisdiction of New Haven, they laid a fine of 5s. for each omission to attend worship on fast and thanksgiving days, as well as on the sabbath. 

With regard to fines, now in view, Connecticut pursued the course of the Bay colony. In 1650, they adopted the law on this subject previously enacted by Massachusetts. A penalty, for the violation of fasts and thanksgivings, was continued longer there, than in any other part of New England. In 1791 it was enacted, that there should be an abstinence from servile labour and recreation, on these occasions, works of necessity and mercy excepted, on penalty of not above two dollars nor less than one. This rule, as is readily perceived, did not tally with that of 1650, so as to demand attendance on worship. It also made an exception as to public posts and stages, anciently unknown in our country. Prohibitions of the kind under consideration, were repealed in 1833. From this year, fasts and thanksgivings have been recommended by the executive, and not ordered as formerly.

Relative to New Hampshire, their proclamations for such seasons, before the adoption of their present constitution, contained clauses like the following: "All servile work and recreation are forbidden;" but subsequently, instead of commanding, they advised to the observance of these days. Hence, there is implicit evidence, that fines were required there by law for an infringement on fasts and thanksgivings prior to 1792, but not afterwards.

Respecting Rhode Island, they appear to have had no fines for the non-observance of these religious occasions, nor have Vermont and Maine since they became states.

Plymouth Colony Laws.

Laws of Massachusetts, edition of 1660.

Hutchinson's Collections of papers, p. 482.

The act against the keeping of Christmas in Massachusetts, was passed in 1659, when there was some prospect, that Charles II. would be brought to his father's throne. This act was repealed in 1682. It is probable, that, from the last date, the annual celebration of November 5th, so far as it had declined in New England, was revived and continued to be observed by processions of boys and young men, and bonfires, before the revolution of 1775. Since then, till forty years past, this was kept up by bonfires, and is now, to a very limited extent, in Rhode Island.

New Haven Laws, p. 38.

Laws of Connecticut, edition of 1796, p. 83.

In reference to such prohibitions, there was a singular occurrence, which may have produced a legal question of no small interest and concern. It was in the town of Colchester, under the jurisdiction of Connecticut. It is thus described by the original record. "At a legal Town meeting, held in Colchester October 29, 1705, it was voted, that whereas there was a Thanksgiving appointed to be held on the first Thursday of November, and our present circumstances being such, it cannot with conveniency be attended on that day, it is therefore voted and agreed by the inhabitants aforesaid, concluding the thing will not be otherways than well resented (or favorably received), that the second Thursday of November aforesaid shall be set apart for that service." Long and accredited tradition has uniformly related, that this suspension of a week was to afford the Trader of the place an opportunity to replenish his exhausted articles of sweetening, and particularly that of molasses, – so that his customers might not forego the indulgence of their taste for pumpkin pies and other similar dainties.

Letter from Josiah Stevens Jr. secretary of the state of New Hampshire,


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