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Public Penance

The custom of performing penance in public by humiliation in church
either through significant action, position or confession has often been
held to be peculiar to the Presbyterian and Puritan churches. It is, in
fact, as old as the Church of Rome, and was a custom of the Church of
England long before it became part of the Dissenters' discipline. All
ranks and conditions of men shared in this humiliation. An English king,
Henry II, a German emperor, Henry IV, the famous Duchess of Gloucester,
and Jane Shore are noted examples; humbler victims for minor sins or
offenses against religious usages suffered in like manner. In Scotland
the ordeals of sitting on the repentance-stool or cutty-stool were most
frequent. In economic and social histories of Scotland, and especially
in Edgar's Old Church Life in Scotland, many instances are enumerated.
Sometimes the offender wore a repentance-gown of sackcloth; more
frequently he stood or sat barefoot and barelegged.

In our own day penance has been done in the Scottish Church. In 1876 a
woman in Ross-shire sat on the cutty-stool through the whole service
with a black shawl over her head; while in February, 1884, one of the
ringleaders in the Sabbatarian riots was set on the cutty-stool in
Lochcarron church and rebuked for a moral offense which could not,
according to the discipline of the Free Church in the Highlands, be
fully punished in any other way.

In English churches similar penance was done. In the History of
Wakefield Cathedral are given the old church-wardens' accounts. In them
are many items of the loan of sheets for men and women "to do penance
in." About sixpence was the usual charge. For immorality, cheating,
defamation of character, disregard of the Sabbath and other
transgressions penance was performed. In 1766 penance was thus rendered
in Stokesby Church for three Sundays by James Beadwell:

"In the time of Divine service, between the hours of ten and eleven in
the forenoon of the same day, in the presence of the whole congregation
there assembled, being barehead, barefoot and barelegged, having a white
sheet wrapped about him from the shoulder to the feet and a white wand
in his hand, where immediately after the reading of the Gospel, he shall
stand upon some form or seat before the pulpit or place where the
minister readeth prayers and say after him as forthwith, etc."

Clergymen even, if offenders against the established church, were not
spared public humiliation. In the year 1534 the vicar of a church in
Hull, England, preached a sermon in Holy Trinity church advocating the
teaching of the Reformers in Antwerp. He was promptly tried for heresy
and convicted. He recanted; and in penance walked around the church on
Sunday clad only in his shirt, barefooted and carrying a large faggot in
his hand. On the market day he walked around the market-place clad in a
similar manner. This really solemn act is robbed of its dignity because
of the apparel of the penitent. A man's shirt is an absurd garment; had
the offender been wrapped in a sheet, or robed in sackcloth and ashes,
he would been a noble figure, but you cannot grace or dignify a shirt.

With a mingling of barbarity and Christianity unrivalled by any other
code of laws issued in America, the Articles, Lawes, and Orders Divine,
Politique and Martiall for the colony of Virginea, as issued by Sir
Thomas Dale, punished offenders against the church and God's word
equally by physical and moral penance.

"Noe man shall vnworthilie demeane himselfe vnto any Preacher, or
Minister of God's Holy Word, but generally hold them in all reverent
regard and dutiful intreatie, otherwise he the offender shall openly be
whipt three times, and ask publick forgiveness in the assembly of the
congregation three several Saboth daies."

"There is no one man or woman in this Colonie now present, or hereafter
to arrive, but shall give vp an account of his and their faith and
religion, and repaire vnto the Minister, that by his conference with
them, hee may vnderstand, and gather, whether heretofore they have been
sufficiently instructed and catechised in the principles and grounds on
Religion, whose weaknesse and ignorance herein, the Minister, finding,
and advising them in all love and charitie to repaire often unto him to
receive therein a greater measure of knowledge, if they shal refuse so
to repaire unto him, and he the Minister give notice thereof unto the
Governour, he shall cause the offender first time of refusall to be
whipt, for the second time to be whipt twice, and to acknowledge his
fault vpon the Saboth day, in the assembly, and for the third time to be
whipt every day vntil he hath made the same acknowledgement, and asked
forgivenesse for the same, and shall repaire vnto the Minister, to be
further instructed as aforesaid; and vpon the Saboth when the Minister
shall catechize and of him demaund any question concerning his faith and
knowledge, he shall not refuse to make answer vpon the same perill."

Those who were found to "calumniate, detract, slander, murmur, mutinie,
resist, disobey, or neglect" the officers' commands also were to be
whipped and ask forgiveness at the Sabbath service. The Puritans were
said dreadfully to seek God; far greater must have been the dread of
Virginia church folk; and in view of this severity it is not to be
wondered that this law had to be issued as a pendant:

"No man or woman, vpon paine of death, shall rune away from the Colonie,
to Powhathan or any savage Weroance else whatever."

Bishop Meade, in his history of the Virginia church, tells of offenders
who stood in church wrapped in white sheets with white wands in their
hands; and other examples of public penance in the Southern colonies are

In 1639 Robert Sweet of Jamestown--"a gentleman"--appeared, wrapped in a
white sheet, and did penance in church. In Lower Norfolk County, a white
man and a black woman stood up together, dressed in white sheets and
holding white wands in their hands.

The custom of public confession of sin prevailed in the first Salem
church, and thereafter lasted in New England, in modified form for two
centuries. Biblical authority for this custom was claimed to rest in
certain verses of the eighteenth chapter of the gospel by St. Matthew.

Mr. Charles Francis Adams, in his paper entitled Some Phases of
Morality and Church Discipline in New England, gives many examples of
public confession of sin and public reprimand in the Braintree
meeting-house. Manuscript church records which I have examined afford
scores, almost hundreds of other examples.

In earliest times, in New England as in Virginia a white robe or white
sheet was worn by the offender.

In 1681 two Salem women, wrapped in white, were set on stools "in the
middle alley" of the meeting-house through the long service; having on
their heads a paper bearing the name of their crime. In 1659 William
Trotter of Newbury, Massachusetts, for his slanderous speeches was
enjoined to make "publick acknowledgement" in the church on a
lecture-day. On the 20th of September, 1667, Ellinor Bonythorne of
York, Maine, was sentenced "to stand 3 Sabbath dayes in a white sheet in
the meeting-house." Another Maine woman, Ruth, the wife of John Gouch,
being found guilty of a hateful crime was ordered "to stand in a white
sheet publickly in the Congregation at Agamenticus two several Sabbath
days, and likewise one day in the General Court."

These scenes were not always productive of true penitence. This affair
happened in the Braintree church in 1697, and many others might be

"Isaac Theer was called forth in public, moved pathetically to
acknowledge his sin and publish his repentance, who came down and stood
against the lower end of the fore seat after he had been prevented by
our shutting the east door from going out. Stood impudently and said
indeed he owned the sin of stealing and was heartily sorry for it,
begged pardon of God and men, and hoped he should do so no more, which
was all he would be brought unto, saying his sin was already known; all
with a remisse voice so few could hear him. The Church gave their
judgment against him that he was a notorious scandalous sinner, and
obstinately impenitent. And when I was proceeding to spread before him
his sin and wickedness, he, as tis probable, guessing what was like to
follow, turned about to goe out, and being desired and charged to tarry
and know what the church had to say, he flung out of doors with an
insolent manner though silent."

A most graphic description of one of these scenes of public abasement
and abnegation is given by Governor John Winthrop in his History of New
England. The offender, Captain John Underhill, was a brave though
blustering soldier, a man of influence throughout New England, a
so-called gentleman. And I doubt not that Boston folk tried hard to
overlook his transgressions because, "soldiers has their ways." Winthrop
wrote thus:

"Captain Underbill being brought by the blessing of God in this church's
censure of excommunication to remorse for his foul sins, obtained by
means of the elders and others of the church of Boston, a safe conduct
under the hand of the governor and one of the council to repair to the
church. He came at the time of the court of assistants, and upon the
lecture day, after sermon, the pastor called him forth and declared the
occasion, and then gave him leave to speak; and, indeed, it was a
spectacle which caused many weeping eyes, though it afforded matter of
much rejoicing to behold the power of the Lord Jesus in his ordinances,
when they are dispensed in his own way, holding forth the authority of
his regal sceptre in the simplicity of the gospel. He came in his worst
clothes, being accustomed to take great pride in his bravery and
neatness, without a band, in a foul linen cap pulled close to his eyes,
and standing upon a form, he did, with many deep sighs and abundance of
tears, lay open his wicked course, his adultery, his hypocrisy, his
persecution of God's people here, and especially his pride, as the root
of all which caused God to give him over to his sinful courses, and
contempt of magistrates. * * * * * He spake well, save that his
blubbering, etc., interrupted him, and all along he discovered a broken
and melting heart and gave good exhortations to take heed of such
vanities and beginnings of evil as had occasioned his fall. And in the
end he earnestly and humbly besought the church to have compassion on
him and to deliver him out of the hands of Satan."

In truth, the Captain "did protest too much." This well-acted and
well-costumed piece of vainglorious repentance was not his first
appearance in the Boston meeting-house in this role. Twice before had he
been the chief actor in a similar scene, and twice had he been forgiven
by the church and by individuals specially injured. He was not alone in
his "blubbering," as Winthrop plainly puts it. The minister at Jedburgh,
Scotland, for similar offenses, "prostrated himself on the floor of the
Assembly, and with weeping and howling, entreated for pardon." He was
thus sentenced:

"That in Edinburgh as the capital, in Dundee as his native town, in
Jedburgh as the scene of his ministration, he should stand in sack-cloth
at the church door, also on the repentance-stool, and for two Sundays in
each place."

The most striking and noble figure to suffer public penance in American
history was Judge Samuel Sewall. He was one of the board of magistrates
who sat in judgment at the famous witchcraft trials in Salem and Boston
in the first century of New England life. Through his superstition and
by his sentence, many innocent lives were sacrificed. Judge Sewall was a
steadfast Christian, a man deeply introspective, absolutely upright, and
painfully conscientious. As years passed by, and all superstitious
excitement was dead, many of the so-called victims confessed their
fraud, and in the light of these confessions, and with calmer judgment,
and years of unshrinking thought, Judge Sewall became convinced that his
decisions had been unjust, his condemnation cruel, and his sentences
appallingly awful. Though his public confession and recantation was
bitterly opposed by his fellow judge, Stoughton, he sent to his minister
a written confession of his misjudgment, his remorse, his sorrow. It was
read aloud at the Sabbath service in the Boston church while the
white-haired Judge stood in the face of the whole congregation with
bowed head and aching heart. For his self-abnegation he has been
honored in story and verse; honored more in his time of penance than in
the many positions of trust and dignity bestowed on him by his

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