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