Here to return to
IX THE QUAINT CHURCH CUSTOMS OF LONG AGO
WHEN STEEPLES WERE SCARCE — TROUBLESOME CHAINS AND CANDLE LIGHT — A PEW FOR PRESIDENT ADAMS — THE COMING OF GEORGE WHITEFIELD — THEY WANTED HIM TO “CINDLE A DEAD COAL” — ALL THIS FOR $300 PER YEAR! — A BUSY SEXTON — AN INVITATION TO A FUNERAL — “PRANCING IT THROUGH THE STREETS”
IF there had been such a thing as an airship during the first half of the eighteenth century, and if an aeronaut flying over Philadelphia had formed his opinion of the city’s ecclesiastical progress by the presence or absence of church steeples, he would have been compelled to decide that it was a most irreligious city. But the truth was that many of the earlier buildings set apart for God’s worship were Meeting Houses, and those who worshiped in them did not believe in steeples any more than they believed in monuments in their burying grounds, and those who built churches for the various denominations found it so difficult to raise funds for the absolutely essential parts of the structures that the building of steeples was left until a more convenient season.
The first steeple of any size was that of Christ Church. This was not built until 1752-3, nearly fifty years after the beginning of the building. When the decision was reached to complete the church by the addition of the steeple, subscriptions were invited. Three hundred citizens of Philadelphia made liberal response, but the amount raised was not sufficient. Accordingly, the vestry met to see how best to raise the remaining funds “for finishing the steeple and purchasing a ring of bells.” It was decided to do this by a lottery, a scheme for raising the sum of one thousand and twelve pounds, ten shillings, by a deduction of fifteen pounds per cent. on eighteen thousand Spanish dollars, commonly called pieces of eight, to be raised by the sale of four thousand five hundred tickets, at four pieces of eight each ticket.
“The Philadelphia Steeple Lottery” was advertised at once. Thirteen men were appointed managers; of these Benjamin Franklin was one. These men were to sell tickets to all who came to the houses of the vendors. The drawing did not complete the fund, and a second drawing was held in 1753. The tickets read:
Christ Church Lottery
(1) Class. No. (7493)
This intitles the Bearer to
such Prize as shall be
drawn Against the
In 1754, soon after the completion of the steeple, Captain Budden brought over from England a chime of eight bells for which the bill was £560 7s. With the bells came a man who had assisted in making them. He had asked for the privilege of coming over to hang them in the steeple. Captain Budden refused to accept payment for bringing the chimes. Because of his generosity it was arranged that the bells should be rung whenever his ship, the Myrtella, should come up the Delaware.
The steeple and the bells are valued by those who love old Christ Church more than perhaps any other possession, unless it be the flagon and the chalice which Queen Anne gave to the congregation in 1708.
When the Second Presbyterian Church was built, at Third and Arch Streets, a wooden steeple, which was also paid for by a lottery, crowned the structure. The appearance of this rival steeple caused a good deal of jealousy. The feeling found expression in a bit of doggerel:
The Second Presbyterian Church not long afterwards lost its steeple, because this was decreed unsafe and was taken down. But the day came when the church had another distinction. The noise at Third and Arch Streets during the hours of service became so great that a petition was presented to the city authorities asking for relief. While nothing was done by the city, the state legislature stepped in and gave permission for the stretching of chains across the streets on which the church abutted. This was in 1799. Thereafter traffic had to avoid the church during service. Not only the Second Church but a number of other churches took advantage of the permission. The chains were stretched from iron posts in which they were set in iron sockets.
These chains caused so much trouble that eventually they were removed. The records of the First Presbyterian Church, dated June 4, 1804, show that “Mr. William Page’s Horse and Carriage had on the last Sabbath run foul of the chain placed across the street and injured it so much as to render it unfit for use.” Mr. Fullerton was therefore requested to call on Mr. Page and procure payment for the damage.
On another Sunday George F. Harrison “drove into town to obtain a physician for some dying member of his father’s family. In attempting to return home, street after street was found to be closed against them, and much precious time was consequently lost.” John Moss, who witnessed the efforts of the frantic driver to get free from the maze of chains, was so excited that he took the law into his own hands, and took down the chain at Locust and Seventh Streets, which guarded the First Presbyterian Church. Then he talked and wrote so vigorously against the custom that the chain was never replaced.
A few years later there was still another change that led many of the staid old Philadelphians to shake their heads. All lighting of churches was by candles, even after other means of illumination were used elsewhere. It was not until 1819 that a committee in one of the oldest churches of the city proposed to substitute lamps for candles. There was much opposition to the innovation. But the committee was not ready to yield. The calculation was made that it would save $19.35 over candles, even when candles were bought by the box. There was the additional advantage that with lamps it would not be necessary longer to “line out the hymns.” “But oil will leak on the people,” the determined opponents replied.
The objection managed to stand in the way of progress for three years, but in 1822 it was resolved to place oil lamps in the north aisle of this church as a sample. The experiment succeeded so well that in 1824, in this church, candles made way for oil lamps altogether. In the days when candles were still the unquestioned source of light there was spirited rivalry among some of the churches for the presence of lights of another kind — the shining lights of Congress and the higher officers of government. A large number of the brightest men who were prominent in the early history of the nation were earnest Christians, and on Sunday they made their way regularly to the churches of their choice.
The pew set apart in Christ Church as the governor’s pew was later known as the President’s pew. There Washington sat Sunday after Sunday. Dr. William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania, once wrote to an inquirer of the habit of church attendance of the first President of the nation:
“The father of our country, whenever in the city, as well as during the revolutionary war as in his Presidency, attended divine service in Christ Church of this city, excepting during one winter 1781-82, when, being here for the taking of Measures with Congress towards the opening of the next campaign, he rented a house near St. Peter’s Church, then in parochial union with Christ Church. During that season he attended regularly St. Peter’s. His behavior was always serious and attentive; but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to disclose, that I never saw him in the said attitude. During his Presidency, our vestry provided him with a pew, ten yards in front of the reading-desk. It was habitually occupied by himself, by Mrs. Washington, who was regularly a communicant and by his secretaries.”
In the minutes of the session of the First Presby Church, whose organization dates from 1698, is an interesting record concerning Washington’s successor:
“Monday, February 6, 1797
“The following arrangement was made to accommodate John Adams, who will shortly be the President of the United States, with a Pew in the church, during the time he shall be President, viz. At the request of the Corporation Henry Keppele and the family of the late Mr. Andrew Caldwell very politely agreed to give up their pew No. 92 for that purpose & to accommodate themselves in other parts of the Church; the corporation therefore ordered the pew No. 92 to be fitted up in a decent Manner and an offer thereof made to Mr. Adans President Elect for the accommodation of himself and family during the time he shall be President of the United States.”
On February 8, 1797, John Adams wrote to the secretary of the corporation, saying:
“I accept with pleasure the handsome accommodation they have been pleased to offer me, and. . . I shall always be ready to make any compensation, that is expected of the possessors of pews in that elegant church.”
From the beginning of the city’s history numbers of the wealthy and prominent as well as many of the poorer and more obscure citizens attended church with at least a degree of faithfulness. But there were always those who felt that the city was well on the road to awful destruction. One of these was Thomas Chalkley, the Quaker preacher who spent many years in going up and down the country and in making voyages to the Quaker colony in Barbados. Early in 1727, while making one of these voyages, he wrote out the story of his dire forebodings. He told of a wakeful night just before he left Philadelphia. It was then borne in upon him
“That the Lord was angry with the people of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, because of the great sins and wickedness which was committed by the inhabitants, in public houses, and elsewhere: and that the Lord was angry with the magistrates also, because they use not their power as they might do, in order to suppress wickedness; and do not so much as they ought, put the laws already made in execution against profaneness and immorality: and the Lord is angry with the representatives of the people of the land, because they take not so much care to suppress vice and wickedness, . . . and it was shewed me, that the anger of the Most High would still be against us, until there was a greater reformation in these things.”
After penning this jeremiad Chalkley said:
“It is worthy of commendation, that our governor, Thomas Lloyd, sometimes in the evening before he went to rest, us’t to go in person to public houses, and order the people he found there to their own houses, till at length, he was instrumental to promote better order, and did in a great measure, suppress vice and immorality in the city.”
Thirteen years after the date of the Chalkley indictment there was tremendous excitement in the city because of the coming of George Whitefield, the great evangelist, who drew enormous crowds wherever he preached. The people were attracted by his eloquence and his earnestness, and thousands of them were persuaded to change their manner of life.
A striking picture of the impression made in the city by the evangelist was given by Richard Hockley in a letter to Bernard Hannington, Charleston, South Carolina. In the middle of a business message he passed to the subject that was so profoundly interesting the entire city:
“I cant pass over in Silence to you the surprizing Change and alteration I see in the People of this Place since that Shining Light the Revd Mr Whitefield has been amongst ‘em who no doubt you have heard of, Religion is the Topick of Conversation and they all have it much in their mouths pray God it may sink deep into their Hearts so as to Influence their Actions and Conversation, make them good Neighbours and sincere Friends, which I know you will say Amen to, I have heard him several times here & in So Carolina and had several private Conversations with him, he appears to me to be a very sincere person Zealous for his Masters Cause, and justly admired for his Elegant though plain Language and easy to be understood, and for the Serious Vein of Piety that runs through all his Exhortations crowded after by Multitudes tho much traduced by some who have no true sense of Religion, he is endeavouring to reclaim a wicked Vicious and Sinfull Age, and that with great authority and Courage, and. . . I never heard or saw his Fellow.”
The Pennsylvania Gazette of May 1, 1740, made an announcement concerning Mr. Whitefield that later stirred up some controversy:
“Since Mr. Whitefield’s Preaching here the Dancing School Assembly and Concert Room have been shut up as inconsistent with the Doctrine of the Gospel: And though the gentlemen concern’d caus’d the door to be broke open again, we are informed that no company came the last Assembly Night.”
In the next issue, the editor, Benjamin Franklin, said that offense had been given by the notice to “the Gentlemen concerned in the Entertainments.” They insisted that Whitefield was deceiving the people, that he was using unfair means, that he had bought up all the printers so that nothing could be printed against him. They insisted that his “Doctrine and Practice” should be exposed and the people undeceived. Though Franklin did not like the tone of the letter, he printed it as he received it.
The letter charged that William Seward, “who came into the Place as an Attendant and intimate Companion of Mr. Whitefield’s inconsistently . . . with the Doctrine of the Gospel, took upon him to invade other Men’s Property.” Contrary to law and justice he had “shut up the Doors of the Concert Room without any previous Application to or consent had of any of the members.” It further intimated that the doors remained closed that night because the members thought it was “below them to take any Notice of it.” They “met the night after according to Custom; and the Tuesday following the Company met to Dance as they used to do; but the Assembly being only for the Winter Season is now discontinued of Course and the Concert being for the whole year still goes on as usual.”
The writer felt that this account of Seward’s behavior was in keeping with “his low craft in getting this Paragraph foisted into the News-Paper just before his Departure for England in order to carry it along with him and spread his Master’s Fame as tho’ he had met with Great Success among the better Sort of People in Penna. when at the same Time to his highest mortification he can’t but be sensible that he has been neglected by them; and were they to deliver their Sentiments of him with the same Freedom he takes with others he wou’d presently discover they had both him and his mischievous Tenets in the utmost contempt.”
They went on to declare that this was not the only misrepresentation of Mr. Whitefield’s success, “for in of all those Articles of News which give an account the vast Crowds who compose his Audience the Numbers are always exaggerated being often doubled and sometimes trebled,” The accounts being put in the papers by themselves, were frequently held to be evidence of their “little Regard to Truth.”
But Whitefield went on his way serenely, doing his work and securing wonderful results. Several times he returned to Philadelphia, but always there were those who opposed him. In 1764 the Rector of Trinity Church, Oxford, wrote:
“I have the pleasure to acquaint the Society that my congregation appeared to be more steady than formerly and better fixed in their principles, notwithstanding the powerful efforts that Mr. Whitefield is now making in Philadelphia ... St. Paul’s the college and Presbyterian Meeting Houses were open to him; but the salutary admonitions of His Grace of Canterbury to the Rector etc of Christ Church and St. Peter’s have prevented his preaching at this time, in either of them.”
In spite of the new earnestness which possessed the church by reason of Whitefield’s preaching funds for church support were sadly lacking. In 1772, when a minister was called to be pastor of the First Baptist Church, it was officially stated to him:
“Our Funds for the support of a Minister are the parsonage, or £40 p. ann. in lieu thereof if more agreeable, the money arising from the pews wch if all let as we doubt not they soon wod be on your settlement amongst us amount to upwards of Two hung and thirty pounds a Year.”
Seven years later the same church in issuing a call to Rev. Stephen Gano, who was doing work among the soldiers, said:
“You may Remember that Last year, you Reed a Call from this Church and Congregation — In Consequence of which you paid us a visit — But your Stay was too Short to Cindle the Dead Coal in a flaime — we are sensible at that time things had a gloomy Apearance which had no Doubt a Tendency to Discourage you from settling amongst us — But we Can with pleasure Informe you, things ware a Different Aspect, with us at present. . . We have frequent Application for Pews, and the Subscription fills up so fast So that with those and the several Donations left for the Suporte of a minister we doubt not but we Shall be able to Raise a Cumfortable Suport for your Selfe and family.”
But Mr. Gano did not see his way to leave the army for the pastorate; he did not feel that service to be rendered or support assured in the city field could be compared to the service and support in the work he was doing.
His fear of the church’s ability and readiness to pay a living salary seemed justified when, in 1780, the church paid a minister, for preaching four Sundays, at least eight services, eight silver dollars. The church historian in recording this says that “the four Sundays he spent here were not calculated to encourage extravagance in his family.”
The standard of payment offered to a minister in that day and the requirements made of him cannot be better shown than by quoting a letter received in 1789 by Benjamin Chew of Philadelphia, from his son, Sam Chew, in Chestertown, Maryland:
“As you have once more embarked in public Business for the good of your Fellow Citizens, in their temporal Concerns, I take it for granted you will excuse the Trouble I am about to give you, in a matter of greater Importance We are in immediate want of a Parson. I could describe the Kind of Man who would suit us in few words; as for Instance, he must be unlike some others we have had, in everything but abilities. He must be a good Preacher, a sound Divine and if a zealous High Church Man, so much the better. We want one, who will not only preach, but live down the Methodists. One who will think it his Duty, to lead the Asses to water, you know what I allude to, and not one who thinks of the Stipend only. In short, we want a Man who has a great deal of the church in his heart and a good deal of the Gentleman in his behavior. A person whose name is Behn, has been strongly recommended to us, and I wish you to make some inquiries about him of Doctor White. If the Doctor hesitates, I shall govern myself accordingly, without bringing him into View, in the least. If he can venture to write in his Favour, an application will be made directly. The living including Perquisites, will I apprehend not fall much, if any, short of $300 per Ann. Be pleased to let me have an answer soon, as I suspect another Person, who is by no means the Thing, is Thought of by some People.”
If Elizabeth Fergusson could have read requirements like these would she have felt like writing her parody of Pope in which she spoke of the joys of the man who was called to have oversight of such a church? This was her idea of his life:
The pastor was not the only officer of the church who was expected to do much work and receive a very meager living. The sexton, too, had a hard time of it. One Philadelphia church in 1806 adopted rules for the government of this important personage that bring a smile to the face of the reader:
“In consideration of the sum of One Hundred Dollars, annually to be paid to me by the Trustees. . . I the subscriber do agree and covenant. . . to Act as Sexton. . . and perform the following Services — I will Keep a Register of all the Burials, noting the Age and Disease of the deceased which shall be annually rendered to the Trustees and to commence from May 1806 — I engage to open the Doors and Windows of the Church every Sabbath Day and such other seasons as may be required, attentively show strangers to seats, dust the pews every Saturday and Sweep the House entire — Also to arrange the Sacramental Tables before every Communion Season — attentively make and take care of the Fires in the Stoves — Also to suspend the Chain before the Church and across Elbow Lane every Sabbath both fore and afternoon — Also to take care that the Burial Ground Gates be kept secured, and the Ground preserved from the Incession of Cows, Dogs or other animals, and in general I consent to perform all the duties which shall be required of ne by the Trustees as Sexton.”
The files of the early Philadelphia newspapers give interesting facts concerning many of those for whom some sexton opened the gates of the burying ground. There was, for instance, the Pennsylvania Gazette of August 24, 1774, with the notice:
“On Sunday evening last, after five days illness, died, in the prime of life, Miss Polly Franks, second daughter of David Franks, Esq.; of this city — a young lady whose sweetness of temper, elegance of manners, cheerful conversation and unblemished virtue, endeared her to all her connexions, and especially to her now mournful parents, who found her in every part of life a shining example of filial duty and affection — Her remains were interred, Monday forenoon, in Christ- Church burying ground, amid the tears of her numerous acquaintainces and relatives.”
Again the gates of Christ Church opened for the widow of one whom the church had ever delighted to honor. Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser of October 17, 1801, told the story:
“On Wednesday last, in the 88th year of her age, Mrs. Susannah Budden, the relict of capt. Richard Budden, a native of old England, so well known for many years by the frequency and safety of his voyages between London and Philadelphia, that his ship was called the bridge between those two ports; when a young sailor he accompanied Wm. Penn on his last visit to Pennsylvania, and was introduced when a man by his son, Thomas Penn, to King George the 2d; who supposing him, from the plainness of his dress to be a quaker, pleasantly addressed him in the language of that religious society, and directed him to cover his head. The widow of this venerable sea captain, survived him five and thirty years, and passed the long evening of her life in a peaceful retirement from the eyes and bustle of the world. Her death and funeral were announced by the ringing of the bells of Christ Church (muffled) as a tribute of respect to her worth, and of gratitude to her husband, who presented the church with the freight of those Bells from London, forty or fifty years ago.
“Eight days before she died she requested to be interred in the same grave with her husband in Christ Church burying ground (which was accordingly done last evening) and that the following lines should be added, with her name, to the words ‘prepare to follow’ which are inscribed upon his tombstone,
“I am prepar’d — God called me,
My Soul I hope, doth rest in thee.”
Two obituary notices of the year 1766 are of unusual interest not only because of the relationship of the subject to Benjamin Franklin, but because they told of husband and wife who, after a long life together, died within a few weeks of one another. The Pennsylvania Gazette of July 3, 1766, told of the husband’s death:
“On Tuesday morning last died suddenly, at his House in Market-street, in the Seventy-fourth Year of his age, Peter Franklin, Esq; Deputy Postmaster of this City, only brother to Benjamin Franklin, Esq. He was an affectionate Husband, a kind Master, a generous Benefactor, and a sincere Friend.”
And on August 21, 1766, the same paper gave tidings of the wife’s departure to join her husband:
“On Thursday Night last died, after a short illness, in the 70th Year of her age, Mrs. Mary Franklin, the Virtuous and Amiable Consort of the late Peter Franklin, Esq; of this City. She was a Gentlewoman who, from Principles of Christianity, discharged the duties of a long Life with unblemished Integrity; which, added to a sound Understanding, and a happy Disposition, rendered her beloved by all those who had the Pleasure of her Acquaintance.”
Newspaper notices of funerals were in Germantown supplemented by a method described by Townsend Ward:
“Every door was what was called a half door, and usually the upper half was open. Along the road, up one side of it and down the other, would stalk the self-important herald, who, standing at the threshold of each in turn would proclaim in a loud voice, ‘Thyself and family are bidden to the funeral of Dirck Hogermoed at three o’clock to-morrow.’ And so he went from house to house. At the appointed time the citizens would gather at the house and each as he entered would take from the table that stood by the door, a glass of spirits, which it was considered an affront not to do. After a time of solemn communing they would mount their horses, the wife on a pillion behind her husband, and thus would they ride to the Burying Ground to see the ancient
‘Each in his narrow cell forever laid.’”
Another strange funeral custom was commented on by Sarah Eve in her journal. On July 12, 1773, she wrote of taking part in the funeral of a child, as pall bearer. “Foolish custom for Girls to prance it through the streets without hats or bonnets,” she wrote.
The custom persisted for many years. Hannah M. White wrote on December 19, 1813, after attending Fanny Durden’s funeral: “Six young ladies of her intimate acquaintance, of which I was one, were asked to be pall bearers. We were all dressed in white with long white veils.” And Arthur Singleton, an English writer, reported in 1814: “I saw in Chestnut street the funeral of a youth of about ten years, whose bier was borne in the hands of four young friends . . . dressed all in white, with the curls of long hair dropping aloose down the shoulders. There was an agreeable melancholy about it, which interested me. It is a relick of an ancient custom, now rare, that the deceased youth should be supported to the grave by the opposite sex.”
The writing of elegies for a dead friend was, in the eighteenth century a popular method of showing grief and respect. One of the best of these elegies was that by Elizabeth Waring in 1760, after the death of John Wagstaffe, Quaker preacher, one of two brothers, singularly gifted, who made their living by selling hats and gloves:
The eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, and the nineteenth century has become the twentieth, but the hearts of those who live in Philadelphia are as appreciative as ever of the good to be found in others.