The Scarlet Letter

Chapter IX.
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 Bead-well:



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