Popular Justice : A History of American Criminal Justice by Samuel Walker

Public Penance,
page 2 of 6

“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 bare-head, 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.”


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