Vengeance and Justice

Public Penance,
page 4 of 6

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 l0th 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 cited.

“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.


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