Church Record Sunday: Essex County, Massachusetts Court Records for 1642

"The Life of Faith in Three Parts," 1670 by Richard Baxter(1615-1691) via
The Life of Faith in Three Parts,” 1670 by Richard Baxter(1615-1691) via

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

Still perusing the transcribed court records in the Essex Antiquarian from 1642-3 (see our first post, “Amanuensis Monday: Essex County, Massachusetts Court Records for 1642” at, today we focus on religion. Although technically not ‘church records,’ at this time in the New England colonies, the church and state were inexorably linked, although not as deeply as they had been in England.

The English Anglican Church had continued the Catholic sacrament of baptism to remove original sin; it was required for salvation. The Puritans, however, believed that a pious life was more important than this sacrament, and wished to have less church hierarchy involved in daily life; infant baptism thus fell out of favor. Apparently, however, Essex, Massachusetts gained a new minister who reverted to requiring infant baptism for salvation, and this change was a problem for many.

Lady Deborah Moody was to appear in court for “not believing in infant baptism.” Lady Moody did not appear in court but it was said that she was “in a way of conviction before the elders.” Apparently the church elders were going to work with her to change her beliefs, but quite a number of residents were cited for similar “mis”-convictions:

“Mr. Cobbett taught things against his [the defendant, William Winter’s] own conscience, and for speaking against the ordinance of infant baptism… He is willing to see the light from speech of our elder Mr. Norris. To acknowledge his fault next lecture and ask Mr. Cobbet’s forgiveness.”

“Thomas Patience by a common fame, and upon vehement suspicion, not only of holding, but also of fomenting ye error that baptism of infants is no ordinance of God, and hindering his child from baptism.”

Not only was holding thoughts against infant baptism bad, but “argument in public” or “speaking contemptuously of it” were also prosecuted.

Religious services went long into the Sabbath, and the crowded churches were probably warm on humid summer days, and cold in the winter. The droning words of the sermon likely had a soporific effect, especially after six days of hard labor, but acting on those sleepy impulses was not acceptable:

Jeffrey Esty/Estie was “admonished for much sleeping on the Lord’s days in time of exercise.”

‘Exercise’ in this case is a religious observance or service, not ‘working out’ as we know it.

Roger Scott of Lynn was brought to court for “common sleeping at public exercise on Lord’s day, and for striking him who waked him.” (!!)

The Sabbath had restrictions on what could be done that day- absolutely no work:

The servant John Colever was presented to the court for “carrying a burden on the Lord’s day.” He did not appear, as he was out of the country.

During that same session, Joshua Downing was called for “carrying a burden upon an ass on ye Lord’s day about two years ago.” (No statute of limitations?) Richard Norman was “fined for slighting ordinances and carrying burden on Lord’s day.”

“Ordinances” were part of the church ritual in this case, not just the town laws. One William Robinson not only slighted, but was absent from ordinances, and was cited as well for “carrying a fowling piece on Lord’s day.” As a ‘fowling piece’ was a gun used to shoot birds, hopefully he had leftovers available for dinner.

The old village stocks in Chapeltown, Lancashire, England, via Wikimedia, CC by 2.5 license, author Austen Redman.
The old village stocks in Chapeltown, Lancashire, England, via Wikimedia, CC by 2.5 license, author Austen Redman.

We take our free speech for granted, and grew up learning that the colonists came to this country in order to find the freedom of speech and religion they did not have in England. That freedom apparently only went so far. One William Goult of Salem, was cited “for reproachful and unseemly speeches against the rule of ye church.”

Punishment for his freely spoken words was “to sit in stocks an hour and be severely whipped next lecture day.” Part of the public humiliation included that the feet protruding from the stocks were to be bare (how scandalous!), and the weather did not matter- these court cases occurred in winter, so that one hour of public indignity was probably pretty miserable. Assuredly the whipping on the next lecture day would have been worse. Both of these punishments are found in the bible.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

    1. The Essex Antiquarian. Salem, MA: The Essex Antiquarian, 13 vols. 1897-1909. (Online database: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006.) Volume 4, pages 123-126.


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