Before 1700, however, feather beds were common, and houses and the entire state of a New England farmer's home had become somewhat more lordly than the above picture might indicate. The colonists made much use of berries, wild fruits, bread and milk, game, fish, and shellfish.
The stock wandered in the forests and about the brooks, to be brought home at night by the boys, whom the sound of the cow-bell led. In autumn bushels upon bushels of nuts were laid by, to serve, along with dried berries and grapes, salted fish and venison, as food for the winter.
Every phase and circumstance of this pioneer life reminded our fathers of their dependence upon nature and the Supreme Power behind nature, while at the same time the continual need and application of neighbor's co-operation with neighbor brought out brotherly love in charming strength and beauty.
But to old New England religion, as a clerical, public, and organized affair, there is a far darker side. In the eighteenth century belief in witchcraft was nearly universal. In 1683 one Margaret Matron was tried in Pennsylvania on a charge of bewitching cows and geese, and placed under bonds of one hundred pounds for good behavior. In 1705 Grace Sherwood was ducked in Virginia for the same offence. Cases of the kind had occurred in New York. There was no colony where the belief in astrology, necromancy, second sight, ghosts, haunted houses and spots, love-spells, charms, and peculiar powers attaching to rings, herbs, etc., did not prevail. Such credulity was not peculiar to America, but cursed Europe as well. It seemed to flourish, if anything, after the Reformation more than before. Luther firmly believed in witchcraft. He professed to have met the Evil One in personal conflict, and to have vanquished him by the use of an inkstand as missile. Perhaps every land in Europe had laws making witchcraft a capital crime. One was enacted in England under Henry VIII., another in James I.'s first year, denouncing death against all persons "invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding any evil spirit, or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment, or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts." A similar statute was contained in the "Fundamentals" of Massachusetts, probably inspired by the command of Scripture, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." This law, we shall see, was not a dead letter.
No wonder such a law was of more effect in New England than anywhere else on earth. The official religion of the Puritans was not only superstitious in general but gloomy in particular, and most gloomy in New England. Its central tenet, here at least, seemed to be that life ought to furnish no joy, men seeking to "merit heaven by making earth a hell." Sunday laws were severe, and rigidly enforced from six o'clock Saturday evening till the same hour the next. Not the least work was allowed unless absolutely necessary, nor any semblance of amusement.
Boys bringing home the cows were cautioned to "let down the bars softly, as it was the Lord's day." Sunday travellers were arrested and fined.
Men might be whipped for absence from church. A girl at Plymouth was threatened exile as a street-walker for smiling in meeting. Increase Mather traced the great Boston fire of 1711 to the sin of Sunday labor, such as carrying parcels and baking food. In Newport, some men having been drowned who, to say good-by to departing friends, had rowed out to a ship just weighing anchor, Rev. John Comer prayed that others might take warning and "do no more such great wickedness."
Sermons were often two hours long; public prayer half an hour. Worse still was what went by the name of music--doggerel hymns full of the most sulphurous theology, uttered congregationally as "lined off" by the leader--nasal, dissonant, and discordant in the highest imaginable degree. The church itself was but a barn, homely-shaped, bare, and in winter cold as out-of-doors. At this season men wrapped their feet in bags, and women stuffed their muffs with hot stones. Sleepers were rudely awakened by the tithing-man's baton thwacking their heads; or, if females, by its fox-tail end brushing their cheeks. Fast-days were common. Prayer opened every public meeting, secular as well as religious. The doctrine of special providences was pressed to a ridiculous extreme. The devil was believed in no less firmly than God, and indefinitely great power ascribed to him. The Catechism--book second in authority only to the Bible--contained of his Satanic Majesty a cut, which children were left, not to say taught, to suppose as correct a likeness as that of Cromwell, which crowned the mantels of so many homes.
See also: WITCHCRAFT 1675