The English Settlers in Deerfield
The English settlers who established the town
of Deerfield in 1673 were Congregationalists who were descendants
of Puritans. Puritans came from England early in the seventeenth
century in search of economic opportunity as well as religious freedom.
Some of the early Deerfield settlers had lived first in Dedham,
Massachusetts, or in towns to the south of Deerfield before settling
Some of what we know about the lives of the English
settlers in Deerfield we learned from George Sheldon, Deerfield's
historian who lived from 1818 to 1916. He based his conclusions
on public records, journals, and family stories. According to Sheldon,
the English settlers worked very hard to "bring order out of chaos"
by taming the wilderness - they believed that this was what God
expected of them. They also had strict beliefs about personal behavior
and believed that idleness was a crime.
Deerfield's English settlers retained a number
of customs and beliefs from their Puritan ancestors. The Puritans,
who derived their name from the word "pure," aimed to "purify" the
English Anglican church of the time, simplifying services and ridding
the Church of its Roman Catholic traces. In the early years of settlement
the word "church" referred to the people who attended services,
while the buildings were called meetinghouses. Meetinghouses were
used for religious services and for town business. The settlers
also believed in the absolute truth of the Bible, and put particular
stress on the Old Testament.
Meetinghouses were large enough to accommodate
all members of the community, as each town only had one active meetinghouse.
The most important place in the meetinghouse was the pulpit, which
was high and located front and center in the building. There were
two floors, but the upper one was not a full floor. It formed a
balcony (called a gallery) so that people sitting there could see
and hear what was going on. There was no organ until the 1850's,
because the early Congregationalists believed that instrumental
music was not appropriate for worship. Reading the Bible was considered
extremely important, and it was the principal reason for teaching
children and slaves to read.
At first, long benches were used, but gradually
pews were built and assigned to specific townspeople. Everyone in
the village was expected to come to Sunday meeting. The most important
people in town had the best pews, the ones nearest the pulpit. The
most important people included those who were rich and those who
were honored because of age, service to the community, or education.
Native Americans and African Americans sat in back or in the gallery.
The pews were high and enclosed, partly to keep the congregation
warm, as the meeting- house was not heated. There was a committee,
elected by the townspeople, who assigned pews. Seating plans still
exist which show the seating assignments in certain years. The seating
plans help us to get a sense of the social "rank" of individuals
and families in Deerfield.
The settlers spent most of their Sundays at
the meetinghouse. People brought heated stones or foot warmers to
help them stay warm. The Bible was read. The congregation sang psalms
(prayers in the form of poetry) to simple tunes without accompaniment.
The minister delivered a sermon, which was hand-written and was
often used more than once. To make sure that everyone stayed awake
during the long services, a "tithing man" walked among the congregation
carrying a long pole to prod people who were falling asleep. On
Sunday there were services in the morning and in the afternoon.
People went home to eat between services if they lived close enough,
or (as the town grew) to a tavern for the noonday meal. Town meetings
were held four times a year or as needed to settle business.
There was no separation between church and state.
All white male heads of households paid for a portion of the minister's
salary. They elected one another to hold rotating offices and formed
committees to oversee town business. Committees and positions included
(among others) the board of selectmen, the town moderator who ran
the meetings, and a fence viewer who made sure the fences were in
good order. They also elected committees such as one to assign seats
in the meetinghouse and they appointed the tithing man. Religion
was central to their community.
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