18th Century Ipswich MA meeting house

The Tithingman at the Ipswich Meeting House

A powerful figure in the dull monotony of Puritan meeting houses was the tithingman, whose task was to enforce the observance of the Sabbath and to preserve order during service. Armed with a knobbed rod in hand he kept vigil, rapping restless boys on the head to restore order. On the other end of the staff was a foxtail with which he banished the sleep of those who had nodded off.

Illustration of the tithingman by Ruth Hambidge in “The Child’s World: First Reader” (1917)

On Dec. 26, 1700, a resolve was made in Ipswich that the persistent disorder which had disturbed the public worship, owing to the wanton and perverse behavior of boys and young men should be effectually quelled. Seated by the Town Committee in long rows on the benches reserved for them in the gallery, they grew restive and turned to mischief during the long prayers and three hour sermons. The Records and Files of the old Quarter Sessions Court reveal their misdoings. Hence the following stern regulations were published by a Committee of the Town:

Dec 26, 1700: To prevent the Youth from profaning ye Sabbath & misordering themselves in times of God’s Worship, it is ordered:

Tithingman and children in the meeting house
Illustration from “Stories of the Pilgrims” by Margaret B. Pumphrey, 1872
  • They shall sit together in ye two backside seats of each front Gallery which are ye seats appointed for them.
  • and that ye Tything Men shall take turn by two in a day to sit with them to inspect them.
  • Discountenancing of their ill manners shall be complained of to the Justices and proceeded with by them as the law directs, unless said Justices shall instead of fining of them, imprison such incorrigible persons or give them corporal punishment.
  • It is ordered that if ye maides and girls are not particularly seated, they shall sit in ye two hindermost fifth seats on ye northwest Women’s Gallery, and if they shall occupy any other place or places other than those seats yet placed, such shall pay as a fine ye sum of five shillings for each default to be recovered of them or their parents or masters as aforesaid.
  • The Tithing men & Constables are Reminded & Desired to take notice of & Informe against such persons as shall profane ye Sabbath betwixt meetings: Who Continue about or in ye meeting house at noon times; yet they be proceeded with as the Law Directs & requires and to inspect such Youths as run in & Out in ye time of Gods Worship and Complaints to their parents & Masters unless such will be reclaimed by private Intimations given them.
  • The Committee desires that all Heads of Families would informe & warne their children & servants not to disturb themselves and the Congregation by making more noise going up and down stairs in ye time of ye Worship of God, which ill practice is very prejudicial to ye auditory as well as disturbant to serious well minded persons.
Illustration of a tithingman with his rod, from “Mary of Plymouth” by James Otis, published 1910


John Appleton, John Wainwright, Nehemiah H. Jewett, Nathaniel Knowlton, Samuel Hart, Philemon Dean, Daniel Roger, Committee for Ipswich


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