Confessions of America's first settlers: Sex before marriage, skipping service and 'unwarily overcome with strong liquor'

Published 05 August 2014  |  
(Facebook/The First Congregational Church of Middleborough)
Valuable records from the First Congregational Church of Middleborough documenting confessions and baptism requests were unearthed by the researchers

The sins and slip ups that brought sorrow and shame to early American settlers have been brought to light by researchers going through old church records. 

James Fenimore Cooper Jr, a professor at Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, have been collecting the fragile records from churches across Massachusetts to archive them before they succomb to fire or rot.

The records go back to the 1700s, when the foundations of the US were still being laid, and churchgoing was an entrenched part of the social fabric. 

One confession by Sarah Blanchard expresses regret over missing a worship service, while in another, Joseph and Abigail Cheyney admit with "shame, humiliation and sorrow" that they had sex before their wedding day.

Fornication was also on the mind of parishioner John Briggs, who wrote: "Left to fall into the sin of fornication, by which it appears to me, I have not only wounded my own soul but greatly dishonored God and grieved his people." 

In another letter, dated 1786, Jedidiah Lyon desires to "humbly and penitently" confess before God and his church that in Levi Woods he was "unwarily overcome with strong liquor, in the view of several persons present, by which conduct I have greatly dishonoured God and my own profession and grieved my Christian brothers".

Ruth McFarland Barrow writes in 1782 that she desires to confess to her "offenced brothers and sisters" of the church in Middleborough that she has been guilty "of such conduct as to give just occasion of offence to the Church of Christ". 

"I have walked contrary to the commands of God, particularly that which sayith 'The fornication'," the record states. 

"By this imprudent and wicked conduct I have dishonoured God, grieved the church and cast a stumbling block before others as well as wounded my own peace.

"I ask the forgiveness of this church and hope for the forgiveness of God."

The records are being preserved and made available to view online at the Congregational Library here

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