The Praying Towns, Part II

john_elliot_praying_indians3It seemed obvious to English Puritans that Christian natives would need to be “civilized.” Conversion would require them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and commit to living in permanent villages. They would have to cut their hair in the English manner, and wear English-style clothes. They would be obliged to divide labor along the established English gender lines – men would have to give up hunting and farm the land. The women, who had previously done the bulk of the agricultural work, would be “freed” to practice English housewifery.

The General Court enacted laws to regulate native behavior. They stated that, while it was improper to “compel either by force or by poenall [penal] laws” the Indians to profess Christianity, they couldn’t in good conscience, allow Indians to continue to exhibit certain behaviors they deemed offensive and/or pagan.

Blasphemy was number one on their list – they declared that it would not be tolerated and that any offense would be considered a capital crime, punishable by death. They also outlawed “powwowing” which they saw as the worship of false gods. This was the same as heresy, and subject to severe fines. Natives were required (like the English) to attend public worship on the Lord’s Day, as well as public thanksgiving and fasting days. (There were a lot of fasting days.)

They required that the laws must be read by a court appointee (helped by an interpreter) to all Indians at least once a year. “One or more” magistrates were appointed as circuit court judges whose job it would be to travel from town to town to hear civil and criminal cases and to :carefully endeavor to make the Indians understand our most usefull laws, and those principles of reason, justice, and equity whereupon they are grounded.”

The third praying town, Hassanamesit, was established in 1660, under the following laws:
1. If any man be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall pay five shillings.
2. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall pay five shillings.
3. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be severely punished.
4. Every young man, if not another’s servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.
5. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang loose, or be cut as men’s hair, she shall pay five shillings.
6. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.
7. All men that wear long locks shall pay five shillings.
8. If any shall kill their lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.
These laws likely reflect the behaviors that the English found most repugnant. It’s worth noting how many of them focus on personal grooming.

Of course there’s no way of knowing how many of these laws were actually enforced. The law designated that power to the village sachems, along with the power to make judgments, impose and collect fines.

Could it be that the Puritans were more concerned with how the laws looked “on the books” than how faithfully they were followed?

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One thought on “The Praying Towns, Part II

  1. Pingback: THIS DAY IN THE YESTERYEAR: ROGER WILLIAMS IMMIGRATES TO COLONIAL AMERICA (1631) | euzicasa

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