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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Religion and Law


THE EARLY settlements in many parts of Nova Scotia were for some time without churches and regular ministers. Meanwhile congregations met in private houses and barns fitted up with temporary seats consisting of logs or slabs resting on benches. In summer they often held service in the open air under the shadow of a clump of trees, in confirmation of Bryant's statement—"The groves were God's first temples." It is said that the first meeting of the Pictou Presbytery met in a barn, and that on one occasion during church service in a private house in that part of the country, the floor gave way and the congregation went down with it into the cellar.

The limitations of the home and how emergencies were met may be shown by an incident which occurred in the western part of the Province. A clergyman was sent for during the cold winter season to marry a couple in a remote settlement. To vary the loneliness of a long drive he invited a friend to accompany him. After the marriage knot was tied and other things befitting the occasion had received due attention, a guest who lived a few miles away invited the minister and his friend to be his guests for the night. The house was a small one, comprising a single room, call it a kitchen, parlor or bedroom, as you please, for in turn it served the purpose of each, like that piece of furniture described by Goldsmith—"a bed by night, a chest of drawers by day." The kitchen stove stood on one side of the room, an old fashioned high post bedstead on the opposite side. Attached to the posts were curtains so arranged with draw strings that the bed could be closely shut in or opened to view as occasion required. Under this high bed was a low one, known as a "trundle bed," arranged on wheels or casters, so that when not needed it could be rolled out of the way under the high bed. Above this room was an attic made accessible by a ladder at the top of which was a trap door.

When bed time came the guests were told that they were to occupy the high post bed of which privilege they at once availed themselves, the entrance and privacy being secured by aid of the drawstrings. It should be noted that the family comprised the host, his wife and three small children. Shortly after retiring, a noise was heard, supposed at first to be the rumbling of distant thunder, but later found to have been caused by the movement of the trundle bed. In this the children were soon placed for the night. Presently the mother was heard climbing the ladder, and a voice from the trundle bed calling—"Mother, Mother, what are you going up there for? There aint any bed up there."

Church service in the country continued through a large part of the day, including morning and afternoon exercises, separated by an intermission of ten or fifteen minutes, during which the members of the congregation ate their lunch, strolled through the cemetery, or chatted about the latest happenings. At prayer time the congregation stood, turning their backs to the minister, perhaps to show that the occupant of the pulpit was not the object of worship. In the service of song when the congregation met in a private house, the choir usually stood in a semi-circle, in front of the minister. Taking their note from the leader's pitch-pipe, they sang such old-time tunes as Devizes, Windsor, Old Hundred and Turner, without trills or solos, only swaying to and fro as they sang, repeating the last two lines at the close.

As there were not hymn books enough for all the congregation it was customary for the minister to "line out" the hymn, reading two lines at a time. After these had been sung, he read the next two, and so on to the end of the hymn. This plan relieved the service of monotony and was economical, but rather spoiled the effect of the singing. On one occasion, as the story goes, it had also a touch of the ridiculous:-

It was an evening service. The minister's eye-sight was much impaired, and he had forgotten to bring his spectacles. Wishing to state the facts to the congregation, he unwittingly fell into rime and measure suited to a familiar tune, as follows:

"The light is bad, my eyes are dim,
"I cannot see to read the hymn."

The choir, supposing this to be part of the hymn, sang the lines with accustomed fervor. The minister, intending to call attention to the mistake, said:

"I did not say to sing this hymn,
"I only said my eyes were dim."

These lines were also rendered in appropriate style, and then the minister said,

"I think the d—l is in you all,
"I did not say to sing at all."

The minister's salary, like that of the schoolmaster, did not make him passing rich, but must have impressed him with the great truth "man wants but little here below." From $400 to $600 would probably be a fair estimate—half cash and half produce, or "out of the store" if the parishoner was a merchant. He was seldom consulted as to the kind of produce needed or the quantity. If two or three quarters of lamb or veal came at the same time from different places, part of it could be preserved in salt for time of scarcity.

Tradition tells an amusing story of what befell a worthy deacon one Sunday in the former days. He lived a mile or two fro m the church, and as there were no wheeled vehicles in the settlement he and his wife Esther went to church on horseback—she seated behind him on a sort of chair called a pillion. At the close of the day's service he rode up to the mounting block for his wife to take her seat. After giving her sufficient time, as he supposed, he jogged along homewards, silent and probably meditating on the message proclaimed by the preacher. As he came near his home he passed his neighbor, who, observing the vacant pillion, called out,—"Hello, deacon, where's Esther?" Somewhat startled and looking around this way and that, the deacon exclaimed,—"Why, where is she?" He had not given her time enough to take her seat.

In the former times there were Fast Days; in our time we have what is called Thanks-giving Day, it might more appropriately be named Sporting Day. Doubtless there are many things to be thankful for; but it may be also that there are some things that we should be sorry for. We have no days set apart for fasting, humiliation and prayer. The judgments of the Lord are for the correction of wrong-doing. And so if there be trouble anywhere, — be it threatened famine, through lack of sunshine or shower, war or pestilence, it would seem to be a time for searching of heart and of manner of life. Hereby is recognition that the Father in Heaven is not sleeping nor on a journey—that He is not standing aside as a spectator to see if the worlds which he has made and set in motion are fulfilling their orbits on time and without catastrophe. The Fast Day of our fathers seemed to recognize that according to their thinking, God was imminent in his works, and that His judgments experienced by the children of men were the corrections of a Father, that his erring children might repent, make confession and supplication and turn to the way of righteousness. In such manner might it not be showing that "God is in His heaven, all's right with the world."

THE EARLIEST LAWS made in Nova Scotia were enacted by the Governor aided by a Council appointed by himself. In the year 1758, under instructions of the Government of Great Britain, he called on the people of the Province to elect a House of Assembly. In October of the same year the first representative Parliament of the Province composed of twenty-two members met in the court house in Halifax. It should be remembered, however, that this body had not a free hand in law making. Before bills passed by the Assembly became law they required the approval of the Council—called "The Council of Twelve,"—being made up of twelve members. Among the early laws were the following:

"A person absenting himself from public worship for the space of three months without proper cause, if head of a family, shall pay a fine of ten shillings; every child over 12 years of age and every servant five shillings.

"That the church wardens and constables shall, once in the forenoon and once in the afternoon in the time of divine service, walk through the town (Halifax) to observe and suppress all offenders."

"Be it enacted that every popish person exercising an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and every popish priest shall depart out of the Province on or before the 25th day of March, 1759. And if any such person or persons shall be found in the Province after the said day, he or they shall upon conviction be adjudged to suffer perpetual imprisonment, and if any person or persons so imprisoned shall escape out of prison, he or they shall be deemed and adjudged guilty of felony without benefit of clergy."

"And be it further enacted that any person who shall knowingly harbor any such clergyman of the popish religion, or priest, shall forfeit £50, one moiety to His Majesty for the support of the Government of Nova Scotia, and the other moiety to the informer, and shall be also adjudged to be set in the pillory and find sureties for his good behavior at the discretion of the court." It may be worthy of note that these disabilities imposed on Roman Catholics, based on the laws of Great Britain at that time, were removed by the "Emancipation Act" passed by the Legislature of Nova Scotia in 1827. It should be stated further that in the earliest period spoken of while Dissenters had legal right to choose their form of worship, they were not wholly exempt from disability. For example their clergymen could not take out marriage license in their own name. As a matter of courtesy, an Anglican clergyman sometimes transferred to Dissenters, licenses which had been taken out in his own name.

The law in these early times, as it does to-day, provided two ways under which marriage could be celebrated—by license issued under government authority, or by public proclamation stating that there was purpose of marriage by the persons named. One of the Presbyterian bodies in Nova Scotia at that time opposed marriage by license, considering that this method did not sufficiently safeguard the solemn obligations of the marriage tie.

A clergyman of the body referred to, however, was married in Halifax by license. On returning with his bride to his home in Pictou he soon learned that his brethren of the Pictou Presbytery were greatly offended by his violation of the church law. The matter came before the Presbytery. A Committee was appointed to wait on him and to hear what he had to say for himself. "I am very sorry," said he, "that any person should have taken offence by what I have done. But if you will forgive me this time I faithfully promise you that I will never do it again." The Committee reported that the offender had made a very humble acknowledgement and had solemnly promised not to do it again. Thus the matter ended.

Judging from examples already given, as well as from others that follow, it would appear that the early law-makers of other lands, leaned far over on the side of severity. Penalties for crimes must have been devised in the Draconian spirit which adjudged the lesser crimes worthy of death, so that there was little margin left for the greater. According to the laws of Great Britain a hundred years ago over two hundred different crimes were punishable by hanging. Among those capital offenses were picking a pocket of five shillings, shop-lifting to the same amount, stealing a fish from a pond, hunting in the king's forest, and injuring Westminster bridge.

Similar severity prevailed in Nova Scotia and other provinces. For clipping, filing or debasing a coin the offender was placed in the pillory with one of his ears nailed to the beam, and he was afterwards publicly whipped through the streets of the town. For forgery the penalty was a fine of £20; and in default of payment the criminal was put in the pillory and both ears nailed to the posts. For publishing a libel or scandalous report he was placed in the stocks for three hours or whipped at the discretion of the court. In 1825, a man in Halifax found guilty of forgery was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, one hour in the pillory, and to have one of his ears cut off.

Ducking or plunging into a pond or lake was the punishment for minor offenses. For this purpose a kind of chair was fixed at the end of a long beam adjusted on a crotched post, similar to the old time well-sweep. The culprit, fastened in this chair, was then let down into the water. It is recorded in the early history of Nova Scotia that one Jean Picot, for the offense of slandering her neighbor, was sentenced to be "ducked" in Annapolis Basin. On the intercession of the injured woman the sentence was commuted to asking pardon at the church door on Sunday morning. In the Toronto Globe, June 12, 1852, was the following statement: "Franklin Baker, who was a few months ago arrested on a charge of abstracting a money letter from a mail bag, was tried a few days ago in Hamilton, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The jury recommended him to the clemency of the Executive on account of his youth.

The phrase "Without benefit of clergy," used on a preceding page, refers to an old and long continued custom under English law by which clergymen were allowed exemption from penalty. The immunity, at first allowed to clergymen, was afterwards extended to laymen who were able to read —a measure probably intended for the encouragement of education. At a later day, when the favored class became much larger, the privilege was often cancelled by adding to the decision of the court the clause "without benefit of clergy." It was provided, also, that a criminal who had once been admitted to the privilege should be debarred from it on second application. For the purpose of identification the letter M was branded with a hot iron on the thumb of the left hand of a criminal convicted of manslaughter who had been allowed the plea of privilege of clergy; for any other offense the letter T was branded on the thumb. A case of branding with verdict of manslaughter occurred in the court of Truro, N. S., about a hundred years ago.


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