Posted by elainemcooper on March 23, 2012
Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper
While researching for my latest historical novel, my husband got very excited when I told him about Sabbaday Houses. Otherwise known as “Sabbath Day Houses”, these small buildings located near meetinghouses were used as a “warming place” for attendees of Sabbath service in Colonial America.
When I told hubby that they included a bed inside, you could see the wheels turning in his head. Envisioning a napping spot for the church that we go to, he thought he could occasionally catch a few winks of slumber when he’s extra tired.
Before he decided to speak to our own Pastor about the possibility of building one next to our church, I explained to him that services at the meetinghouse in the 1700’s lasted all day and the buildings that they met in were unheated. They could get so cold that communion wine and baptismal water were known to freeze. (Yikes!) My husband reluctantly dropped the thought, grateful that our building to worship in is heated through the winter!
I first heard about Sabbaday Houses in an excerpt from Eric Sloane’s American Yesterday:
“Sabbath Day houses…were little buildings put up at a respectful distance from the church and equipped with stools and blankets. Fireplaces were built in the center. A caretaker or servant was left in charge to keep the fires going and coals were continually carried into the church pews to replenish the footstoves there. When churchgoers were unbearably cold, they went out during intervals of the service and warmed themselves in these Sabbath Day houses.”
Sloan drew a wonderful sketch of a modest building with two doors, a central fireplace to serve the divided rooms, and a bed inside each room to recline upon. One door was designated for men, the other for women.
A modern reader might wonder why the church buildings were not heated, but the danger of fire was high because these were all wooden buildings. If a fire broke out in a small wooden Sabbaday House, the loss would be less severe for the community that treasured its place of worship.
An excerpt from “Chronicles of America” website explains much about the values of the townspeople:
“The journey to meeting was frequently an arduous undertaking for those living in the outlying parts of a township, as they sometimes were obliged to cross mountains and rivers in order to be present. From distant points the farmers drove to meeting, bringing their wives and children and prepared to spend the day. In summer they brought their own dinners with them; in winter they found refuge in the “Sabba’ day” houses or were entertained at the fireside of friends who lived near the meetinghouse. The gathering of the townspeople at meeting was a social as well as a religious event, for friends had an opportunity for greeting each other, and the farmers exchanged news and talked crops during the noon hour, in the shade of the building, under the wagon sheds where the horses were tied, or sitting on the tombstones in the burying ground near by, while their wives and daughters gossiped in the porch or even in the pews, for in New England no one looked upon the meetinghouse as merely a sacred place.”
The meetinghouse was a place to gather for Biblical instruction, fellowship, and worship. And with the addition of the Sabbaday houses, a place to keep warm enough to survive the brutally cold winters.
There are few existing Sabbaday houses left that I was able to find. The one pictured above from Billerica, Massachusetts was listed on the National Registry of Historic places in 1973. It appears (to me anyway) that the original size was likely added to through the years.
Though the Sabbaday house has a small place in history, it’s a reminder of the value that our forebears gave to Christian worship services. Their faith was important enough to our ancestors that they were willing to sit and nearly freeze in order to gather for worship.
We, in modern America, are blessed.
Photo courtesy of John Phelan, with permission of Commons Attribution; http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en
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