Behaving Badly in Church

People can act irreverently, or downright disrespectfully, in church, which can become even more of an issue during the summer, when people and rules are more relaxed. In the 1700s, though, when decorum in church was no laughing matter, the priests were watching their congregations’ behavior as closely as the congregations were scrutinizing their priests. No one was safe from the pamphleteers decrying bad etiquette and poor taste. 


Van Gogh’s The Church of Nuenen with Churchgoers, 1884

One clergyman wrote a pamphlet in 1768 directed at “people of all ranks and ages” to correct their many behavioral flaws in church. While some of his critical suggestions seem reasonable enough, like asking parishioners to arrive early and enter quietly, others are more severe. He encourages those with coughs or children to stay home and warns against “any kind of trifling, such as, adjusting of the dress, counting of money, cutting the nails, [or] reading different parts of the prayer-book”[1]. He reminders his congregation that they are all “under the immediate eye of God, who… will punish the offender, at a time when he least expects it”[2]. Some of the clergyman’s suggestions are unique to the 18th century. In one passage, he decries both those parishioners who bring their dogs, as “it not only being wicked and profane, but, frequently, a great disturber of devotion” and those who are disturbed by the dogs’ barking because “you shall have twenty persons starting up even from their knees in the midst of prayer and stretching out their necks to see what is the matter”[3]. He upbraids women for their improper use of fans, noting that the “fashionable machine””indulges too many with an opportunity of hiding, under the pretence of modesty”[4]. In short, this priest’s best advice is that in church “every one should collect their scattered thoughts, as if they were going to die”[5].

Of course, not every clergyman was so correct. In 1749, an anonymous gentleman wrote a pamphlet directed at his parish priest”occasioned by this Minister’s never Bowing at the Name of Jesus in the Publick Service of the Church.” The parishioner writes, “Sir! I am obliged to underatke an Office, that may surprize almost every Body, but yourself,” noting that several people have offered hints that were promptly ignored [6]. The gentleman refers to church canons, arguing that “no Gesture is more generally observed in our Church” [7]. He confronts the minister for his wanton disregard, writing, “And how you come to be singular, and to be the only one, that in no Part of the Service, pays this Reverence to the Redeemer of Mankind, is very strange and amazing” [8]. While this one issue is the document’s sole focus, the gentleman warns that “there is still Room…for passing on to other particulars” but those, perhaps, were left for another pamphlet.

Looking to avoid issues with barking dogs or fan-related immodesties in today’s churches? Take a look at Episcopal Etiquette and Ethics in the library!

[1]-[3] Remarks on the Public Service of the Church; with some Directions for Our Behaviour There by a Clergyman of the Church of England. London: S. Hooper, 1768. 22
[4] Remarks 22-23 
[5] Remarks 23
[6] A Letter from a Gentleman to the Minister of his Parish, Occasioned by this Minister’s never Bowing at the Name of Jesus in the Publick Service of the Church 1
[7] A Letter 8
[8] A Letter 9

Image in the public domain, via The Athenaeum.



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