When Haven arrived in Dedham, people wishing to join the meeting had to confess their sins in front of the congregation. Since parents wanted to join the church to have their babies baptized, and since those sins often involved conceiving the child, there was a bit of a race to conclude the process.
Worthington described the usual custom and the response to it:
The church had ever in this place required of its members guilty of unlawful cohabitation before marriage, a public confession of that crime, before the whole congregation. The offending female stood in the broad isle beside the partner of her guilt. If they had been married, the declaration of the man was silently assented to by the woman. This had always been a delicate and difficult subject for church discipline. The public confession, if it operated as a corrective, likewise produced merriment with the profane.“Revolutionary times having produced a disposition to investigate all the former principles and opinions of men,” Worthington said, Haven convinced the Dedham meeting to institute a new rule. “In 1781, the church gave the confessing parties the privilege of making a private confession to the church, in the room of a public confession.”
That made the confession easier, and perhaps the acts to be confessed as well. Worthington stated that church records show that in the quarter-century before 1781 there was one public confession per year. In the next ten years, there were fourteen—a 40% increase. But still, that’s only four more couples over ten years. The same period saw the end of the war and economic turmoil, and perhaps there were other factors.
In any event, the minister decided to address the problem:
Mr. Haven, in a long and memorable discourse, sought out the cause of the growing sin, and suggested the proper remedy. He attributed the frequent recurrence of the fault to the custom then prevalent, of females admitting young men to their beds, who sought their company with intentions of marriage. And he exhorted all to abandon that custom, and no longer expose themselves to temptations which so many were found unable to resist.I don’t know if anyone has analyzed data on how soon after marriage first children were born in Dedham before or after 1791. But Haven’s sermon and the congregation’s apparent acceptance of it, rather than resistance, suggests that sexual mores were changing in the new republic.
The immediate effect of this discourse on the congregation, has been described to me, and was such as we must naturally suppose it would be. A grave man, the beloved and revered pastor of the congregation, comes out suddenly on his audience, and discusses a subject on which mirth and merriment only had been heard, and denounces a favorite custom. The females blushed, and hung down their heads. The men too hung down their heads, and now and then looked out from under their fallen eye brows, to observe how others supported the attack.
If the outward appearance of the assembly was somewhat composed, there was a violent internal agitation in many minds. And now, when forty-five [sic] years have expired, the persons who were present at the delivery of that sermon, express its effect by saying, “How queerly I felt!” “What a time it was!” “This was close preaching indeed!!”
The custom was abandoned. The sexes learned to cultivate the proper degree of delicacy in their intercourse, and instances of unlawful cohabitation in this town since that time have been extremely rare. What sermon or eloquent address can be pointed out, that has produced such decidedly good effects.
COMING UP: The newspaper debate over bundling.