The Puritan Tithingman


The above image of a tithingman might imply that his job was a cross between a spiritual policeman and a royal fool.  In fact, his position was one of the most important in Puritan New England and went beyond just policing unruly children.

The key responsibility for a tithingman was to keep order in church during the long services conducted in the meeting house or early church buildings.   Most buildings had no heat or fireplace so winter services must have been a challenge.  Stifling hot church services were no reason to keep the congregation at home sitting under the shade of an old oak tree.

The tithingman was in charge of the behavior of all in the congregation.  Attendance was not optional and keeping records for this purpose was another job for him.  Most images or drawing of a tithingman show him in the upper gallery administering a hard tap to the head of any disruptive child.  His pole or staff often had a feather attached to one side to tickle the nose of any who fell asleep during the long sermons.  Both men and women could expect to be disciplined using the staff, but the ladies’ caps often allowed them a covert nap.

As implied by the name, the tithingman oversaw the financial contributions to the church.  Their influence also reached outside the walls.  He would visit the taverns or ordinaries to observe the quantities of imbibement.  They also made sure the children were properly schooled in their catechism and had the power to imprison anyone who did not accept correction.The tithingman appreciated rules and worked side by side with the ministers.