Source Problems in English History


World History


The English Parish and the New England Town-Meeting

The English Parish and the New England Town-Meeting


THE parish of the seventeenth century was a singular combination of the ecclesiastical and the secular. It was ecclesiastical in its origin. The powerful man who gave land for a church and for the living of the clergyman was providing for the people on his estate; the church was looking to it that every rill had its church and priest. Hence in the south of England the parish came to be, at least in the country, coterminous with the manor or vill. In the north the parish sometimes included several vills. But however related to the vill, the parish was an ecclesiastical unit and at first no more than that; it was the territory which included those people over whom the priest exercised spiritual care, but that territory was not necessarily continuous. There are evidences that some time about the fourteenth century a new function began to develop in the parish; it came to have a vestry—i. e., a meeting of parishioners, usually after church on Sunday. Maitland has suggested that the vestry, like Parliament, arose from the need of money. The repair of the church and the up-keep of appurtenatures were met at first perhaps by voluntary contributions. But when a good deal of money had to be secured the parishioners were called together by the priest now and again for consultation. They were called together until one fine day they had acquired the right to be summoned and to vote "rates." The voting of rates meant that there was church property to look after, and so we naturally find churchwardens appearing whose duty it was to maintain the church and to keep track of its "temporal estate." They were selected by the vestry and performed functions purely secular.

The parish had originated as an ecclesiastical unit. It had been superimposed upon a secular local unit, the vill or manor. With the decline of feudalism and with the growing needs of more local government the secular functions necessary to a community were superimposed upon the ecclesiastical framework. This can be seen in the offices of petty constable, of the surveyors of the highways, or "waymen," and of the overseers of the poor. As the manorial courts lost their influence the police duties which had been attached to them were put upon the parish. The petty constable or "borsholder"—the successor of the tithing-man—who was to maintain the peace had become in many cases, at some time before the sixteenth century, a parish official. The surveyors of the highways, who were subordinate to the churchwardens, appear under the Tudors, as do the overseers of the poor. By the last half of the sixteenth century the parish had in this manner become an institution more important in its secular than in its ecclesiastical functions. It had indeed become something more than an ecclesiastical institution upon which secular functions had been imposed; it had become a means of local self-government, it had made possible the Elizabethan Poor Laws.

It was never, however, to become quite what it might have been, or what the New England town was to become. Its growth as a self-governing unit was contrary to the tendency of Tudor rule. Already through the justices of peace the Tudor government was reaching out long fingers for the manipulation of the parishes. And the vestry, a thoroughly democratic mechanism, had already begun in some communities to give place to a more exclusive organization. The select vestry was to grow up within the vestry, as the cabinet within the council, and was to fall heir to the functions of its parent. This process, however, was slow and cannot be said to have gone far or to have become general—it never did become uni-versal—by the time of the Smart period.

It was during the reign of the early Stuarts that New England was settled. There, as settlements spread out from Plymouth or as they were made around Massachusetts Bay, the pressure of local needs made local government necessary. Rights of pasture had to be determined, land had to be divided up, "towns" were organized. It is not surprising that the form and functioning of these towns should remind us of English parishes of the time. We meet in New England with officials whose titles are familiar; those officials have duties very similar to the duties performed in the parish. Even a brief examination of the features common to the English and the New England institution makes it evident that a comparison is worth while. In that comparison it must not be forgotten that the people of New England were living in primitive conditions long since outgrown in England.

The New England town became, as has been said, a more important organ of local government than the English parish had ever been. It is not difficult to see why. The New England town was not overshadowed by the county—it had hardened into shape before the county became important—it was not interfered with by the justices of peace, at any rate not until later. Nor was the town-meeting robbed of its functions by a meddlesome central government. Its democratic tendency was reinforced by the popular character of the church government which Puritanism brought in its train. As a result the town became a most important fiscal, military, and political unit and the town-meeting became a characteristic feature of New England life.

The following extracts touch only a few of the manifold activities of the English parish and of the New England town. It is hoped that they are full enough to indicate some of the similarities and some of the differences.


It will be readily seen that the source materials used in this problem are of three kinds. Sources 1, 2, and 3 belong to a rather unusual type. They are descriptive works of lawyers, compilations based upon the statutes of Parliament, the canon law, and the decisions of the judges. The writers endeavored to give expositions of the law and custom about local officials and to do it without personal or partisan basis.

A second type of material is exemplified by sources 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9. Here are records of the meetings of parish, town, and selectmen. Such official documents are of course much safer evidence as to how local institutions worked than the observations of lawyers, save where they are quoting from the law.

A third type of material is to be found in Source 8, John Winthrop’s Journal. Winthrop left an invaluable diary of events in Massachusetts. He was a chief participant in the events he tells about and he was a painstaking kind of man.

1. The Duties of Constables, Borsholders, Tything-men and such other Low and Lay Ministers of the Peace, whereunto be adjoyned, the severall offices of Church Ministers and Churchwardens, and Overseers for the Poore, Surveighours of the highwaies, and distributors of the provision against noysome fowle and vermine. First collected (1581) by William Lambard of Lincolnes Inn, Gent., and now enlarged in the yeare 1604. London, 1604.

2. The Offices and Duties of Constables, Borsholders, Tything-men, Treasurers of the County-stock, Overseers for the Poore and other lay-Ministers. By William Sheppard, of the Middle Temple, Esq. London, 1641.

3. A Guide for Constables, Churchwardens, Overseers of the Poor, Surveyors of the Highways, Treasurers of the County Stock, Masters of the House of Corrections, Bayliffs, of Mannours, Toll. Takers in Fairs, etc. Collected by Geo. Meriton, Gent. London, 1669.

4. The Annals of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, London. Edited by the Rev. John Edmund Cox, D.D., London, 1876. Includes Vestry Records from 1558 to 1812.

5. Illustrations of the Manners and Expences of Antient Times in England, in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, Deduced from the Accomts of Churchwardens, and other Authentic Documents. Collected from various parts of the Kingdom, with explanatory notes. By John Nichols, London, 1797.

Our sources quote from this volume the Churchwardens’ accounts of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and of Wigtoft, Lincolnshire. Nichols took his copies from MSS. preserved in the churches.

6. Boston Town Records, 1634–1661. (Published from the MS. records kept by the town clerk.) Second Report of Boston Record Commissioners. Boston, 1877.

7. Records of Boston Selectmen, 1701–1715. Report of the Record Commissioners of Boston. Boston, 1884.

8. Winthrop’s Journal "History of New England," 1630–1649. 2 vols. Ed. by J. K. Hosmer, New York, 1908.

9. Town and Selectmen’s Records, Newtowne and Cambridge, 1630–1703. Printed by order of the city council trader the direction of the city clerk. Cambridge, 1901.


1. Who were the chief executive and administrative officers in town and parish?

2. What were the duties of these officers? How was each chosen?

3. What was the chief legislative body of the parish? Of the town? Compare them as to power exercised.

4. What part did the justice of peace play in parish affairs? By whom were the corresponding functions exercised in the town?

5. What about the exercise of judicial power in parish and town?

6. Compare the elective power of the vestry and the town-meeting.

7. Do you find anything in the sources about the parish that seems to be like a select vestry?

8. Compare the appointing power of the churchwardens and selectmen.

9. What persons were liable to service as constables? What persons were liable to serve in the other offices?

10. What provisions were made for military protection and training in parish and town?

11. What provisions were taken to prevent persons who might become a public charge from entering the parish or town?

12. By what process were they relieved from the presence of undesirable persons?

13. How were rates made in each? For what were they made?

14. Compare the excise regulations in the two.

15. How were highways and bridges cared for in each?

16. What precautions were taken to prevent fires?

17. How were the rights of individuals sometimes subordinated to those of the community at large?

18. What provisions were made for the care of the poor in each?

19. What provisions were made for education?

20. What provisions were made for the support of the clergyman in the town? in the parish (where there was no benefice or endowment)?

21. Make a list of all the officers of the parish and of the town and of their several duties.


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Chicago: "The English Parish and the New England Town-Meeting," Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 239–247. Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024,

MLA: . "The English Parish and the New England Town-Meeting." Source Problems in English History, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 239–247. Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , 'The English Parish and the New England Town-Meeting' in Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.239–247. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from