Aurora history: Cows, cheese and the Sabbath

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Aurora settlers from New England believed in the enforcement of the “Blue Laws.”
Aurora settlers from New England believed in the enforcement of the “Blue Laws.”

In the early 1800s, the members of the Aurora community were deeply concerned with the behavior of individuals and took steps to dictate their behavior.

In the absence of laws enacted by elected officials, it was the church that established the rules and regulations by which the members of its congregation were required to live their lives. Violators were investigated by the elders of the church.

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Those found guilty of “sinning” were required to make public confessions before the congregation and atone for their sins. Failure to do so and/or continued violations resulted in suspension from the church and or on persistent transgressions, excommunication from the congregation.

The journals of the Congregational Church in Aurora record occasions where members were disciplined. Ebenezer Sheldon was accused of using alcohol to excess and his wife Lovee accused of making disparaging remarks about a neighbor. Dr. Birge was accused of “vain amusement” in holding a July 4 ball where public dancing took place. Justus Bissell was accused of using “language inconsistent with the Christian character.” All faced judgement before the congregation. The Sheldons publicly repented and were forgiven. Birge was suspended from communion with the church. Bissell’s atonement was deemed not to be heartful and after several years of repeated inspection by the elders was allowed to return to the church.

The community’s concern did not confine itself to the moral behavior of its members, but also dictated its secular activity. Aurora’s early settlers came from New England where “Blue Laws” restricted activities that would detract individuals from observing the Sabbath and attending church. Connecticut Blue Laws stated, “It is therefore ordered and decreed by this court, and authority thereof, That wheresoever the ministry of the word is established according to the order of the gospel, throughout this jurisdiction, every person shall duly resort and attend thereunto respectively, upon the Lord’s day, and upon such public fast days of thanksgiving as are to be generally kept by the appointment of authority: and if any person within this jurisdiction shall, without just and necessary cause, withdraw himself from hearing the public ministry of the Word, after due means of conviction used, he shall forfeit for his absence, from every such public meeting, five shillings; all such offenses to be heard and determined by any one magistrate, or more, from time to time.”

Examples of Canadian “Blue Laws” that restricted certain activities on the Sabbath.
Examples of Canadian “Blue Laws” that restricted certain activities on the Sabbath.

Examples of the laws required that “no one shall run on the Sabbath day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting. No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave, on the Sabbath day. No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day.” Called “blue laws” referring to the Biblical usage of blue as “morally rigid,” the phrase most likely was coined from the fact that the Puritanical laws were written on blue paper.

The elders and members of the Congregational Church spent decades in the early 1800s struggling over Aurora’s primary economic endeavor, the production of cheese, as it related to the observance of the Sabbath. According to church regulations, the Sabbath was a day of prayer and all worldly endeavors were to be set aside in observance of the Lord’s Day. Since dairying was a full time, seven-day-a-week operation, the issue was how much attention should be given to the business on Sunday.

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On March 17, 1815, the church took up the question, “How far ought those who have dairies to attend to them on the Sabbath?” It was unanimously resolved that people should not be involved in any worldly business to the extent that it would keep them from attending to the public, family, and private duties of religion on the Sabbath. Those who did attend to worldly activities more than was absolutely necessary were considered to be “making haste to be rich,” were violating the scripture and would ultimately lose more than they gained by working on the Sabbath.

Those who did attend to their dairies on the Sabbath were to give “serious and prayerful consideration and by no means…allow themselves to be hindered…from attending to sacred devotion, family religion or public worship of God on the Sabbath."

Thirteen years later the question of whether it was a violation of God’s law to “attend to any part of the business of making cheese on the Sabbath, except milking cows” was again raised. Church officials conducted a lengthy debate on the issue from May 19 through July 7, 1828. The final resolution that was adopted stated that making cheese on the Sabbath was a violation of the law of God and should not be practiced under any circumstances. A motion to strike the phrase “except milking cows” was postponed and apparently not acted upon in the final action taken by the church. The congregation most likely recognized the necessity to attend to the cows. Another resolution passed at the same time stated that “it is the duty of professing Christians to abstain from visiting the Post Office on the Sabbath day except in extraordinary cases.”

The question did not go away, and on May 1, 1835, the church once again “revisited the notion of making cheese on the Sabbath.” The congregation was reminded that the issue had been first debated and resolved more than 20 years earlier and that just seven years prior to the current discussions, at four separate meetings the church’s position was reaffirmed. However, in 1835 there were those who were attending to business more than what the church believed was necessary. Some enterprising members of the church had circumvented the church’s position by hiring individuals who were not members of the church to work their dairies. Once again, the church resolved “that if any of the members of this Church yet continue to make cheese on the Sabbath, either with their own hands, or the hand of those in their employment, whether as hired laborers or tenants, they be, and they hereby are most earnestly entreated to abandon the practice without delay, and no longer attempt to make themselves rich with the waging of unrighteousness.”

Eldridge Cheese Factory
Eldridge Cheese Factory

Another social issue which captured the ongoing attention of the congregation was that of temperance. Early advocates of temperance had urged moderation in the use of alcoholic beverages and did not necessarily support total abstinence. Yet, as the temperance movement evolved throughout 19th century America, more and more advocates called for a total ban on the production, sale and consumption of any type of alcoholic “spirits.”

In April 1829, the church considered the adoption of resolutions of the Presbytery of Portage that called upon its members to “abstain from the use of ardent spirits” and “not to furnish them for the use of others.” An exception was made for the medicinal use of alcohol. A lively debate ensued among members of the congregation, with many expressing a willingness to abide by such resolutions. However, there were those who, while willing to abstain themselves, were unwilling to support the restrictions on furnishing alcohol to others. A committee was established to prepare for a public meeting to be held at the schoolhouse to discuss the matter further.

No record exists as to the outcome of the public meeting or whether the church actually adopted the resolutions, nevertheless the topic of temperance continued to surface through the early years of the church. In April 1837, a resolution was adopted that “the using, vending or manufacturing of ardent spirits as an article of drink is an immorality.” It was believed that alcohol led to “disorder, poverty and crime in the community,” and it also endangered the “peace and prosperity of the church and the salvation of souls.” The church further resolved not to accept anyone into the congregation who refused to pledge to not “use, manufacture or traffic in ardent spirits.” Existing members were required to sign a pledge subscribing to the same tenants.

In 1869, the observance of temperance became part of the “Confession of Faith.” Article 7 stated that “those only manifest the spirit of true disciples who live a life of self-denial, benevolence, temperance, and purity…” Article 8 stipulated that each member would do all in their power to “promote the cause of temperance…”

As the community grew different faith traditions became part of the social and economic dynamics of Aurora and tolerance for those who did not follow the tenants of their faith varied across the spectrum. There is no doubt that with the growing importance of “cheese” in the economy of Aurora led to a lessoning of the restrictions in the community.

Portions of this article are from the book, "More Than a Landmark – A History of the Church in Aurora, 1809-2009,"  written by John Kudley. Printed with the permission of the Aurora Historical Society, which retains rights to all content and photos.

This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Aurora history: Cows, cheese and the Sabbath