Smoking In Church
For thy sake, TOBACCO, I
Would do anything but die.
CHARLES LAMB, _A Farewell to Tobacco._
The use of tobacco in churches forms a curious if short chapter in the
social history of smoking. The earliest reference to such a practice
occurs in 1590, when Pope Innocent XII excommunicated all such persons
as were found taking snuff or using tobacco in any form in the church
of St. Peter, at Rome; and again in 1624, Pope Urban VIII issued a
bull against the use of tobacco in churches.
In England it would seem as if some of the early smokers, in the
fulness of their enthusiasm for the new indulgence, went so far as to
smoke in church. When King James I was about to visit Cambridge, the
Vice-Chancellor of the University put forth sundry regulations in
connexion with the royal visit, in which may be found the following
passage: That noe Graduate, Scholler, or Student of this Universitie
presume to resort to any Inn, Taverne, Alehowse, or Tobacco-Shop at
any tyme dureing the aboade of his Majestie here; nor doe presume to
take tobacco in St. Marie's Church, or in Trinity Colledge Hall, uppon
payne of finall expellinge the Universitie.
Evidently the intention was to make things pleasant for the royal foe
of tobacco during his visit. It would appear to be a fair inference
from the wording of this prohibition that when the King was not at
Cambridge, graduates and scholars and students could resume their
liberty to resort to inns, taverns, ale-houses and tobacco-shops, and
presumably to take tobacco in St. Mary's Church, without question.
The prohibition, in the regulation quoted, of smoking in St. Mary's
Church, referred, it may be noted, to the Act which was held therein.
Candidates for degrees, or graduates to display their proficiency,
publicly maintained theses; and this performance was termed keeping or
holding an Act.
It is, of course, conceivable that the prohibition, so far as the
church and Trinity College Hall were concerned, was against the taking
of snuff rather than against smoking; but the phrase to take tobacco
was at that time quite commonly applied to smoking, and, considering
the extraordinary and immoderate use of tobacco soon after its
introduction, it is not in the least incredible that pipes were
lighted, at least occasionally, even in sacred buildings.
Sometimes tobacco was used in church for disinfecting or deodorizing
purposes. The churchwardens' accounts of St. Peter's, Barnstaple, for
1741 contain the entry: Pd. for Tobacco and Frankincense burnt in the
Church 2s. 6d. Sprigs of juniper, pitch, and sweete wood, in
combination with incense, were often used for the same purpose.
Smoking, it may safely be asserted, was never practised commonly in
English churches. Even in our own day people have been observed
smoking--not during service time, but in passing through the
building--in church in some of the South American States, and nearer
home in Holland; but in England such desecration has been occasional
only, and quite exceptional.
One need not be much surprised at any instance of lack of reverence in
English churches during the eighteenth century, and a few instances
can be given of church smoking in that era.
Blackburn, Archbishop of York, was a great smoker. On one occasion he
was at St. Mary's Church, Nottingham, for a confirmation. The story of
what happened was told long afterwards in a letter written in December
1773 by John Disney, rector of Swinderby, Lincolnshire, the grandson
of the Mr. Disney who at the time of the Archbishop's visit to St.
Mary's was incumbent of that church. This letter was addressed to
James Granger, and was published in Granger's correspondence. The
anecdote which you mention, wrote the Mr. Disney of Swinderby, is, I
believe, unquestionably true. The affair happened in St. Mary's Church
at Nottingham, when Archbishop Blackbourn (of York) was there on a
visitation. The Archbishop had ordered some of the apparitors, or
other attendants, to bring him pipes and tobacco, and some liquor into
the vestry for his refreshment after the fatigue of confirmation. And
this coming to Mr. Disney's ears, he forbad them being brought
thither, and with a becoming spirit remonstrated with the Archbishop
upon the impropriety of his conduct, at the same time telling his
Grace that his vestry should not be converted into a smoking-room.
Another eighteenth-century clerical worthy, the famous Dr. Parr, an
inveterate smoker, was accustomed to do what Mr. Disney prevented
Archbishop Blackburn from doing--he smoked in his vestry at Hatton.
This he did before the sermon, while the congregation were singing a
hymn, and apparently both parties were pleased, for Parr would say:
My people like long hymns; but I prefer a long clay.
Robert Hall, the famous Baptist preacher, having once upon a time
strongly denounced smoking as an odious custom, learned to smoke
himself as a result of his acquaintance with Dr. Parr. Parr was such a
continual smoker that anyone who came into his company, if he had
never smoked before, had to learn the use of a pipe as a means of
self-defence. Hall, who became a heavy smoker, is said to have smoked
in his vestry at intervals in the service. He probably found some
relief in tobacco from the severe internal pains with which for many
years he was afflicted.
Mr. Ditchfield, in his entertaining book on The Parish Clerk, tells
a story of a Lincolnshire curate who was a great smoker, and who, like
Parr, was accustomed to retire to the vestry before the sermon and
there smoke a pipe while the congregation sang a psalm. One Sunday,
says Mr. Ditchfield, he had an extra pipe, and Joshua (the clerk)
told him that the people were getting impatient.
'Let them sing another psalm,' said the curate.
'They have, sir,' replied the clerk.
'Then let them sing the hundred and nineteenth,' replied the curate.
At last he finished his pipe, and began to put on the black gown, but
its folds were troublesome and he could not get it on.
'I think the devil's in the gown,' muttered the curate.
'I think he be,' dryly replied old Joshua.
The same writer, in his companion volume on The Old Time Parson,
mentions that the Vicar of Codrington in 1692 found that it was
actually customary for people to play cards on the Communion Table,
and that when they chose the churchwardens they used to sit in the
Sanctuary smoking and drinking, the clerk gravely saying, with a pipe
in his mouth, that such had been their custom for the last sixty
Although probably the conduct of the Codrington parishioners was
unusual, it is certain that in the seventeenth century smoking at
meetings held, not in the church itself, but in the vestry, was
common. The churchwardens' accounts of St. Mary, Leicester, 1665-6,
record the expenditure--In beer and tobacco from first to last 7s.
10d. In those of St. Alphege, London Wall, for 1671, there are the
entries--For Pipes and Tobaccoe in the Vestry 2s., and For a grosse
of pipes at severall times 2s. In the next century, however, the
practice was modified. The St. Alphege accounts for 1739 have the
entry--Ordered that there be no Smoaking nor Drinking for the future
in the Vestry Room during the time business is doing on pain of
forfeiting one shilling, Assention Day excepted. From this it would
seem fair to infer (1) that there was no objection to the lighting of
pipes in the vestry after the business of the meeting had been
transacted; and (2) that on Ascension Day for some inscrutable reason
there was no prohibition at all of Smoaking and Drinking.
Readers of Sir Walter Scott will remember in The Heart of Midlothian
one curious instance of eighteenth-century smoking in church--in a
Scottish Presbyterian church, too. Jeanie Deans's beloved Reuben
Butler was about to be ordained to the charge of the parish of
Knocktarlitie, Dumbartonshire; the congregation were duly seated,
after prayers, douce David Deans occupying a seat among the elders,
and the officiating minister had read his text preparatory to the
delivery of his hour and a quarter sermon. The redoubtable Duncan of
Knockdunder was making his preparations also for the sermon. After
rummaging the leathern purse which hung in front of his petticoat, he
produced a short tobacco-pipe made of iron, and observed almost aloud,
'I hae forgotten my spleuchan--Lachlan, gang doon to the Clachan, and
bring me up a pennyworth of twist.' Six arms, the nearest within
reach, presented, with an obedient start, as many tobacco-pouches to
the man of office. He made choice of one with a nod of acknowledgment,
filled his pipe, lighted it with the assistance of his pistol-flint,
and smoked with infinite composure during the whole time of the
sermon. When the discourse was finished, he knocked the ashes out of
his pipe, replaced it in his sporran, returned the tobacco-pouch or
spleuchan to its owner, and joined in the prayers with decency and
attention. David Deans, however, did not at all approve this
irreverence. It didna become a wild Indian, he said, much less a
Christian and a gentleman, to sit in the kirk puffing tobacco-reek, as
if he were in a change-house. The date of the incident was 1737; but
whether Sir Walter had any authority in fact for this characteristic
performance of Knockdunder, or not, it is certain that any such
occurrence in a Scottish kirk must have been extremely rare.
Knockdunder's pipe, according to Scott, was made of iron. This was an
infrequent material for tobacco-pipes, but there are a few examples
in museums. In the Belfast Museum there is a cast iron tobacco-pipe
about eighteen inches long. With it are shown another, very short,
also of cast iron, the bowl of a brass pipe, and a pipe, about six
inches in length, made of sheet iron.
Another eighteenth-century instance of smoking in church, taken from
historical fact and not from fiction, is associated with the church of
Hayes, in Middlesex. The parish registers of that village bear witness
to repeated disputes between the parson and bell-ringers and the
parishioners generally in 1748-1754. In 1752 it was noted that a
sermon had been preached after a funeral to a noisy congregation. On
another occasion, says the register, the ringers and other
inhabitants disturbed the service from the beginning of prayers to the
end of the sermon, by ringing the bells, and going into the gallery to
spit below; while at yet another time a fellow came into church with
a pot of beer and a pipe, and remained smoking in his own pew until
the end of the sermon. Going to church at Hayes in those days must
have been quite an exciting experience. No one knew what might happen
In remote English and Welsh parishes men seem occasionally to have
smoked in churches without any intention of being irreverent, and
without any consciousness that they were doing anything unusual. Canon
Atkinson, in his delightful book Forty Years in a Moorland Parish,
tells how, when he first went to Danby in Cleveland--then very remote
from the great world--and had to take his first funeral, he found
inside the church the parish clerk, who was also parish schoolmaster
by the way, sitting in the sunny embrasure of the west window with
his hat on and comfortably smoking his pipe. A correspondent of the
_Times_ in 1895 mentioned that his mother had told him how she
remembered seeing smoking in a Welsh church about 1850--The Communion
table stood in the aisle, and the farmers were in the habit of putting
their hats upon it, and when the sermon began they lit their pipes and
smoked, but without any idea of irreverence. In an Essex church about
1861, a visitor had pointed out to him various nooks in the gallery
where short pipes were stowed away, which he was informed the old men
smoked during service; and several of the pews in the body of the
church contained triangular wooden spittoons filled with sawdust.
A clergyman has put it on record that when he went in 1873 as
curate-in-charge to an out-of-the-way Norfolk village, at his first
early celebration he arrived in church about 7.45 A.M., and, he says,
to my amazement saw five old men sitting round the stove in the nave
with their hats on, smoking their pipes. I expostulated with them
quite quietly, but they left the church before service and never came
again. I discovered afterwards that they had been regular
communicants, and that my predecessor always distributed the offertory
to the poor present immediately after the service. When these men, in
the course of my remonstrance found that I was not going to continue
the custom, they no longer cared to be communicants.
Nowadays, if smoking takes place in church at all, it can only be done
with intentional irreverence; and it is painful to think that even at
the present day there are people in whom a feeling of reverence and
decency is so far lacking as to lead them to desecrate places of
worship. The Vicar of Lancaster, at his Easter vestry meeting in 1913,
complained of bank-holiday visitors to the parish church who ate their
lunch, smoked, and wore their hats while looking round the building.
It is absurd to suppose that these people were unconscious of the
impropriety of their conduct.
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