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  • Writer's pictureKaren M Edwards

Kirk Sessions & Repentance Stool

This is an ecclesiastical meeting or court in the Presbyterian kirk (church) for the well-being of people in the parish (an ecclesiastical area which would include the main village with the church, surrounding hamlets and farms). The officers were made up of the minister, lay persons such as Elders and Deacons, a sessions clerk who was most likely to be the school master as he had to know how to read and write, and village worthies, sometimes including the local laird. (A laird, by the way, is not the same as an English lord, but is equivalent to an English squire and often knighted.) The session met to discuss both temporal (financial issues, including giving money for the poor; voting in new people), religious (listing children ready to take communion [the sacrament]), and moral issues such as theft, and to call people to repentance after engaging in sex before marriage.

In most of the kirk sessions I’ve read, it was usually the woman who came before the session, especially as she was literally “holding the baby.” She was asked to name the father and, though the father rarely appeared before the session, they would be fined. But some, of course, denied any relationship and the child was brought up with the mother and often the grandparents. Most women went through this ordeal so that their children could be baptized into the kirk and freed from the belief of original sin and that if a child died without baptism, it would be eternally damned. It was one of the reasons for baptizing babies so quickly—sometimes one or two days—after birth. This was not just a Presbyterian belief and practice but of most Protestant and Catholic religions.

Couples who had engaged in sex before marriage and were now married were also called before a kirk session and this was called ante-nuptial fornication.

Illegitimacy was mentioned in the parish record at the time of baptism; most were just noted as “illegitimate,” but some scribes mentioned “born in fornication” and sometimes gave a little sermon about the evils of fornication.

This was not only a moral issue but a financial one too: the parish did not want to have to support an unwed mother with children if the family was unable to do so. In these areas at this time, they were either fishermen or farm hands and therefore not well off. Unlike other places in early times, most marriages usually took place when the bride and groom were in their 20s and able to provide for a family. If one or the other of the accused were from another parish, the parish officers from both parishes would discuss the issue and come to an agreement about the financial well-being of the mother and child.

This novel grew from my genealogical research on my mother’s ancestors. I saw many entries about the calling to repentance of unwed mothers; there were a few in my family. In reality, most illegitimate children were accepted in families, though if a woman later married another man, the illegitimate child usually stayed with the grandparents; the stepfather didn't want to have anything to do with a stepchild. This was the norm even until the early 20th century. But the stigma of illegitimacy survived for a long time.

However, the repentance stool went out of favor long before 1814. I added this to the story for additional drama. The repentance stool is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne had to stand on a scaffold for three hours. Like the Puritan culture, early Presbyterian culture shamed people--mostly women--for sexual sins.

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1 Comment

Daphne Higbee
Daphne Higbee
Jan 04, 2019

The history behind the book is fascinating. I love learning about the cultural details and makes me want to read the book again so I experience it more fully.

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