Sackcloth and Stools

There is a small exhibit in the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh that is dedicated to one of the more bizarre practices of the Church of Scotland in the 17th century: Public Repentance.  

Among the artifacts in the exhibit are a centuries-old shirt made of uncomfortable “sackcloth” which those, who were found to be “sinners” were forced to wear in church, and were also forced to sit on a “Stool of Repentance” in full view of the congregation.  

These poor souls would then be subjected to at least one or more sermons preached by the minister on the sin they were accused of committing.  This sentence would be carried out for as long as they were thought to be unrepentant, a determination which would be made by the minister and the Session of the “Kirk” or church. 

In one case, a woman accused of adultery was forced to wear the sackcloth shirt and sit on the Stool of Repentance a whopping thirteen weeks in a row.  

The Session minutes of the West Calder Kirk from November 25, 1677, read: 

“This was the thirteenth day of Janet Gothskirk’s publick appearance in Sackcloth for her Adultery, who at that time should have been received, as she had petitioned: but because of her stupidity, and that she could discover no sense or feeling for her sin, nor sorrow for the same, she was ordained to continue in ye place appointed for public repentance.” 

Not surprisingly, the Session of the West Calder Kirk made no record of punishment for the man with whom she supposedly committed adultery. 

As much as I’d like to think we’ve moved on from ridiculous things like sackcloth and stools, there are still so-called Christian churches that shame women who have suffered sexual abuse, while letting their abusers off the hook.  And recently, in a large, conservative church, a video of the pastor’s sermon went viral when he startlingly accused particular women in his congregation of being actual witches. 

But there are also more subtle kinds of shaming that take place even in more enlightened Christian congregations when it comes to people struggling with mental health, those suffering from addictions, and issues surrounding gender, sexuality and transgender persons. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus was presented with a woman who had been caught in adultery, and the religious leaders of his day were about to execute her on the spot. They presented her to Jesus to see if they could trick him into doing or saying something unorthodox. 

Instead, Jesus was silent and then began writing in the dirt with his finger (what he wrote, we have no clue).  This action brought shame to the woman’s accusers.  The Scripture says that “One by one, from the oldest to the youngest they dropped their stones and left.”  

Jesus then goes on to tell the woman (the man was also nowhere to be found) that he didn’t condemn her, and then sends her on her way with an admonition to lead a holy, congruent life.  

Churches can become unsafe spaces for many people when the teachings of Jesus are willfully or wrongheadedly ignored.  We must do better if we are to be Jesus’ true disciples. 

May we all look to the example and teachings of Jesus as we seek to be filled with grace, acceptance, and unconditional love for all—just as he taught.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all now and forever. Amen.  


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