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Meetinghouses of Early New England

Meetinghouses of Early New England

Peter Benes
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 456
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  • Book Info
    Meetinghouses of Early New England
    Book Description:

    Built primarily for public religious exercises, New England’s woodframe meetinghouses nevertheless were closely wedded to the social and cultural fabric of the neighborhood and fulfilled multiple secular purposes for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the only municipal building in the community, these structures provided locations for town and parish meetings. They also hosted criminal trials, public punishments and executions, and political and religious protests, and on occasion they served as defensive forts, barracks, hospitals, and places to store gunpowder. Today few of these once ubiquitous buildings survive. Based on site visits and meticulous documentary research, Meetinghouses of Early New England identifies more than 2,200 houses of worship in the region during the period from 1622 to 1830, bringing many of them to light for the first time. Within this framework Peter Benes addresses the stunning but ultimately impermanent blossoming of a New England “vernacular” tradition of ecclesiastical/ municipal architecture. He pinpoints the specific European antecedents of the seventeenthcentury New England meetinghouse and traces their evolution through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries into Congregational, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches heavily influenced by an Anglican precedent that made a place of worship a “house of God.” Undertaking a parishbyparish examination, Benes draws on primary sources—original records, diaries, and contemporary commentators—to determine which religious societies in the region advocated (or resisted) this evolution, tying key shifts in meetinghouse architecture to the region’s shifting liturgical and devotional practices.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-228-8
    Subjects: History, Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. [Map]
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: A New England Icon Reconsidered
    (pp. 1-10)

    The New England meetinghouse has long held a place in the American imagination as a cultural and historical icon. Meetinghouses have stood for the community. They have enshrined traditional New England religious values. They have been a symbol of permanence, stability, democracy, and religious reform. From their belfries could be seen the spires of meeting houses in adjoining parishes, a metaphorical link to an orderly network of “primitive” Christian communities and a visual link to the Baroque and Italianate taste of English architects, such as Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. The meeting house bell, the emblematic center of each community,...


    • CHAPTER ONE The Meetinghouse and the Community
      (pp. 13-28)

      Although New England meetinghouses were built primarily for public religious exercises, little about them was sacred for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Best described as two- or three-tiered municipal halls (fig. 1.1), they were surrounded by hovels, horse stalls, horse blocks, well-sweeps, graveyards, “necessaries,” carriage sheds, and Sabbath-day houses.¹ Inside they resembled an oversized, well-lighted, one-room schoolhouse with poor acoustics. Parishioners typically entered an unheated structure that showed the effects of years of water, snow, and mud tracked in by boots. The inside was dominated by an elevated pulpit or desk covered with a sounding board or canopy,...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Meetinghouse and the Church
      (pp. 29-48)

      The Ipswich meeting house where Pomp was executed served the civic and legal needs of a major portion of eastern Massachusetts. Located in one of three shire towns of Essex County, this meetinghouse provided a seat of justice for a base population of about forty thousand that included Andover and Ipswich and most of the neighboring towns to the south and west. The church that actually worshiped at this meetinghouse, however, represented a small fraction of this number—about a thousand men, women, and children from the older and wealthier section of town. Ipswich had at least three other Congregational...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Builders
      (pp. 49-61)

      The “artificial workmen”¹ who erected New England’s meetinghouses followed what amounted to a widespread agreement on what New England houses of worship should look like and how they should be constructed. This consensus was so broad that the raising and joining techniques workmen employed to build meeting houses in parishes in the middle reaches of the Penobscot River in Maine were the same ones their colleagues used four hundred miles away in Stamford, Connecticut. And to most builders, the structure was a multi-storied wooden frame with several doors and multiple windows.

      To raise this initial component—The frame—carpenters began...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Seating the Congregation
      (pp. 62-74)

      The subject that most directly concerned committees in Springfield and Westminster was where the congregation would sit in their new houses of worship. Meetinghouse seating remained one of the most common topics of discussion at New England town and parish meetings for the first two hundred years of the region’s history. Holding seating discussions was no doubt a continuation of past practices in Calvinist churches, especially those in seventeenth-century Scotland.¹ These discussions dealt with issues such as meetinghouse dimensions, the number and placement of galleries, the building of private pews, and access to pews from the outside. They also dealt...


    • CHAPTER FIVE Meetinghouses of the Seventeenth Century
      (pp. 77-117)

      The lack of prior Christian houses of worship presented both an opportunity and a dilemma for first-generation New Englanders. In England and the northern Netherlands, churches were available in virtually every parish. During periods of Puritan ascendancy and especially during the Commonwealth period they were typically stripped and refitted for Reformed Christian services. The Westminster Confession of 1646 allowed Reformed congregations to assemble in Anglican and Catholic churches because “no place is capable of any holiness under pretence of whatsoever dedication or consecration … [and their use] for worship among us should be continued.”¹ In New England, colonists were not...

    • CHAPTER SIX Meetinghouses of the Eighteenth Century
      (pp. 118-203)

      Pinnacles and wainscoted pulpits were still widely in use in the 1680s and 1690s when new political and denominational elements entered the architectural equation. Despite the colonists’ best efforts to forestall it, the English under James II revoked the Massachusetts Bay charter and sent an English governor, Edmund Andros (1637–1714), to preside over the newly formed Dominion of New England in 1686. Though the governor’s term was brief, his installation led to the founding the next year of the first permanent Anglican parish in New England and the building of King’s Chapel in Boston in 1688. A relatively modest...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Meetinghouses of the Early Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 204-218)

      The increasing presence of compass windows, steepled bell towers, Georgian decorative modes, and interior and exterior colors in the eighteenth-century meetinghouse argues that New England’s Reformed congregations were no longer satisfied to attend religious services in a school-like or “intellectual” setting. In the first period the material assemblage (the pulpit, the canopy, the pulpit surrounds, and the Communion table) that allowed church leaders to teach the Gospel and administer the sacraments was centralized in an enclosure characterized by its architectural “negation” (to use Anthony Garvan’s term). In the second period, parishioners increasingly wanted to extend this sacramental space outward and...


    • CHAPTER EIGHT Some Theoretical Models
      (pp. 221-238)

      One of the more salient characteristics of meetinghouses raised in New England and Long Island in the period 1622 to 1830 is the regional variety that thrived within a broader framework of uniformity. This variety goes to the very heart of the vernacular definition of their appearance, and understanding it will help us understand the meeting house form. Most parishes and towns followed what appeared to be a regionwide liturgical and social canon. They built “New England” meeting houses and followed “New En gland” worshiping practices. Meetinghouses always faced south, with the pulpit on the north side. Behind every pulpit...

    • CHAPTER NINE Meetinghouse Architecture as Puritan Ecclesiology
      (pp. 239-263)

      When Elias Carter’s meetinghouse designs reached towns in southern and central New Hampshire in the 1820s, rural New En gland’s ecclesiastic architecture had finally achieved the “Transcendantly Magnificent” stature proudly proclaimed by the Woodbury town clerk Joseph Minor in 1747.¹ Carter’s meetinghouses, like those of Isaac Damon and other contemporary early nineteenth-century architects, reflected a new “Federal” aesthetic that increasingly isolated these public buildings for the specific exercise of religious worship. Frontier and upland communities, whose first meetinghouses often bore the signs of a struggling rural population, could now worship in an edifice whose principal purpose was to serve their Christian...

    • CHAPTER TEN A Fleeting Image
      (pp. 264-272)

      Whether viewed as a weakening of sixteenth-century Calvinism, a gradual expansion of the sacraments, or the rhetorical republicanism of a new political era, the architectural transformation described here may have had a visual aspect to it that has hitherto remained obscure. The resurgence of English culture in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century New England may explain the refined architectural motifs of entry porticos and bell towers designed in Federal and Greek Revival styles, but it also helps us better interpret the populist scope of New England’s early nineteenth-century churchgoing experience. At the same time that Charles Bulfinch, Asher Benjamin, and Elias...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 273-280)

    The New England meeting house leaves a striking legacy of impermanence. Despite protestations to the contrary, most parishioners agreed with Isaac Chauncy’s seventeenth-century view that meetinghouses were simply “places of assembly,” presumably to be raised and demolished as the public saw fit. But New World demographics and Yankee parsimony also entered the picture. On one hand, rapid population expansion caused the “standing order” of Congregationalists to continually build larger and larger structures; on the other hand, towns just did not want to spend the money to make them permanent.

    These two factors led to a succession of inexpensive vernacular wood-frame...

  9. APPENDIX A: Tables
    (pp. 281-288)
  10. APPENDIX B: Chronological checklist of meetinghouses in New England and Long Island, 1622–1830
    (pp. 289-346)
  11. APPENDIX C: Pinnacles, pyramids, and spires, 1651–1709
    (pp. 347-347)
  12. APPENDIX D: Enlargements of meetinghouses in New England by cutting the frame, 1723–1824
    (pp. 348-349)
  13. APPENDIX E: Citations of exterior painting, 1678–1828
    (pp. 350-358)
  14. APPENDIX F: Citations of interior painting, 1656–1817
    (pp. 359-363)
  15. APPENDIX G: Meetinghouse replications in New England, 1647–1828
    (pp. 364-374)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 375-402)
  17. Works Cited
    (pp. 403-428)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 429-430)
  19. Index
    (pp. 431-446)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 447-449)