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MEETING HOUSES

February 10th, 2010

View from the pulpit; Paul Wainwright Photographer

Meeting Houses played an important part of our country’s early history. There was little distinction between the settler’s Christian faith and the community-at-large. Seeking religious liberty, the settlers were primarily English Protestants and came to America as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Baptists. Dedicated and serious about their faith, the very earliest Christian worship and meetings were held outdoors.

Beginning in 1648, the central focus of every New England town was the meetinghouse. These structures were usually the largest building in the town. These were always very simple buildings, with no statues, decorations, or stained glass. Not even a cross hung on the wall. The meetinghhouses were used for both religious worship and town business and were the central focus of the community, and were an important point of contact for all. The origin of the “town meeting” form of government, can be traced to meeting houses of the colonies [1]

When the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth they at once assigned a Lord’s

Olde Meeting House, Sandown, NH; Paul Wainwright Photographer

Day meeting-place for the Separatist church, —” a timber fort both strong and comely, with flat roof and battlements;” and to this fort, every Sunday, the men and women walked reverently, three in a row, and in it they worshipped until they built for themselves a meeting-house in 1648.

As soon as each successive outlying settlement was located and established, the new community built a house for the purpose of assembling therein for the public worship of God ; this house was called a meeting-house. Cotton Mather said distinctly that he ” found no just ground in Scripture to apply such a trope as church to a house for public assembly.” The church, in the Puritan’s way of thinking, worshipped in the meeting-house, and he was as bitterly opposed to calling this edifice a church as he was to calling the Sabbath Sunday. His favorite term for that day was the Lord’s Day.

The settlers were eager and glad to build their meeting-houses; for these houses of God were to them the visible sign of the establishment of that theocracy which they had left their fair homes and had come to New England to create and perpetuate. But lest some future settlements should be slow or indifferent about doing their duty promptly, it was enacted in 1675 that a meeting-house should be erected in every town in the colony; and if the people failed to do so at once, the magistrates were empowered to build it, and to charge the cost of its erection to the town. [2]

There were also ‘churches’ that were built. It appears that these were not community established, but were Anglican and Lutheran houses of worship and, in mostly Maryland, Roman Catholic churches, all founded by their respective denominations.

What make the meetinghouses so important are the beginnings of American democracy. A distinctive political format began in these meetinghouses called town meetings. These town meetings were an outgrowth out of the church meetings of elders. It is interesting to see that our Christian roots are deeply based in the faith of the settlers and the government of the church. These town meetings provided the citizens a place to gather to discuss issues of the day. Only men of property could vote. Nonetheless, town meetings afforded New Englanders an unusually high level of participation in government. Such meetings still function in many New England communities today

Old South Meeting House

In Boston, Massachusetts the Old South Meeting House still stands today as a testimony to the power and influence of these town meetings. The Old South Meeting House was Colonial Boston’s largest building. In New England, meetinghouses were often used for public gatherings as well as for worship. In Boston, meetings too large for Boston’s town hall, Faneuil Hall, were often held at the Old South Meeting House because of its great size and central location. The steeple of Old South Meeting House also served a community purpose, housing an enormous clock, installed by the town in 1770, which is still in place today. The congregation that built the Old South Meeting House in 1729 was descended from the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, colonists gathered at the Meeting House to challenge British rule. In the late 1760’s and early 1770’s, many Bostonians became increasingly outraged at the way they were treated by the British government. Boston’s anger at British taxes and policies exploded during town meetings. As the largest building in town, the Old South Meeting House became a favorite stage in Boston’s drama of revolution. Here are a few events that came out of these meetings;

THE BOSTON MASSACRE

Boston’s patriots were outraged by the arrival of British troops sent to keep order in 1768. They considered the redcoats quartered in Boston a blatant challenge to their liberty. On March 5, 1770, tensions erupted when British soldiers fired into a menacing crowd, killing 5 men. The next day a mass meeting of several thousand people gathered at Old South. Led by Samuel Adams, the angry assembly forced Acting Royal Governor Hutchinson to remove the British troops to a fort in the harbor. The patriots’ victory demonstrated Adams’s genius for organizing political dissent and getting results. Each year from 1771 to 1775, large meetings were held at Old South to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, with rousing speeches by patriots such as John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren.

THE BOSTON TEA PARTY

Yet it was the meeting that took place on December 16, 1773 that sealed Old South’s fate as one of this country’s most significant buildings. On that day, over 5, 000 men crowded into Old South and joined in a fiery debate on the controversial tea tax. When the final attempt at compromise failed, Samuel Adams gave the signal that started the Boston Tea Party. The Sons of Liberty led the way dumping 342 chests of tea into the harbor at Griffin’s Wharf. [3]

[1] New England, InfoPlease.com
[2] The Sabbath in Puritan New England, Alice Morse Earle, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891
[3] Old South Meeting House, History and Mission, www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org

Endnote: A Space for Faith, The Colonial Meeting Houses of New England, a book of photographs by large-format photographer Paul Wainwright available this spring. Visit his web site to view photos and selections from the book and place an order at www.colonialmeetinghouses.com

Bibliography:
• The New England Meeting Houses of the Seventeenth Century, Marian Card Donnelly
Meetinghouse & Church in Early New England, Edmund W. Sinnott
Houses of Worship: An Identification Guide to the History and Styles of American Religious Architecture, Jeffrey Howe
Early Connecticut Meeting Houses, J. Frederick Kelly (1947)
Colonial Meetinghouses of New Hampshire, Eva Speare (1955)
Some Old-Time Meeting Houses of the Connecticut Valley, Charles A. Wright (1911)
An Inventory of Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting Houses, Christopher Stell (Four Volumes)