New Book on New England Meetinghouses
This spring the University of Massachusetts Press is publishing Meetinghouses of Early New England, by Peter Benes, a comprehensive study of early American vernacular architecture.
The publisher’s copy says:
Built primarily for public religious exercises, New England’s wood-frame 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.
The Lexington meetinghouse had kegs of gunpowder in its gallery on the morning of 19 Apr 1775, as the story of Joshua Simonds preserved. Watertown’s meetinghouse was where the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and then Massachusetts General Court met during the siege of Boston.
In small rural towns, the meetinghouse was sometimes the only building large enough to accommodate such gatherings. (Larger towns might have big taverns or courthouses.) With the religious homogeneity of those small societies, there was rarely objection to having secular meetings in a religious place—or, conversely, using a religious building for secular purposes.
Within Boston, the town used the Old South Meetinghouse as its venue for especially large meetings, such as the day after the Boston Massacre and the annual orations that commemorated that event. The First Baptist Meetinghouse was the site of Massachusetts’s convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
Back to Peter Benes’s book. It catalogues “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.” It also “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.’” With greater religious variety and freedom, citizens no longer viewed a sectarian meetinghouse the same way.
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