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Meetinghouses of Early New England

Peter Benes

Publication Year: 2012

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. 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 seventeenth-century 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 parish-by-parish 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. v-vi

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Introduction: A New England Icon Reconsidered

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pp. 1-10

The New England meeting house has long held a place in the American imagination as a cultural and historical icon. Meeting houses have stood for the community. They have enshrined traditional New England religious values. They have been a symbol of permanence, stability, democracy, and religious...

Part I. The Background

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1. The Meetinghouse and the Community

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pp. 13-28

Although New England meeting houses were built primarily for public religious exercises, little about them was sacred for much of the seventeenth and eigh teenth centuries. Best described as two- or three-tiered municipal halls (fi g. 1.1), they were surrounded by hovels, horse stalls, horse blocks, well- sweeps,...

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2. The Meetinghouse and the Church

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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 meeting house provided a seat of justice for a base population of about forty thousand that included Andover and Ipswich...

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3. The Builders

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pp. 49-61

The “artificial workmen”¹ who erected New England’s meeting houses 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...

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4. Seating the Congregation

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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. Meeting house seating remained one of the most common topics of discussion at New England town and parish meetings for the first two hundred year...

Part II. The Architecture

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5. Meetinghouses of the Seventeenth Century

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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...

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6. Meetinghouses of the Eighteenth Century

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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...

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7. Meetinghouses of the Early Nineteenth Century

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pp. 204-217

The increasing presence of compass windows, steepled bell towers, Georgian decorative modes, and interior and exterior colors in the eighteenth-century meeting house argues that New England’s Reformed congregations were no longer satisfied to attend religious services in a school-like or “intellectual” setting...

Part III. Conclusions

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8. Some Theoretical Models

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pp. 221-238

One of the more salient characteristics of meeting houses 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...

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9. Meetinghouse Architecture as Puritan Ecclesiology

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pp. 239-263

When Elias Carter’s meeting house designs reached towns in southern and central New Hampshire in the 1820s, rural New England’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...

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10: A Fleeting Image

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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...

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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 meeting houses were simply “places of assembly,” presumably to be raised and demolished as the public saw fit. But...

Appendix A. Tables

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pp. 281-287

Appendix B. Chronological Checklist of Meetinghouses in New England and Long Island, 1622–1830

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pp. 289-346

Appendix C. Pinnacles, Pyramids, and Spires, 1651–1709

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pp. 347

Appendix D. Enlargements of Meetinghouses in New England by Cutting the Frame, 1723–1824

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pp. 348-349

Appendix E. Citations of Exterior Painting, 1678–1828

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pp. 350-358

Appendix F. Citations of Interior Painting, 1656–1817

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pp. 359-363

Appendix G. Meetinghouse Replications in New England, 1647–1828

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pp. 364-374


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pp. 375-402

Works Cited

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pp. 403-428


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pp. 429


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pp. 431-446

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 447

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762288
E-ISBN-10: 1613762283
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499102
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499105

Page Count: 456
Illustrations: 130
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public buildings -- New England -- History.
  • Wooden churches -- New England -- History.
  • Vernacular architecture -- New England -- History.
  • New England -- Church history.
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