The iconic spired, white-clapboard churches that overlook the green in so many New England towns bear little resemblance to the first houses of worship erected by the Puritan colonists. They didn’t call them churches, preferring instead the term “meetinghouse.” It was a descriptively accurate term, for they did indeed use the same building for both civil and religious meetings. They were so focused on stripping away everything that reminded them of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism that they even refused to display a cross—the chief symbol of Christianity for centuries.The exterior of a meetinghouse was indistinguishable from the houses that surrounded it. The first meetinghouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was only twenty-six by twenty feet. As the colony grew, they built larger meetinghouses—square, unpainted wooden buildings. Sometimes, if the town had enough money, they were topped with a small turret containing a bell. A prime example of this Puritan architecture is the “Old Ship” meetinghouse in Hingham, Massachusetts.
The meetinghouse was the center of the community, not only spiritually but physically as well. Early colonists were required by law to build their homes within half a mile of the meetinghouse. Though that law was no longer enforced as more and more Puritans migrated to New England, the centrality of the meetinghouse in community life did not change.
Often the top of a hill was the chosen location for the meetinghouse, which served as a watch-house and a landmark. Sometimes the hill was so steep that horses had to be tethered at the bottom of the hill, requiring congregants to walk up a precipitous path to attend public meeting. There were no trees in the immediate vicinity, since they had been cut down because of fire danger, so they were usually blazing hot in summer and freezing in winter.
People were summoned to the meetinghouse by a beating drum. Inside they sat on backless benches (box-pews came later) facing an elaborately-carved raised pulpit over which hung a sounding board. To reach the pulpit, the minister had to climb a flight of narrow stairs. The pulpit Bible would sit on a cushion of green velvet with long tassels hanging from its corners.
Meetinghouses were not considered sacred. They were simply places to assemble. On Sunday, people gathered to hear the word of God. On town meeting days, they gathered to vote on public issues. They believed that God’s presence was an all-encompassing experience and could not be separated from ordinary life and relegated to special places and times. Though their stringent regulations didn’t last, their sober piety had a long-lasting impact on the New England character. This impact is still reflected today in New Englanders’ respect for hard work, community, and pragmatism, as well as their appreciation for unpretentious architecture.