The Puritan Meetinghouse

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.

By Timothy Valentine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Old Ship Meetinghouse, Hingham, MA, By Timothy Valentine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Pulpit - Plimoth Plantation

Pulpit – Plimoth Plantation

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.

 

 

 

 

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Shirts and Skins

SamosetPilgrimsEven before the Puritans met any Native Americans face-to-face, they had made up their minds: Indians were filthy and beast-like, with an appetite for human flesh. What they saw when they did encounter natives, (while they found no evidence of cannibalism), served to shore up their wariness. Natives didn’t build and accumulate furniture; they didn’t tend animals. They didn’t have beds or linens. They displayed their bodies, favoring nudity and animal skins over proper English clothing. They referred to bodily functions matter-of-factly. They didn’t swaddle their babies and allowed their toddlers to run around naked. They had a habit of frequent bathing, exposing their nude bodies directly to the air and water—and to the view of others. And to top it off, they were a graceful, healthy, attractive people. As the Englishman John Josslyn, wrote, the women were “broad Breasted, [with] handsome straight Bodies, and slender . . . Their limbs cleanly, straight, and of a convenient stature, generally, as plump as Partridges, and. .. of a modest deportment.” This attraction made them all the more dangerous to the Puritans; Indians, they knew, were a serious threat to the morals and piety of the Puritan community.

At the same time, the New England natives had reservations about the personal habits of the colonists. English clothing, while it was useful to wear for ceremonies or as a sign of friendship when meeting with the English, was unpleasantly confining, often uncomfortable, and even hazardous. It threatened to soften their robust bodies which had hardened through regular exposure to fresh air. It was restricting to movement when working and harbored lice and other parasites. It hindered bathing and anointing skin with moisturizing and protective agents. The English habit of wearing long linen shirts (or shifts) under their outer clothes to absorb sweat and dirt held no attraction. They did not want to follow the English practice of washing linens regularly. The prospect of regularly sweating over kettles of boiling water and scrubbing out stains with harsh soaps did nothing to increase the appeal of adopting English clothing. Natives had no desire to give up their skins for English linen shirts.

The two cultures had profoundly different approaches to personal cleanliness. Both seemed practical in the context which generated them. But when circumstances brought them into close proximity, these differences became one more opportunity for misunderstanding. It took generations for these differences to fall away and make room for a new synthesis.

Yet now we live in a time when most people accommodate to seasonal changes by exposing more or less of our bodies to the open air. We anoint our skin with moisturizers. We tend animals in our homes and accumulate furniture. We speak matter-of-factly about bodily functions. We no longer think regular baths are dangerously sensual. We regularly bathe and we also wear sweat-absorbent underclothes that require us to regularly do laundry.

The daily habits of the culture we grow up in will always seem normal to us. But we humans are wired so that, when we encounter people whose customs are different than our own, we gradually adopt the ones that enhance our lives. It’s only when we encounter people whose customs are quite different than ours that we can judge the relative worth of our own habits.