Elaine Marie Cooper
Colonial Americans had the perfect name for a place to meet for church: The Meetinghouse. It was a simple name that belied its community importance, for colonials placed high regard for their centrally located places of worship.
At a time in our current day amidst a pandemic, when church-goers long to return to a place to congregate in unison and worship God, it seems an appropriate topic to reflect upon. While quarantines were certainly declared during severe illnesses in early America, a high priority was placed on meeting as a congregation. After all, there were no online services to bring comfort and hear God’s Word, nor communication by phones that so readily keep us connected with eachother. Letters were helpful communication, but less than perfect. The most meaningful fellowship was always together and in person.
Every community meetinghouse became the site for a community’s social and spiritual lives, drawing crowds from the surrounding village each Sabbath to listen to sermons preached virtually all day long. The buildings also doubled as a place for governmental and political discussions.
|Double church doors with sturdy lock|
Before 1820, most of the meetinghouses were unheated, due to concerns about fire erupting. Worshippers often brought portable, metal foot stoves filled with heated coals to help them withstand the below zero temperatures. It was so cold in New England winters that the communion bread was known to freeze occasionally!
The bell at the meetinghouse became the “town crier” of sorts, ringing for births and deaths, wars and fires. According to Eric Sloane in American Yesterday, “After a death, the bell greeted the morning with ‘three times three for a man, and three times two for a woman.’ Then after a short silence, the bell pealed out the number of years the dead person had lived.” It was a practical solution to communicate prior to telephones and the availability of daily newspapers.
While the style and structure of meetinghouses varied around the colonies, they were found throughout the states, both northern and southern.
|Salisbury Union Meetinghouse|
One of the beautifully maintained meetinghouses from the early 1800’s is the Salisbury Union Meetinghouse now located at Storrowton Village museum in West Springfield, Massachusetts. It was moved to its present location in 1929 from its original site in Salisbury, New Hampshire. The designation of “Union” simply refers to the fact that it was a building paid for by multiple Protestant congregations, which combined their resources to share the same building on a rotating basis.
Prior to 1818, meetinghouses in most of New England (save Rhode Island) were state supported through taxes. This ended in 1818 in Connecticut and 1834 in Massachusetts. Around this time more denominations began to increase in New England, following many years of predominantly Congregationalist groups—thus the birth of the “union” meetinghouses.
When I visited the Salisbury Meetinghouse at Storrowton several years ago, it thrilled my historical sensibilities from the moment I entered the locked double doors. The pine-framed structure built in 1834 can hold 175 worshippers in richly-stained cedar pews. The pews were sold to families for around $20 for their lifetime use. The limited seating in each row would require multiple purchases for larger families.
Entering the large hall, I noticed the latched doors on the end of each pew. I asked historian Dennis Picard if the doors were used to confine wandering children. Not just children, he explained, but the mischievous dogs as well that accompanied their families.
It’s difficult to picture the chaos bringing canines to church must have caused, but there are accounts of parsons chasing pooches out of meetinghouses.
My favorite gem in the old meetinghouse was the sounding board, a hexagonal wooden structure placed over the pulpit to help resonate the preacher’s words throughout the spacious room. It took some extra help to get the sermon clear to the back of the balcony. The sounding board was one more practical solution, in a day without microphones or electricity.
Old meetinghouses are a reflection of our history’s heritage, rich in Christian beliefs—silent reminders of the foundations of our country.
Elaine Marie Cooper has two historical fiction books that released in 2019: War’s Respite(Prequel novella) and Love’s Kindling. Love’s Kindling is available in both e-book and paperback and is a Finalist for the Selah Awards. They are the first two books in the Dawn of America Series set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and HomeLife magazine. She also penned the three-book historical series, Deer Run Saga. Her upcoming release, Scarred Vessels,” is about the black soldiers in the American Revolution. Look for it in October 2020. You can visit her website/ blog at www.elainemariecooper.com