The Construction of the New Meetinghouse: Old Ship Church

By Rosamund Conroy

Early New England meetinghouses were the hearts of towns, serving not only as places of worship but also municipal buildings and even forts or garrisons. These basic structures hosted a variety of activities—from town meetings and trials to baptisms—and the original settlers were generally prohibited from building their homes more than a half a mile away from their town’s meetinghouse.

Hingham’s first meetinghouse was constructed shortly after the incorporation of the town, on the site where the Hingham Heritage Museum and Visitor Center now stands. It had a palisade fence, a bell and was probably a rough-hewn, unheated timber structure, similar to many others of that time. 

In January 1679, perhaps in a nod to its growing population and increasing wealth, the town voted to replace the old meetinghouse and build a new one “with all convenient speed.” They established a small committee to visit other towns for ideas and by May 1680 (the new year being in March under the Julian calendar), the town voted to build the new meetinghouse—the structure we now know as Old Ship Church— “where the old one doth stand.”

The vote was split though and the location proved controversial, with several powerful freemen preferring a different site. Despite the discord, other aspects of the project proceeded and in August 1680, the town agreed the building’s dimensions. In October 1680, they established the rates (the contribution per man, proportional to their assessed wealth) for a project total of about £437—an enormous sum of money in those days. At nearly £16, the highest rate payer was Daniel Cushing Snr. Esq., while many of the younger or poorer men “promised” a £1 contribution, vowing to pay it at a future date.

An excerpt from the Daniel Cushing Manuscript (1680’s) showing the total rate collected for the meetinghouse. The selectmen listed above held opposing views as to where the meetinghouse should be situated. Only photocopies survive from this part of the manuscript.
(Hingham Historical Society archives/Photo: R. Conroy)

The next spring arrived yet the location continued to be a thorny issue. In May 1681, the General Court got involved and sent two members, William Stoughton and Joseph Dudley, to view both sites. (Interestingly, Dudley would later be widely reviled throughout the colony for his role in the short-lived government of Sir Edmund Andros.) The men found both locations unsuitable and disallowed the construction of the new meetinghouse in “either the old place or in the plaine.” Governor Simon Bradstreet and the magistrates ordered another town meeting to resolve the issue and directed the selectmen to give them a “speedy returne” about the outcome. 

A compromise was reached when Captain Joshua Hobart donated a parcel of land for the meetinghouse. It was near to the old site but presumably more agreeable to all parties and an affirmative vote was duly passed at the subsequent town meeting. The meetinghouse frame was raised over three days in July and its first use was civic, for a town meeting on January 5, 1681. At that meeting, a committee was established to agree upon the seating arrangements in the new meetinghouse—a complicated task that involved segregation by sex and ordering by social hierarchy. 

A few days later, on January 8, 1681, the new meetinghouse—now known as the Old Ship Church—held its first Sabbath service, a tradition that continues to this day.

 

An excerpt from the Daniel Cushing manuscript (1680’s) showing the rate that each man paid, plus their seat in the meetinghouse. Hinghamites sat on seats (benches), not pews and the order presumably applied to all occasions, civil or religious. Only photocopies survive from this part of the manuscript.
(Hingham Historical Society archives/Photo: R. Conroy)

Would you like to know more? For a general overview of life in seventeenth-century New England, Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer provides an interesting social history of the English folkways that shaped America’s colonies. Food buffs will enjoy reading America’s Founding Food by Stavely and Fitzgerald, whereas Good Wives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich provides a glimpse into the hidden world of Puritan women.

Primary source materials can be as engrossing as edited works and they often bring a particular historical period to life in unexpected ways. A wealth of seventeenth-century primary sources can be found locally (try the Hingham Historical Society, the Hingham Public Library or the Massachusetts Historical Society) as well as online (for example, in the digital records at the Massachusetts State Archives).

 

6 thoughts on “The Construction of the New Meetinghouse: Old Ship Church

  1. thomas e. thaxter says:

    Very nice.
    My wife Sheryl and I attended church services there in December 1992.

    Thomas E. Thaxter
    12th generation from original settlors
    Thomas & Elizabeth Thaxter (1630’s)

    • Rosamund T Conroy says:

      Thank you for the comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the article! As a side note, Elizabeth Thaxter was Daniel Cushing’s second wife and two of his sons married two of her daughters.

  2. jerry elsden says:

    Very interesting. I did not know the details of the location dispute and that the Governor got involved. What is the definition of “freeman” ?

    • Rosamund Conroy says:

      Hi Jerry,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The concept of “freemanship” has roots in English feudalism and it generally implied a freedom from all debt except to God. In the early days of the Mass Bay Colony, freeman were admitted by the General Court by taking the Freeman’s Oath, typically during the May session of court. Freeman had to meet certain economic criteria, be of a certain age and, most importantly, be a church member. Once freemen, they had “Freedome of the Body Politicke” of the Commonwealth (representation/voting rights) as well as mandatory civic duties.

      Many men chose not to become freemen: church membership was narrowly defined and it involved a public attestation of faith. Many men also took issue with the wording of the oath, claiming it violated their rights as Englishmen. Other men chose to join churches but not take the oath in order to avoid civic duties such as serving on juries or as selectmen. (By the late 1640s, the practice of avoiding local public service by not taking the oath became problematic enough for the General Court to make it punishable by a fine of twenty shillings.)

      In 1662, after his restoration, Charles II compelled the colony to change its laws on the admission of freemen, widening the scope of who could be admitted and removing the requirement for church membership (that is, so long as men were “orthodox” in religion-basically Church of England or Congregationalists/Presbyterians). This is the actual law and definition that would have been in place during the construction of the new meetinghouse:

      https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N00114.0001.001/1:2.76?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

      Enjoy!

  3. Lucinda Day says:

    I was told (being the historical guide at Hingham Cemetery) many years ago in a phone call from an anonymous historical scholar that timbers from the original meeting house were salvaged and used in the new one. Sounds reasonable. Anyone know?

    Cinda Day

    • Rosamund Conroy says:

      Hi Cinda,

      Thanks for the comment and that’s an interesting point. In one document, it states that the cost of the meetinghouse was £430 and “the old house.” I’m not sure what that means, but it might mean that parts of it were used in the Old Ship or that the lumber was used as part payment for the construction.

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