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).

 

The Lincoln Chair Returns

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The “Lincoln Chair” has returned to Hingham after a sojourn in the Arts of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Tradition holds that this joined armchair, made of red oak with walnut inlays, belonged to Thomas Lincoln “the cooper,” one of Hingham’s original settlers. It was long thought to have been constructed in England, but microanalysis of the wood in the early 2000s revealed that the chair was made in North America. This information makes the chair even more of a rarity than formerly believed, as only about two dozen examples of 17th century New England joined chairs exist.

Of a type often called a “wainscot” chair, the Lincoln Chair has a plank seat and carved panel back. The series of elongated S- and reverse S-curves are thought to have been inspired by classical design.

The chair descended in the Lincoln family until 1914. In 1908, as the Town’s 275thanniversary approached, a national campaign was launched to raise funds for a bell tower in memory of Hingham’s first settlers. When the Memorial Bell Tower was dedicated in November 1912, an interior chamber, the “Peter Hobart Room,” was created and furnished with furniture and artifacts from mid-17thcentury England. Hingham’s Lincoln family donated the chair to the Memorial Bell Tower to furnish the Peter Hobart Room.

IMG_4897 (1)The chair was moved into Old Ship Church in 1933 and remained there until 2008, when it was loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts for display with other First Period furniture.

But now, the Lincoln Chair has returned home to Hingham. We are grateful to the Town of Hingham and Hingham’s First Parish for their stewardship of the chair over many years and for their decision to loan the Chair to the Society for display at the Hingham Heritage Museum.