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.
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.
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).