Rediscover the Meeting House: a partial social history

By Nina Wellford       October 2010

Despite being a 25-year Hingham resident and member of Old Ship, when I got involved in this campaign to restore the Meeting House, I realized how very little I really knew about the Meeting House and its place in Hingham history.

I am by no means a historian, and the facts about historical events and trends are certainly not always clear. But it absolutely strikes me how the story of this building reflects the unfolding of American history, most specifically the history of the town of Hingham, but also how we see parallels to that history in the debates about policy and politics and the vision of our town and of our country that we are engaged in today.

The Meeting House’s form has changed dramatically over the years, but usually in response to the needs of its function. So I’d like to share with you a brief social history of the Meeting House, and how that played into each of the renovations that the building has gone through over its 330 years. This brochure that we created outlines those renovations... you will see that there have been surprisingly few for such a long history: we will focus on the major changes made in 1681, 1731, 1755, 1869 and 1930.

So back we go - back to early Hingham, and the Puritan philosophy that underscored American thought in this part of the country.

In 1635, the Rev. Peter Hobart, teacher Robert Peck and 40 families, or about one half of the town of Hingham, England, joined the settlers who had arrived a couple of years earlier here in Bare Cove and incorporated as the town of Hingham, the 12th town in the Mass Bay Colony.

Their first Meeting House was a crude fort-like structure, surrounded by a palisade, built on a low hill in front of where Old Derby stands today.

The settlers’ Puritan faith, based on ideas supported by the Scriptures, was an exclusive religious philosophy with roots in Calvinism: they believed that there was a small number of elect people who received God’s grace and were saved.

At that time in Massachusetts, the church and the state were one. Only church members could vote or hold political office. And only Puritans could be members of the church. Attendance at Town Meetings and Sunday services was mandatory. Sermons on Sunday were about the text of the Bible, but even back then the ministers used the text to comment on affairs of the day, too.

As Harris Danzberger says, “In the 17th century, the word church was never applied to a New England house of worship. They were simply called Meeting Houses, for that is what they were – places for assemblage, as a civic center, a place of worship, and sometimes as a marketplace, though not in Hingham. Puritans didn’t believe that holiness could be inherent in wood or other building materials. So no Puritan meeting house was ever consecrated. The church was the people within. As one whit put it, “There is no difference between the alehouse and the church until the minister is in the pulpit.”

And Rev. Peter Hobart, Hingham’s first minister, set the tone of independent thinking for Hingham ministers through the ages. (In an amazing historical coincidence, our current minister Ken Read-Brown is a direct descendant of Peter Hobart!). Peter Hobart used church membership to draw parts of the new community together. So, as more non-Puritans arrived in Hingham, he likely realized that some strict thinking needed to change. For example, in a major act of conscience, Peter Hobart went ahead and baptized the baby daughter of a Hingham citizen, Mr. Burton, even though Burton was Anglican. This, and other acts of independence by the Hingham militia, incensed Governor Winthrop, who accused Hobart and the Hingham militia of Rebellion. In the end, Hobart was convicted of disrespect and fined. But Hobart’s acts, and no doubt the discussion that went along with them, helped open the door for a more inclusive and democratic form of government in Massachusetts.

Peter Hobart died in 1679. At that time, the Parish voted to build a new meeting house, since the population of the town had increased in 45 years from 130 to about 750. Throughout everything I’ve read, there are many many instances of hugely divisive votes taken by the townspeople of Hingham, and many instances of votes that were later overturned in favor of an exact opposite result. So, after a couple of years of “violent contest in regard to the placement of the meeting house in which the interference of the general court was required,” it was decided to place it where it is located today, on land given for the purpose by Capt. Joshua Hobart.

A committee of three studied all the meeting houses in the area to decide on the design of the new structure. This Elizabethan Gothic style with the square, double-sided hip roof, was distinctive from 1651 – 1712. Our meeting house (still not called Old Ship) was the 58th one built in the Mass Bay Colony (the first one was built in Dorchester in 1631), and the second largest, after Old South MH in Boston. Its original dimensions were 55’ x 45’.

Charles Stockbridge, a well-known owner and builder of mills who lived in Scituate was chosen to be the head builder, probably because of his familiarity with raising such large structures. The frame was raised by the entire town on July 26, 27, 28, 1681. Turnout was so enthusiastic, the selectmen paid for 19 barrels of hard cider to fuel the workers.

Because it was the town’s meeting house, the cost of 437 pounds was paid for by assessments on all the adults in town, based on one’s ability to pay.

So, imagine this:
  • The interior exposed posts were in the original exterior walls. The roof as you see it from the inside is the original roof.
  • Timbers were 600-year old native virgin red oak, using curved trunks for the curved trusses. Red oak has no knots, and is strong and light.
  • Posts were made of New England white pine, squared.
  • The frame is held together by Trunnels: tree nails.
  • It was milled in the sawmill down by the harbor.
  • It is thought that planking from the original fort’s palisade was used on the roof.
There were 2-story galleries and doors on three sides, and the pulpit was placed on the northeast wall, in front of the cemetery – approximately facing Jerusalem to the far far east. The walls were clapboarded inside and out – not yet plastered. You can see the interior clapboards in the hole in the wall to the right of the main entrance. Windows were large and square.

Also, there were no box pews: The floor and galleries were filled with backless wooden benches close together – for warmth or perhaps to hold people up as the three-hour service wore on...

A committee determined a seating chart for 334 of the 700 people of the town, according to a carefully worked-out social hierarchy. Men and women were separated; town leaders and elders sat forward. The only pew was right next to the pulpit, for the minister’s wife and widow of Peter Hobart.

There was no heat, no light. For 150 years, until 1822, the only heat was from footwarmers that people brought with them from home, with smoldering embers for warmth. This in a Meeting House that had been closed all week, often, with no heat at all. It was considered good for the soul. It must have been so smoky!

Town Meeting took place for the first time in the new Meeting House on January 5, 1682. And John Norton, who followed Peter Hobart as minister, preached the first service. By then the era of the Puritan fathers had passed. As the region developed and prospered, as a society we had begun to move from the concept of Commonwealth to privatization of wealth, and away from the purely Puritan faith to more concern with more earthly matters, such as art, comfort and social status. The town’s population passed 1000, and it spread out to the South and east toward Cohasset and Scituate.

John Norton died in 1716. His daughter, by the way, married John Quincy; their grand-daughter Abigail married John Adams, 2nd president of the U.S.

The next minister, Ebenezer Gay, would serve for 69 years, from 1718 to 1787, when he died at age 90.

Ebenezer Gay was born in Dedham and graduated from Harvard. He continued the philosophy of inclusiveness begun by Peter Hobart – baptizing citizens of all backgrounds, including blacks, mulattos and Indians.

However, as we know, the 1700s were marked by unrest and division.

Due to growth, town government moved to sectional representation, with Town Meeting still held in this Meeting House.

In the 1720s, Cohasset broke off and built their own meeting house, called Second Parish, in a more modern style for the time. You can see in that building that some elements of art and beauty were allowed to creep in to the colonial architecture, as buildings moved away from Gothic style in architecture to the more typical meeting house style that you see in Cohasset, which was inspired by Christopher Wren.

South Hingham was upset with the distance they had to travel to the over-crowded Meeting House, and their lack of political representation.

It was time for the Meeting house to expand.

So, in 1731 the first major renovation took place, in an effort to keep the town together under one roof…
  • A northeast wing was added on the cemetery side
  • A 2nd roofline was extended over it.
  • Columns/posts were now exposed, so were rounded as a decorative element.
  • The gallery was removed from the northwest side.
  • The pulpit was moved to the northwest wall, where it is now. There were square windows overhead at the time.
  • Because the pulpit was moved to that wall, the original set of doors from 1681 were covered over and clapboarded on the outside. They were rediscovered in 2007.
  • A ceiling was added for warmth. It would remain for 200 years.
  • The long bell rope hung down through ceiling during the week in case of emergency; it was pulled up during services.
  • The walls were plastered.
BUT – South Hinghamites weren’t appeased, and in 1742 formed their own parish and built their own church, today’s Second Parish, then called Third Parish, in the same style as Cohasset’s. This Meeting House (still not known as Old Ship) was called the North Meeting House.

But Ebenezer Gay weathered the parish divisions, remaining as pastor at this meeting house, and as an influential citizen for the entire town.

At the same time, major divisions were occurring in Protestantism, called the Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards, as one of the leaders of the revivalist movement, was calling for a return to the Calvinist ways of early New England, and the belief that God will save the select. But Gay became the most powerful spokesman of an opposing philosophy, espoused by the Arminians, or Old Lights – which believed that people have a hand in their own salvation through learning and good works and deeds. This philosophy ultimately led to Unitarianism.

By 1745, theological views had hardened across New England. Connecticut and Western Mass went with the more conservative Edwards. Eastern Massachusetts became the center of that more liberal theology, with Arminians as ministers in every shore town except Hull. The Arminians appealed to the educated, socially prominent citizens and the merchant class.

They dominated Hingham’s First Parish and felt that the North Meeting House needed to grow even more, to express Hingham’s prosperity and stature.

In 1755:
  • A new gallery on Main St. was added, to match the cemetery side.
  • A new pulpit made of native white pine was handcrafted by Ebenezer Lincoln, a skilled carpenter. (again by vote “to order the same to be built,” after reconsideration of a previous vote "not to build a new pulpit.")
  • 2 arched Georgian Palladian windows were added above pulpit.
  • A new east entry porch was built opposite the pulpit to shelter people coming in.
  • 56 pews were built in double rows around the edges of the church. Benches remained in center.
  • People bought the pews as property. You can see the pew chart in the family history section of the website – it’s a who’s who of Hingham – familiar names still. They had deeds that were handed down to children or sold to other families.
By then, the Revolution was upon us. Ebenezer Gay had a deep antipathy to civil disorder. He remained loyal to the crown. But it is a sign of the respect and affection that the community held for him that he survived as First Parish’s beloved minister and a civic leader, despite being watched as a British sympathizer. By all accounts, he was a brilliant diplomat, serving until he died in 1787 at age 90.

In 1792, we come to another crossroads in Meeting House history. By then town meetings were not being held there (1780), yet its membership still included most of the citizens in town. A series of four parish votes determined the fate of the Meeting House, because it needed a new roof: their first vote was to take off the roof and replace it with “one of proper pitch” (no hip). A few weeks later they voted again, to take it off and replace it with one that a committee decides is best. The third vote said tear down the entire meeting house and replace it with one in the Christopher Wren style. Finally, several weeks later they voted to rescind all other votes and repair the existing structure in its present form. I think Yankee frugality ruled the day. The building was first painted then – a yellow-ochre like you see today.

After the Revolution, politics really heated up. A huge ideological schism split the country into two factions that demonized each other, the Federalists and the States Rights advocates. That schism played out here in Hingham as well. It split Hingham’s First Parish in two.

Henry Ware had become minister in 1787, after Ebenezer Gay’s death, and continued Gay’s Unitarian theology. Ware had studied at Harvard from 1781-1785, where his roommate was John Quincy Adams. He also was a Federalist, and was welcomed by the Federalist Sacred Circle of prominent people who dominated the politics of First Parish, including Benjamin Lincoln and Sarah Derby.

In 1805, Harvard College invited Henry Ware to fill the chair of Hollis Professor of Divinity, the first and oldest endowed professorship in the US. He resigned his pulpit and moved to Cambridge, and helped found Harvard Divinity School several years later.

When Ware left, the Jeffersonians (states rights advocates) and new industrialists based in Hingham Center saw their chance to promote their own candidate, Joseph Richardson, for minister. After months of political wrangling, Richardson won the position.

Because of these politics, the Federalists withdrew from First Parish, forming their own Third Parish in 1807 and building New North Church, in the yet-more-modern Bullfinch style. First Parish then became called Old North Church.

Just as Ebenezer Gay had served as minister for most of the 1700s, Richardson would go on to serve as minister for most of the 1800s, from 1805 – 1868. In 1826, while minister, he was elected to Congress as a Democrat and a supporter of General Andrew Jackson for president, in opposition to the Whigs who supported John Quincy Adams. Adams won the presidency. There is no doubt that the back and forth political battles for the Presidency between the Whigs and Democrats played out in conversations at First Parish, helping shape the system of party government underlies our democracy.

Only one major restoration took place in the 1800s.

And one minor but important one: In 1822, two stoves were installed, replacing two front pews. The gallery was rounded in an artistic flourish. The current bell was cast, as the 5th bell, it has lasted almost 200 years.

But by 1869, major restoration was in order. General Luther Stephenson, returned from the Civil War, held up a handful of weeds that he said came from his pew, and demanded that restoration take place.
  • The entire building was jacked up. A stone foundation was laid, with a furnace installed in the new cellar, and the sills and floor replaced.
  • The Meeting House was made over in a Victorian style, with wallpaper, carpeting and drapes, and the boxes were replaced with cushioned curve-backed pews.
  • The pulpit was faux-painted mahogany.
  • Diamond-paned windows (that exist today) and the first lamps were installed.
  • The exterior was repainted from yellow-ochre to gray.
The meeting house was made to fit the popular concept of a true New England Church, at least on the inside. You can see a sample of the original wallpaper on the back wall.

Throughout the 1800s, the Meeting House did continue to be used for ecumenical outreach. They held mixed-denominational services there, non-liturgical services, to ease tensions with immigrants, and speakers debated the great issues of slavery and more.

Sometime in the late 1800s, the name Old Ship was first used. The ceiling was still in place, so the shape of the roof was not obvious, but many think that is why it was called Old Ship.

By the early 1900s, Americans experienced a resurgence of interest in antiquities and in colonial architecture.

In 1923 a replica of Old Ship’s roof timbers was included in the new American Wing at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Louis Cornish and J. Harry Hooper, ministers at the time, encouraged discussion of Old Ship’s national importance, and, despite the Depression, one benefactor came forward to underwrite a major restoration – Eben Howard Gay, great-great-grandson of Ebenezer Gay. It was a well-studied effort led by Boston architect Edgar T. Walker, of Smith and Walker Architects. They decided to restore it to its 1755 appearance, except that they also decided to remove the ceiling.

All vestiges of the Victorian era were stripped, and the pulpit meticulously stripped and restored.

Some box pews were returned from people’s homes, the church’s basement, etc.. Others were constructed to match. You can tell the old pews vs. the reproductions: the originals have dark wood and spindles that turn.

There was a list of additional repairs that was proposed to be done several years later, but that work was never undertaken.

So here we are now. Almost 100 years later, with our next major restoration project. It’s our turn now.

We did a historic structures report in 2007, funded by CPC (Community Preservation) funds, that determined that a surprisingly large amount of the structure is original, and all is extremely well-documented. They found the original 1681 doors hidden within the northwest wall.

It’s our goal to conserve this unique Meeting House so it may inspire future generations. Obviously, we will have to continue to perform the structural repairs and maintenance needed. But equally, we would like to recommit to making this building open and available to the general public. Currently, many community events do take place here, from Lincoln Day celebration to the community Thanksgiving service, Candlelight Concert series, Atlantic Symphony, Unicorn Singers and other concerts, and many, many people who are not members of First Parish choose to have their weddings and memorial services held in this special space. It is open for tours every day throughout the summer; people come from around the world to see it – perhaps because their ancestors came from here, or their parents were married here, or because they are students of architecture, religion or history. 5th graders come annually for a tour given by our minister, Ken Read-Brown. This building represents our town’s heritage. We are proud to be able to connect it to generations to come.

Meeting House Meanderings
G. Harris Danzberger 1980

The Old Ship Meetinghouse
DVD produced by Jeff Spencer, 1996; televised on The History Channel, 1998

Historic Structures Report by Andrea Gilmore, our conservator.