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The Meetinghouse: a selection from “A Home Called New England”

April 7, 2015

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Where God and Community Came Together

The first inhabitants of New England based almost all their actions on religious beliefs. Fleeing from the most radically Reformationist state in the Old World, England, these reactionaries took the Protestant ethic to new extremes: they risked life and limb to have a direct relationship to God. Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, even the first Baptists took everything they owned and left everything their families had known for 50 generations since the establishment of the monarchy, and rejected a century of religious revolution to walk the talk (or, better stated, sail the travail) to a place of unfathomed danger – The New World. 

Most of those 17th century religious radicals landed in New England. 

A distinctive example of the settlers motivations was New Haven Connecticut. New Haven was created on April 24, 1638, when a company of five-hundred English Puritans led by the Reverend John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, a wealthy London merchant, sailed into a large harbor. They wanted to build a theocratic vision, a City of God, and thus the community design of 8 large square blocks centered on a central square, The Green: an open urban space. Ironically this well-funded, very organized start devolved in a few generations to where only the 9 squares remained of the Utopian Community by the advent of the 18th century. 

The extreme risk of immersing themselves in the unknown meant the first act of 17th century settlers was survival. They built fragile tiny homes out of immediately available materials – fieldstone, green wood, earth. They hung on by their fingernails for a generation or two, making better homes, cultivating fields, building herds, finding potable water, rearing children that lived past infancy. 

Once physical survival was established, the spiritual raison d’etre of putting themselves at mortal risk could receive some communal attention. Presumably worship happened as possible in whatever structures were available until there was relative stability of sources of food, shelter and clothing. Security meant that each of the town-states that had come to this wild world could manifest their common desire for full religious immersion. in the 18th century these autonomous communities could raise money and dedicate physical labor for more than sustenance and actually build the architectural center of each town: the Meetinghouse. 

Not just Town Hall, not just the Church for the Town State Religion, these were the tallest, best situated structures in each village, set to the Greens that formed the civic heart of commerce, social life, and the grazing of cattle, marshalling of militias and civic debate. The vast majority of New England Meeting houses were built in the 18th century, after survival was assured, before politics focused ardor to foment revolution on a governmental, versus spiritual, plane. In the aforementioned New Haven, the central Green did not get a religious inhabitation until it was too late for Eaton and Davenport. Three churches were built in the 19th century, including, amazingly, one for the Church of England, which had come initially in 1757 in the wake of the collapse of the Utopian intent of the town’s Puritan founders. 

Meeting Houses fused social, cultural, governmental and spiritual life into one architectural synthesis. They were aberrantly whitewashed to a sparkling white when most buildings were weathered wood. Walls were often 2 stories, built at one big barn-raising, versus agglomerated homes built  piece-by-wing. The interiors were as fine as any home, but the Puritan ethic of rejecting ornament, music, and expression meant clean lines and simple details captured daylight with a stark purity that was a perfect symbol of complete faith in the Light of God. 

The abstraction of the Sacred became a foil for the Profane as the Sunday Sabbath gathering was often reciprocated by the regular Town Meeting where all the jealousies, legalities and bean-counting rendered these civic structures into sounding boards for the collision of culture, commerce and Christianity. The lofty virtues of sacrificial love in the hope of Grace had its flipside in self-interest, petty politics and personal vendettas every municipality legislates to regulate. 

Since World War II, in Europe and New England, religious belief has significantly waned as a cultural focus. Perhaps centuries of familiarity has lead to contempt. Many meetinghouses have become museums as government outgrew their tight confines and religious life shrank away from the public square.  Many families who once held religious observance as central to their lives no longer set aside the Sabbath day to worship. Instead of attending to a “day of rest” in any religious venue, time is spent in Starbucks, shopping malls, or sports arenas.

Cultural transitions, including a secularizing landscape of faith, alter the meaning of religious icons. White clapboard churches on town greens used to symbolize New England Christianity. Now they lend the region historic gravitas while their role in religious life declines. Meetinghouse remain deeply compelling, but more as touchstones to a time of courage and trail amid extreme adversity: when people risked everything to be with their God, and away from their King.

We see the extreme effort to build the biggest, nicest building in town to express a devotion to freedom found in common interest and belief, the uniquely American vision of bottom up determination in faith that everyone – everyone – was entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The Revolutionary War turned that belief into a government on a national scale. Creating a federal system based on a social dynamic that was test driven in every Meetinghouse in New England is a natural extension of how America came to be, long before the Founding Fathers were born.

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