Ancient Meeting House

CHAPTER XXIII.

———

A Glimpse of the Ancient Meeting-House and the Congregation —
Foundation Members of the Church —
Roll of Pastors and Deacons.

———

[After the chapters of ecclesiastical history had passed through the press, it became possible to obtain a memory sketch of the first meeting-house and photographic views of the later houses of worship; hence this chapter descriptive of the buildings, with other details, is appended.]

The rude structure represented in the frontispiece was a meeting-house in the broadest sense of the term; [*1] for in it were held all of the public gatherings, both of a secular and religious nature, for many years.

It is evident that when it was first occupied it contained only rude benches, and possibly these had not been provided when Jonathan Bacon assembled the first town meeting. [*1]

Clad in the coarse garments from their own looms, with sheepskin breeches and leathern aprons, inherited from their fathers, these brave men assembled in the inclement month of January, 1730, and made plans to

“lot out the pew ground.”

William Hartwell, Stephen Davis, and Dea. Israel Putnam were made a committee to perform this service, and also to assign the lots to those who were ready to build pews. This proved the most difficult task assigned to any committee during the organization of the town and church. The description of pew lots was unaccompanied by a plan, and as they were not uniform in size, and erected by individuals at different times, it may be supposed that difficulties often arose in regard to titles. The records show that erring human nature led some to infringe on their neighbors’ rights.

It at length became apparent to the people that some form of record must be made, and in the autumn of 1734 the pews thus far built were described and recorded as follows:—

Bedford Oct. ye 18 1734.

A record of the Pewes in the meting house in Bedford by order of the Commitey Wil. Hartwel, Step. Daves, Dea. Israel Putnam with the advice of the Selectmen. A record of the pues as the Commete loted them out.

First.  Dea. Nathaniel Meriams pue is at the East end near to the pulpit in the meting house at the north end.
2d.  The second peue is Mr. William Hartwels is at the East end of Dea. Nathaniel Meriams pue in the north side of the meting house.
3d.  John Fassets pue is at the west end north of the door agenst the window in the meeting hous.
4th.  Thomas Woolleys pue is in the front on the west side of the grat door under the 2d window from the grat door in the meeting hous.
5th.  Nathaniel Paige’s pue is on the front on the east end of the grat door in the meting hous.

[ p 54 ]

6th.  James Lanes pue is the 2d pue from the grat door in the front joyning to Nathaniel paiges pue.
7th.  Joseph Bacon pue is at the no east corner of the meeting hous joyning to Wiliam Hartwels pue.
8th.  Josiah Bacons pue is at the east end of the meeting house joyning to Joseph Bacons pue.
9th.  Daniel Daveses pue is at the East end of the meting hous joyning to Josiah Bacon pue north of the east door.
10th.  Stephen Daveses pue is at the east end of the meeting hous, South of the east door goying to the womens stayers.
11th.  Lt. Job Lanes pue is on the north side of the meeting house goying to the ministral pue.
12th  Benjamin Colburn pue is at the west end of the meeting hous on the South of the west door goying to the mens stayer.
13th. Capt. John Lanes pue is on the south side of the meeting house west from the south door goying to Thomas Woolley’s pue. [^1][*2]

The records show that other allotments were made at subsequent meetings. The reader will observe that a pew and a seat were entirely unlike.

In a meeting of November, 1734, Article 4th

“was to see the minds of the Town whether they will grant Joseph Dean a pue in the two hind seats in the meeting house either side of the grate aley. it was put to voat and past on the negative.”

It is apparent that only the more affluent citizens took “pue ground” and built pews in the opening years of the town’s history; and that others occupied the seats, and from time to time, as circumstances warranted, received their lot and built after their own plan. The difference in style of pews was chiefly in the height of the partition walls and provisions to keep out the wind.

In 1741 six men asked to change rear seats to pews with raised platforms, and offered for this privilege to build a school house for the town, but the offer was not accepted by the voters.

On another occasion a voter was allowed to change the partition walls of his pew on condition that he should not place them so as to shut off the view of the minister from his neighbor’s pew.

Besides the pews, there was the pulpit, far up above the floor, and reached by a winding stairway on the west side, next to the minister’s pew. The desk projected into the audience room, after the style of a shelf, and beneath it were the deacons’ seats. The minister was elevated about ten feet above the congregation, and the deacons’ seats were slightly elevated. These men of distinction sat facing the people, and apart from their families. This custom origin-


ated from their duties of “Deaconing” off the hymns, and lasted long after that service was abandoned.

The rustic condition of the meeting-house remained until after the Revolutionary War, with the exception of a few needed repairs. In 1707,

“Voted to shingle the fore side of the meeting house and do it with eighteen inch shingles and lay them but five inches and a half to the weather and that it be well done and done by the last of Sept. next and that they also mend the back side.”

At the close of the war general repairs were made, and alterations in keeping with the times.

A vivid description of this meeting-house, as it appeared at the opening of the present century, was given by Rev. Dr. William A. Stearns, late president of Amherst College, in an address delivered at Bedford in 1868, from which the following is taken:—

The first meeting-house stood on the north side of the Common, very near the road, the west end facing towards the village. It was painted, or rather was covered, or rather half covered, — for the paint was nearly worn off, — with a thin coat of dark, dirty yellow. It had no bell, steeple, tower, or cupola. The underpinning was constructed mostly of small stones, some of which the boys would easily remove when they were playing “hide and seek,” and crawl under it. [*3] There were three outer doors, one opening south, one towards the east, and one towards the west. At each door was a horse-block, designed for the special accommodation of ladies, who often rode to church on a pillion behind their husbands or fathers. [*4]

In the interior of the house, the pulpit stood on the north side, next the road. In the front was a gallery of pews; on the left hand, a gallery of long seats, which the singers occupied: on the right, a gallery, filled mostly by single men, who had no other seat; up back, high in the corners, or cock loft, as they called it, were the negro pews, rarely occupied by more than one or two of that class of worshippers. Up over the front gallery, in the ceiling, was a scuttle, opening, if it ever was opened, into the roof. [*5] It had a mysterious look to children, and I used to hear it said sometimes in the village that it was the place where the tithing-man put naughty boys. I believe the town powder was kept up there for some years. The pews below were square, high, and with bannisters under the railing, which the children, when standing, could look through, and would amuse themselves with turning and squeaking when they could do it with impunity. The seats of the pews, rarely cushioned, were hung on hinges, so that they could be turned up for comfort in standing during the long prayer, “which often reached half an hour in length.” Oh, I remember, as though it were yesterday, how those old seats used to come clattering down when the prayer was over, as if they were saying, according to the different spirit of the worshippers, “Amen, amen; glad you are done, glad you are done; amen!” The house never had a fire in it, and in the winter, oh, how cold! I see the minister, with the

[ tipped-in page ]

[ portrait photo ]
Phineas W. Chamberlin.

[ p 55 ]

thermometer down to zero, with coat, cloak, and gloves on, and handkerchief round his neck, till thawed out by the warmth of his subject, he threw some of them off. I hear the men, in such weather, knocking their feet together, here and there over the house, during the latter half of the sermon, as if they were saying, “Oh, do stop; I shall freeze to death if you do not say, Amen, soon!” I hear the windows rattle, and the howl of the storm without, and almost shiver just as I used to, as I sat, curled up in solemn endurance, looking sometimes wishfully at the foot-stove, which it was my privilege to carry, but, being a boy, not often to enjoy. [*6]

Foundation members of the church, July 15, 1730: Nicholas Bowes, Joseph French, William Hartwell, John Hartwell, Nathaniel Merriam, Daniel Davis, Daniel Taylor, James Wheeler, Stephen Davis, Richard Wheeler, Daniel Cheever, Eleazer Davis, Jonathan Bacon, Obed Abbott, Nathaniel Page, Jr., John Lane, Jacob Kendall, Christopher Page, Thomas Dinsmore, Benjamin Kidder, Josiah Fassett. (Lemuel Shattuck, historian of Concord, credits eleven of the last twelve to Billerica, and later authorities add the last name to the list of that town.) [*7]

Pastors of Church of Christ and Town: Rev. Nicholas Bowes, Rev. Nathaniel Sherman, Rev. Joseph Penniman, Rev. Samuel Stearns.

Of Church of Christ (Unitarian) and First Parish: Rev. Mr. Davis, Rev. Robert Wolcott, Rev. Joshua Chandler, Rev. George W. Woodward, Rev. Jason Whitman, Rev. William Cushing. Rev. George W. Webster, Rev. Grindall Reynolds; a period of stated supply, including the ministrations of Rev. Charles F. Russell, Rev. Thomas G. Milsted, and others; [*8][^4] Rev. Geo. F. Piper, Rev. Samuel Andrew Dyberg (ordained and installed Dec. 10, 1890). [*9]

Of Church of Christ (Evangelical) and Trinitarian Congregational Society: Rev. Samuel Stearns (died in office). Rev. Jonathan Leavitt, Rev. S. Hopkins Emery, Rev. Oren Sikes (died in office), Rev. Henry J. Patrick, Rev. William J. Batt, Rev. George Lewis, Rev. Edward Chase, Rev. Otis D. Crawford, Rev. George E. Lovejoy, Rev. Howard A. Hanaford, Rev. Edwin Smith.

Names.Elected.Died.
Israel Putnam,1730, Aug. 4,1760, Nov. 12.
Nathaniel Merriam,1730, Aug. 4,1738, Dec. 11.
Job Lane,1738, Feb. 9,1762, Aug. 9.
Benjamin Bacon,1759, Feb. 19,1791, Oct. 1.
Stephen Davis,1760, Dec. 29,1787, July 22.
James Wright,1785, Nov. 3,1817, June 9.*
William Merriam,1796, May 16,1804, Sept. 10.*
Moses Fitch,1805, June 10,1825, Oct. 12.
Michael Crosby,1817, July 15,1836, Feb. 13.
Zebedee Simonds,1826, Jan. 17,1826, Sept. 20.
* Resigned.
DEACONS.

Names.Elected.Died.
Amos Hartwell,1826, Nov. 21,1870, July 25.
Joel Fitch,1836, June 13,1845, Aug. 6.
Phinehas W. Chamberlin,1845, Nov. 13,1878, Jan. 28.
William A. Stearns,1870, June 13,1871, March 22.
Thaddeus H. Davis,1871, Aug. 4,1877, Sept. 27.†
Isaac P. Bacon,1877, Sept. 27,1885, Sept. 18.
George S. Skelton,1878, June 24,1883, June 24.†
Henry A. Gleason,1882, Oct. 6,
Moses E. Rowe,1886, March 29.
George P. Davis,1886, March 29.
† Term expired.
Names.Elected.Died.
Charles Spaulding,1833, June 4,1878, April 17.
William Page,1833, June 4.‡
Eliab Lee,1836, Sept. 24,1842.*
George W. Cutler,1870, July 5,1873, June 30.
Edward T. Tuten,1870, July 5,1871.*
‡ Died in Somerville.* Resigned.

SOURCE TEXT


EMENDATIONS

  1. Woolley’s ∨ Wooolley’s
  2. Thomas ∨ Thomos

ANNOTATIONS

  1. “rude”: rough-hewn
  2. Mansur has helpfully visualized this arrangement.
    cf. A New England church (1974) p 30 [ no scan ]
  3. “underpinning”: foundation
  4. “horse-block”: platform (or step) for getting on (or off) a horse
  5. “scuttle”: hatch
  6. “an address delivered at Bedford”: [ research ] [??]
  7. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 263
    NB: Shattuck credits twelve of these men — Cheever, all three Davises, Fassett, French, both Hartwells, Merriam, Taylor, and both Wheelers — to Concord; the remaining men — Abbott, Bacon, Bowes, Dinsmore, Kendall, Kidder, Lane, and both Pages — number only nine, and Shattuck but weakly asserts that they were “probably mostly from Billerica”. (emphasis added)
  8. “stated supply”: acting ministers
  9. cf. (in this volume) “Appendix”
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