The Common and the Meetinghouse
The five meetinghouses built since the founding
of the English town of Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1673 were constructed
on or near "Meeting House Hill," a rise of land near the
center of town. The original 1690 palisade (stockade), built for
the protection of the settlement, enclosed the house lots in the
center of town around and including the Common. Eleven houses and
the meetinghouse stood within the stockade. In this area today there
is a sycamore tree, possibly remaining from the time of the first
"turn" (1680-1720). The mile long street that is used
today was a dirt road in the English settlement, perhaps following
an Indian path that was there before the English came.
In 1728, Harvard student Dudley Woodbridge visited
Deerfield and drew some of things he saw in the town (see Lesson
Three). The drawing shows two meetinghouses, an older one and a
newer one, perhaps indicating that an old one continued to be used
after a new and larger one was built.
A drawing of the 1729 Meeting House, which was
taken down in 1824, also exists. Deacon Nathaniel Hitchcock (1812-1900)
drew this picture from a childhood memory. The Hitchcock drawing
shows that the meetinghouse looks like a church at the time it was
taken down, because it has a steeple. This part was added onto the
original building. The building has a bell to warn townspeople of
fire, and to call them to meeting. There is a clock in the tower,
which was important because families seldom had clocks at this time.
A woodcut by John Warner Barber, published in
1839, shows the present day meetinghouse, built in 1824. It is now
known as the Brick Church, pictured in the 1995 photograph.
These illustrations give us an idea of the town
as it grew over the years. In the lesson, they will be used to orient
the students to the meetinghouse, the center of Puritan community
life at the first turn of the century.
Deerfield's English settlers retained a number
of customs and beliefs from their Puritan ancestors. The Puritans,
who derived their name from the word "pure," aimed to
"purify" the English Anglican church of the time, simplifying
services and ridding the church of its Roman Catholic vestiges.
Descendents of the Puritans, who eventually called themselves Congregationalists,
also didn't have churches, as we understand the word. Instead of
churches, they built meetinghouses that were used for many gatherings,
including religious ones. They had simple Lord's Day/Sabbath (Sunday)
meetings, which included many hours of preaching and teaching. They
shunned elaborate church rituals. The settlers also believed in
the literal truth of the Bible, and put particular stress on the
Old Testament. Reading the Bible was considered extremely important,
and was the principal reason for teaching children and slaves to
There were different reasons a town built a new
meetinghouse. Deerfield's first meetinghouse was burned in King
Philip's War. The second meetinghouse was built in 1682 to replace
it, and was quickly replaced itself by a larger one in 1695 because
the villagers wanted one "as big as the one" in neighboring
Hatfield. In 1729 they built a new, larger meetinghouse because
the town was growing. In 1767 this structure was remodeled because
the village wanted a steeple like the one in neighboring Northfield.
In 1824, the fifth meetinghouse was built solely for worship and
its expensive brick construction once again was a statement of the
town's prosperity following the American Revolution.
The most important place in the meetinghouse
was the pulpit, which was high and prominent. There were two floors,
but the upper one was not a full floor. It formed a balcony (called
a gallery) so that people sitting there could see and hear what
was going on. There was no organ in Deerfield until the 1850's,
but other New England towns had them. Many conservative Congregationalists
believed that instrumental music was not appropriate for worship.
At first, long benches were used, but gradually enclosed-boxed pews
were built and assigned to specific townspeople. There was a committee
of men to assign pews. Pew maps, showing the assignments in certain
years, survive, and through these seating plans, the social "rank"
of individuals and families can be understood. Nearly everyone in
the village came to Sunday meeting. The most important people in
town had the best pews close to the pulpit. The most important people
included those who were prosperous and those who were honored by
virtue of age, service to the community, or education. Native Americans
and African-Americans sat in back or in the gallery. The meetinghouse
was unheated. The pew walls were high and each pew had a door to
keep the draft off the worshipers. If a foot stove or heated stone
was in use, the pew walls helped contain the heat.
The worshipers spent most of their Sundays at
the meetinghouse. The Bible was read. Psalms, songs praising God
in the form of poetry, were sung to simple tunes by the entire congregation
either without accompaniment, or with a stringed instrument such
as a bass viol. The sermon, often used more than once, was sometimes
read by the minister and sometimes delivered from memory. Occasionally,
ministers' sermons were published, to be read at home by parishioners.
To make sure that everyone stayed awake during the long services,
a "tithing man" walked among the congregation carrying
a long pole to prod people who were falling asleep. There was time
between morning and afternoon services for a meal. Church members
went home if they lived close enough, or (as the town grew) to a
tavern for the noonday meal.
top of page