Bidwell Lore – The Meeting House

Welcome to week 64 of Bidwell Lore. This week we share more information about the completion of the first Meeting House in Township #1.

The above drawing is believed to be of either Reverend Bidwell or his son, Adonijah Jr.

As we have learned over the past few weeks, it took more than thirteen years to build the first Meeting House in Township No. 1. But, finally, in October 1750, the Meeting House and the Minister, Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, were together on top of the hill on Lot #1 at the center of the proprietors’ planned “City on the Hill.”

A colonial Meeting House was the focal point of the community. It was used for religious services and to conduct town business. By today’s standards, it was a combination Church/Town Hall/Meeting Hall/Social Hall. There was no separation between Church and State in the 18th century. Reverend Bidwell conducted religious services at the Meeting House on Thursdays and delivered sermons twice on Sunday, morning and afternoon. Attendance was required. 

Colonial Meeting Houses of the mid-1700s were usually simple buildings. They were not what we usually envision when we think of a traditional “New England Congregational Church.” (That style of building didn’t come into fashion until the early to mid-1800s.) The colonial meeting house had no steeples; no decorations inside or out; no statues, paintings, stained glass windows, crosses, or other icons. Decoration was anathema to the Puritans! 

Floor plans of Colonial Meeting Houses were usually square or nearly so. Some (older style buildings) had hip roofs (sloped on all four sides); others (new style) had gable roofs. The pulpit was usually built on a raised platform located on the north side opposite the main entrance. There was usually a special “Pulpit Window” in the center of the north wall halfway between the first and second floors, above the minister’s pulpit. A deacon’s bench was usually built in front of the pulpit facing the congregation. Families sat in box pews on the main floor, while unmarried men and women were usually seated separately in the second floor galleries (balconies on three sides.) 

Windows were a sign of status—larger windows with more glass were favored in wealthier communities. The glass had to be imported from England and was very expensive.  The Meeting House usually had three doors. The main door in the middle of the south wall, sometimes called the “Door of Honor,” was used by the minister and his family, other important members of the church, and honored guests. The doors in the east and west walls were usually used separately by women and men. 

In the illustration below, the typical colonial-era Meeting House was constructed similar to a timber frame barn with three bays formed by four “bents.” A bent consisted of posts and end girts that were hand-hewn, with mortises and tenons cut at the joints. The bents were pre-assembled flat on the ground and then raised to form the main structure. In the example below, there are four bents with the space between the bents creating the three bays. The plates connecting the bents and roof rafters were installed after the bents were raised.

Timber Frame building illustration
Illustration of a Timber Frame Building. This is similar to how the Meeting House would have been constructed. Source: The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

So, what did the Meeting House of Township No. 1 look like? From the Proprietors’ Records, the building was to be 40 (or possibly 45) feet long (east-west) and 35 feet wide (north-south), and “of suitable height for one tier of galleries.” There were to be ten windows of nine squares each plus seventeen windows of six squares each. It was to have “a double floor laid & convenient Desk built for the Minister & seats for the People…” 

As noted previously, at the proprietors’ meeting held 12 January 1749/50, it was voted to add five feet to the original length of the building, making it 45 feet long. They also added seventeen more windows to the original ten. Perhaps the proprietors added more windows to project a higher status for the township, or just realized they needed more light in the building?  It seems likely the windows were not very large – “ten windows of nine squares each and seventeen of six squares each.” Glass panes for the windows were usually less than one foot in any dimension, so the windows may have been only 3’ square on the first floor and 2’x 3’ on the upper floor.

Due to various delays (described in earlier articles), the building proceeded slowly in fits and starts.  Money was appropriated as early as 1740 to obtain the wood for the outside clapboards and “good white pine for the inside work”.  Clearing the site was done during 1742-43. It appears the building’s frame was erected in 1744, and ten window frames were on site; but then construction was put on hold for several years due to the Indian Wars. By 1749, little else had been done; the Proprietors were asked to consider whether to “speedily cover & finish the frame set up in sd Township some years since…or proceed to build a Meeting House wholly new…” 

They voted in January 1749/50 to proceed to complete the Meeting House using the original timber frame, with the additional windows. It is not clear how they intended to add five feet to the length of the building.  In some cases, towns expanded meeting houses by cutting the frame in the middle to add extra length to the middle bay. We don’t know if this is what they did or not.

But, we do know that in 1750 they “called” Rev. Adonijah Bidwell to be the First Minister of Township No. 1. The church was formed by eight members on September 25, 1750, and Rev. Bidwell was formally ordained as the minister on October 3, 1750. 

By August 1751, the committee charged with completing the Meeting House—John Brewer, Ephraim Thomas, and Isaac Garfield—reported that they had “underpinned the Meeting House and enclosed ye outside & put up the window frames & hung ye doors & laid ye under floor.”  In March 1753 it was voted to “make a Pulpit & a Ministerial Pew & make ye body seats & seal ye house up to ye bottom of ye windows & wholly glass ye house.” 

There is no mention of the building ever being heated. People often brought their own “foot stoves” with coals or hot stones to keep their feet warm. In some puritan communities, it was considered a sign of their religious zeal to not be comfortable. A good sermon was supposed to keep them warm. And presumably, discussions at town meetings aroused similar heat?

By the end of 1753 or early 1754, the Meeting House was finally done… or at least enough to be used. Rev. Bidwell would have begun delivering his sermons inside the building.  The church probably met at the meeting house site before that, or at the homes of one of the church members. 

And on “Monday ye fourth day of Febry 1754 at one of ye Clock in ye afternoon,” the first Proprietors’ Meeting was held in the Meeting House

We can only imagine how cold it must have been in the unheated building that was only partly “sealed” sitting on top of a windy hill. These were hardy folk, but they complained for decades about how cold and drafty the meeting house was, and subsequent Proprietors’ Meetings were often adjourned after an hour or so and reconvened in Rev. Bidwell’s parlor, or Chadwick’s Inn, Jackson’s Inn, or another nearby house.

Next week, we’ll explore more about what the first Meeting House may have looked like, and how it was used over the succeeding decades.