19th-Century Meetinghouses

In the 1830s, many local families came together at a Meetinghouse on Sundays for worship services, often called "meetings." Voting citizens of the community also gathered here periodically for town meetings and other civic events. Folks living in the area sometimes also attended concerts, lectures, or other social gatherings here.

Most 19th-century New Englanders were Protestant Christians who reserved the word "church" to describe the congregation of believers, and not the building where they worshiped. The building itself was not considered sacred.

The Christian Bible was the foundation and ultimate authority for the religious beliefs of most early New Englanders. Using the word "meetinghouse" not "church" in reference to the building reflects the usage of early Christianity, as recorded in the Bible. For example, in the first century the evangelist Saint Paul wrote epistles (letters) to the churches in the ancient cities of Corinth, Rome, Ephesis, Philippi, Colossus, Thessalonica, and the province of Galatia. He was addressing the people in those places, not buildings. An 1830s person might say, "I belong to the Congregational Church, and on Sundays we worship in the Meetinghouse."

The Old Sturbridge Village Meetinghouse

The OSV meetinghouse was built in 1832 in the center of the town of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, about a mile east of the Village. In 1838 it was sawn in half and moved about two miles west, to the village of Fiskdale. Finally, in 1947, after many years of disuse, Old Sturbridge Village acquired it. We disassembled it and moved it to this location, where it was restored to appear as you now see it. The building was actually built and used by the Sturbridge Baptist Society, although here in our recreated Village we interpret it as a Congregational Meetinghouse. Congregationalists were the dominant sect in most towns in this area, and their meetinghouses were centrally located. There are no architectural or decorative features that distinguish between the early meetinghouses of these or many other denominations.


The first English settlers of New England were Puritans, who sought a more pure form of Christian worship, based on the Bible. By around 1800 their descendants adopted the name "Congregational." There was no church hierarchy beyond the local congregations.

There were many different churches, or "religious societies" in early 19th-century New England, including Congregationalists, New England Baptists, Unitarians, Universalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others. A typical rural Massachusetts town in the 1830s had three to five religious societies organized and meeting for worship. The larger denominations had meetinghouses suited to the needs and doctrines of their denomination, and employed full time resident ministers. The smaller ones met in private houses, schoolhouses, or borrowed spaces, and often shared an itinerant minister with several other towns. Most rural towns had at least a Congregational and a Baptist meetinghouse and a minister for each.


There was no law in 1830s New England that required attendance at Sunday meeting. Perhaps a bit more than half of the people in a community regularly attended worship services. Some went occasionally, while some never "went to church." Of these, some spent the day in private reflection, and others in secular pursuits. For all it was a welcome day of rest from their labors. There were laws prohibiting unnecessary travel, gaming, drinking, or business being conducted on Sundays. (The rigor of enforcement varied.)

When Europeans first settled New England in the 1600s, church attendance was compulsory in Massachusetts, as it was in the southern colonies. That was only a distant memory by the 1830s, however. In the 19th century, the right to worship (or not) at the place of one's own choosing was guaranteed by law. However, early on some states continued to use tax money to support religion. Massachusetts ended public support of the church in 1833, becoming the last state to do so.

Most church-goers spent the better part of Sundays in divine worship. They had a two-hour meeting in the morning and another two-hour meeting in the afternoon. At mid-day there was a break for dinner.

Congregationalists, New England Baptists, and most other similar denominations did not follow an elaborate church calendar or use a formal liturgy. Their services do seem to have followed a fairly standard pattern, however. About mid-morning rapid pealing of the bell, followed by a slow tolling, announced that Sunday worship was about to begin. With members of the congregation in their pews, the minister began with an extemporaneous prayer from the pulpit. By the 1830s he wore no special vestments but was clad in formal black attire. (In the 18th century, ministers preached in black robes with white clerical "bands" around their necks.) A psalm or hymn was then sung either by the congregation as a whole or by a choir (called simply "the singers") who had practiced ahead of time. Only 10-15% of rural meetinghouses had organs; the most common instrumental accompaniment was a bass viol, or "church bass."

The minister then read a chapter from the Bible. Many read the Bible completely through "in course," so that in over a few years regular churchgoers could hear the entire Bible read to them. Other ministers chose passages as they thought appropriate. More singing followed. Then the minister delivered an hour-long written sermon. The discourse sometimes addressed social issues such as anti-slavery or temperance, but was usually on a theological topic. The great majority of sermons were not “fire and brimstone” preaching but rational expositions supported by quotations from scripture and drawing on the pastor's library of Bible commentaries. After the sermon, there was generally more prayer and singing, and finally a benediction before the congregation was dismissed for dinner. The afternoon service followed the same form as the morning, with the same worshipers but different prayers, songs, readings, and sermon.

One Sunday a month was “Communion Sunday,” when the Lord’s Supper was shared after the afternoon sermon. Congregationalists did not believe in Transubstantiation, that is, that Jesus was physically present in the bread and wine, but shared them as an act of sacred commemoration, following the scriptural injunction of Jesus to, “do this in remembrance of me.” The minister pronounced those words over the bread and wine before the deacons (officers of the church who sat in special chairs in front) distributed them to congregants in their pews. On other Sundays, a baptism might follow the afternoon sermon instead. Some congregations took up a contribution at this time as well, although others did not, relying instead on annual pew rents (and before 1834, tax revenues). After the afternoon benediction, the minister made any appropriate public announcements, such as banns of marriage or the governor’s proclamation of a day of public fast or thanksgiving.

Architecture & Furnishings

The architectural style of this building was called the "Greek Style" in the 1830s. Modern historians refer to it as the "Greek Revival Style." Early New Englanders had a great admiration for the culture of classical Greece. This was one of the most popular architectural styles in early 19th-century America. The large windows, front gable and pediment, Doric columns, entablature, and white walls betray its imitation of a Greek temple. The belfry and steeple in simple geometric forms placed atop, instead of beside, the building also reflect the Greek style.

In the 1600s and early 1700s, many meetinghouses were built in a plain style and resembled the Friends' Meetinghouse down the road. Some were never even painted. In the 1700s some were built in the Georgian and Federal styles. A bit later in the 1800s, the Gothic Revival style, based on the architecture of medieval Europe, became popular.

The tall steeple or spire (above the clock tower) is not original to this building. It was added in the 1940s when the Meetinghouse was moved to the museum. It reflects a very common meetinghouse tower style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Many buildings in 1830s New England, especially those built in the Greek style, were painted white. Earlier meetinghouses were painted in an assortment of colors, including yellow, blue, green, red, and orange. Some were not painted at all.

Contemporaries commented on the "whitening of New England" in the 1830s. Growing economic prosperity and esthetic taste led to many public buildings and private homes being painted, with white as a very popular color. White paint (a mixture of linseed oil, lead oxide, and turpentine) gave wooden buildings the look of marble. Marble was the material used to construct temples in ancient Greece, such as the Parthenon in Athens, thousands of years ago. New Englanders in the early 1800s admired ancient Greek architecture and decorative arts.

Not every meetinghouse had a clock, although many did. In fact, when this meetinghouse was originally built in 1832, there was another meetinghouse with a striking clock just across the road, so there was no need for a clock in this one. After moving the Meetinghouse to Old Sturbridge Village in 1947, we installed the clock movement and three wooden dials from the Whittington Mill of Taunton, Massachusetts in the steeple. Our steeple clock was made by the Howard Clock Company, circa 1870.

The steeple clock mechanism strikes the bell on the hour to tell people nearby what time it is. While many people in 1830s New England owned watches, many others could not afford a personal timepiece. The bell can also be rung manually for other reasons. The bell was rung several times to let the congregation know when it was time for Sunday worship services to begin. It was also rung to announce the start of town meetings or other gatherings. In times of emergency, such as a fire, it might be rung rapidly to alert the populace. Some towns also rang the bell at the time of a funeral. Different combinations of rings announced if it was a man, woman, or child who had died, followed by one ring for every year that person had lived.

By law, the pews are private property. The families that owned the pews furnished them with cushions, footrests, armrests, and other items to suit their own comfort, taste, and means. The congregation often raised money to build a meetinghouse by auctioning off the pews. Those in front might sell for 5 or 6 times what those in back did. The church raised operating expenses, such as the minister's salary, by collecting an annual fee based on the value of each family's pew. This was called "pew rent." (In the 17th and early 18th centuries, pews were assigned by social rank.) There were also free seats, either in the back or in the second-floor galleries, for those who did not own a pew.

The box pews with doors currently in the meetinghouse are not original to this building. They are actually more typical of the 1700s and very early 1800s, and were installed by Old Sturbridge Village many years ago when we were interpreting that earlier time period. Although the original pews of this particular meetinghouse do not survive, they were probably something more akin to the open benches found in the side galleries upstairs.

The chandelier is a copy of an original (circa 1820) in the Early Lighting Exhibit. The original came from the Bunganuck Baptist meetinghouse in Brunswick, Maine. By the 1830s revivals, prayer services, as well as secular lectures and concerts were increasingly held in the evening hours, requiring artificial light.

A pulley and counter-weight system in the attic allows one to pull the chandelier down to pew level with a hooked pole. Once the candles are placed and lit, a gentle push allows the chandelier to rise to the ceiling again. Candles are not normally left in the chandelier when not in use, because they were usually made from tallow (beef fat) and could attract mice and flies. The candles drip, but there are crimped tin cups under the candleholders to catch any melted tallow, and protect people sitting in the pews below.

The large clock in the back of the Meetinghouse was made by Simon Willard of Roxbury, Massachusetts in about 1810. During the early 19th century gallery clocks gradually replaced the sand glasses (today called hour glasses). The minister used it to pace himself during the service. Sermons generally were about an hour long, or about half the length of the entire worship service. This timepiece has a brass movement powered by weights, and would have to be wound weekly. It was not unusual for an older clock to be acquired for use in a newer building.

The musical instrument at the front of the meetinghouse is a pipe organ. Henry Pratt of Winchester, New Hampshire probably built it circa 1810-1820. It still operates, and we offer demonstrations a few times each week. Most rural New England meetinghouses of the 1830s did not have pipe organs, although some did. The Puritans of the 1600s objected to the use of organs in worship, but that prejudice was fading by the late 1700s. Cost was another obstacle: an organ might well cost more than a skilled tradesman earned in a year. Many congregations sang accompanied by a bass viol, or "church bass" (similar to a cello, but larger) or other instruments, while others sang without accompaniment.

This meetinghouse did not originally have an organ. Those that did had the organ made to fit in the back of the building, usually on the second-floor. (This organ will not fit there in this meetinghouse, so when it was installed in the 1960s we placed it in its present location for practical reasons.)

The pipes you see on the front of the organ are purely decorative. They are solid pieces of gilded wood. There are almost 300 working pipes of various sizes inside. Some are made of wood and others are metal.