Sandown Meeting HouseStories

Seating in the Meeting House

Excerpts from Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Thomas Franklin Waters. Featured image: Sandown NH Meeting House, built in 1773, courtesy of Yankee Magazine.

Ipswich Meetinghouse

The second Ipswich Meetinghouse, painting by Susan Howard Boice


The Puritan Meeting House in Hingham MA

In 1651 a new meeting house was built in the prevailing style of the time, square with a hip roof, and a belfry at the apex, so that the bell-rope hung down in the center of the audience room. Citizens were seated by the Committee appointed for this purpose, with regard for social standing, wealth or official station.

The center of the house was filled with long benches on which seats were assigned by a Committee of the Parish. A group of older men and women were placed just in front of and below the pulpit in the “Men’s and Women’s Short fore seats” Behind these sat the long rows of substantial citizens and their wives.

The matter of seating accommodation was frequently before the Town, with constant pressure for special privileges. The question of greater and less dignity, carrying with it the question of higher or lower seat, became so sharp and vexing that, in 1663, the delicate and unenviable task of “seating the congregation” was laid upon the Selectmen.

puritan_meetingIn 1675 permission was granted to Francis Wainwright, one of the town’s most conspicuous citizens, “to set up a pew six foot square between the two seats and the stairs on the North side.” This was a revolutionary departure from traditional usage, but the first pew in old Ipswich was forthwith erected, and the Wainwright family was no longer separated, but sat in a cozy group in the grand new pew.

A few years afterward. Major Samuel Appleton received permission to erect a pew in the east corner “not exceeding two short seats in breadth, near the middle of the window in the length, at his own charge, relinquishing the right to his and his wife’s seats.” At the next Town meeting, Feb., 1680-1, Doctor Dane, Nathaniel Treadwell, William Hodgkins, Andrew Dymond, Thomas Lull, Thomas Dennis, Thomas Hart and Samuel Hunt united in a petition for liberty to “raise the hindmost seat in the northwest side of the Meeting House two foote higher than it now is, for their wives to sit in,” and it was granted.

Higher and higher the soaring ambition of the good folk reached. It was voted in 1681-2 that the Town would build high among the beams a seat “between the old Powder room and the gallery,” and that Mrs. Cobbet, wife of the minister “shall have a seate there if she please.”


The Ipswich First Church Meeting House that stood from 1749 to 1846

On February 7, 1688 the court heard a Complaint by parties aggrieved with “some persons that lately erected a new pew in the meeting house and that it hindered the Light.” Joseph Fuller and John Burly who built the pew were ordered to “make or cause to be made at their own expense a new window in the meetinghouse within fourteen days next ensuing.”


The 3rd Ipswich Meetinghouse, by Susan Howard Boice

The Deacons complained to the Selectmen in 1681, of the disturbance of persons in the meeting house “in not sitting where placed, and others crowding into seats to hinder those placed in their places.” To quell these outbreaks, 5 shillings a day was ordered as a fine for sitting in the wrong places.

In February 1702, two years after a new meeting house was finished, the Committee for Seating granted liberty to 73 men and 62 women to “build up ye hindmost seats of ye several Galleries at their own cost “& so sit in until removed by consent of the Committee or Removed by Death.” Pew by pew, walls were lined until the central floor space, originally the most select, became the resort of the poor and those of middle rank.


Illustration from “Stories of the Pilgrims” by Margaret B. Pumphrey, 1872

Boys and young men were seated by the Town Committee on the benches reserved for them in less desirable locations, and as they grew restive under the long prayers and longer sermons, they turned to mischief. Three young fellows were presented for laughing and spitting in one another’s faces, pricking one another in the legs, pulling boys off their seats,”heaving things into the other gallery among ye girls that sit there and breaking ye glass windows.”

Hence the stern regulations published by the Committee of the Town on Dec. 26, 1700:

“To prevent the Youth from profaning ye Sabbath & misordering themselves in times of God’s Worship, it is ordered: They shall sit together in ye two backside seats of each front Gallery which are ye seats appointed for them, and that ye Tything Men shall take turn by two in a day to sit with them to inspect them. The Committee desires that all Heads of Families would informe & warne their children & servants not to disturb themselves and the Congregation by making more noise going up and down stairs in ye time of ye Worship of God, which ill practice is very prejudicial to ye auditory as well as disturbant to serious well minded persons.”

Slaves were allowed to partake in services but were assigned inferior seats in the meeting house. A bill of sale of a gallery pew to Michael Farley in April, 1825 provides conclusive proof of their status. Wording of the agreement between the Committee To Sell the Pews and Mr. Farley stated that if he or his heirs “shall ever hereafter sell or let said Pew to any Negro or colored person or persons, the same shall revert back to said Parish and successors and the title become void according to the Conditions of the sale thereof.



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