Sandown Meeting House

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.

1651 Meeting House in Ipswich.
The second Ipswich Meetinghouse erected in 1651, painting by Susan Howard Boice

In 1651 a new meeting house was built in Ipswich with 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 meeting house
Seating in a Puritan meeting house

In 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.”

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 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.

The Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, Massachusetts, the only surviving 17th century meeting house in the United States. Pews fan outward from the pulpit, which has staircases on either side of it, a sounding-board above it, and two Palladian windows behind it. Pews occupy the galleries on both sides of the interior, and under the galleries there are box pews. The view is from one of the galleries. Photo courtesy of Historic New England, text courtesy of Digital Commonwealth

In February 1702, two years after a new Ipswich 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.

The seating capacity of the new house was taxed so severely in a few years that the Committee for seating granted liberty on Jan. 26, 1710-11, to specified persons “to build a Gallery over ye Stairs in ye South East corner of sd House att ye own Cost & Charge, always provided it doth not prejudice ye passage up ye stairs & ye going Into ye other Seats & always provided (on the condition that) yeTowne shall see cause to Erect or build an upper Teer of Galleries , then this Grant to be no obstruction ye unto.”

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

Record remains of the seating in March 1719-20 of the most dignified portions of the meeting house. A group of old men was placed at the communion table, which stood just in front of and below the pulpit : Lieut. Simon Wood, Nathaniel Lord, John Denison, Joseph Quilter, Jonathan Lumus, Sargent William Hunt, Thomas Dow, John Smith and John Harris.

“The Men’s Short fore seat in the front” was also reserved for the aged and infirm. Here sat John Grow who died on Jan. 9, 1727, “upward of 90 years,” James Fuller, William Baker, 70 years old, Thomas Treadwell of the Island farm of venerable age, John Sherwin, aged 76, and Jeremiah Jewett. James Fuller’s wife and William Baker’s wife were assigned to the “Women’s short fore seat front.” Behind these sat the long rows of substantial citizens and their wives. In the men’s second seat were Mr. John Appleton, Capt. Isaac Appleton, Mr. James Burnam, Mr. Simon Tuthill, Capt. Daniel Ringe, Mr. Samuel Hart, Mr. John Pengrye, Mr. Joseph Whipple, Mr. Francis Crumpton and Mr. Michael Farley, every man of them wearing his military title or Mr., the sign and title of the gentleman.

In the Women’s front seat, on the other side of the alley, sat the Widow Wallis, Widow Hart, Mrs. Sarah Hart, Widow Baker, Mrs. Perkins, Mrs. Fowler, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Burnam, Mrs. Tuthill, Mrs. Appleton, Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Fellows.

The Men’s third seat was occupied by Mr. Oliver Appleton, Mr. Isaac Fellows, Farmer John Brown, so called to distinguish this important and prosperous citizen from the disreputable Glazier John Brown, Sarg.. Robert Wallis, Mr. Samuel Wallis, Nathan Adams, William Goodhue, Sarg. Caleb Kimball, Thomas Manning, Daniel Warner and Ensign Abraham Tilton; and in the Women’s seat across the alley were the Widow Agnes Cowes, Mrs. Baker, Mr. Oliver Appleton’s wife, the Widow Perkins, Mrs. Chapman, Mrs. Ringe, Widow Birdley, the wife of Robert Wallis, Mrs. Denison, Mrs. Potter, Widow Foster and the wife of Farmer John Brown.

Five seats for men were thus appointed and three for women. Seats in the gallery had been assigned years before. No one might presume to sit elsewhere, and a seat of superior dignity than the one assigned was particularly prohibited in the Vote of the Town on May 25, 1724, — “all persons shall be obliged to Observe the Order of the Committee . . . and shall not sit in an higher seat than that which shall be ordered for him, under a forfeiture of five shillings for each offence.”

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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