Chebacco women build a meetinghouse

The women of Chebacco build a Meeting House

*the illustrative image above is from a 1910 barn raising in Lansing, Ontario

In 17th Century New England, the church was the center of government. Chebacco was the section of Ipswich that is now Essex, and its inhabitants were expected to make the ten-mile round trip every Sabbath, Lecture Day, Training Day or Town Meeting day to the Meeting House in Ipswich.

Chebacco residents petitioned the town of Ipswich in 1677 that they be allowed to build their own meeting house, and after considerable delay, Ipswich leaders answered that the Chebacco residents were free to do so as long as they continued to tithe to the Ipswich church. Undeterred, Chebacco folks started meeting in private homes and asked the Rev. Jeremiah Shepard to join them. The Ipswich church ordered him to stop preaching, and the Rev. Shepard found a less controversial appointment as the pastor at Lynn.

Chebacco meeting house
Image of the Chebacco meeting house from “History of the Town of Essex” by Rev. Robert Crowell

In 1679, Chebacco men began collecting timber and materials to build their own meeting house. As soon as the foundation was begun, Ipswich authorities rushed to Boston and obtained an order from the general court that “No man shall build a meeting house at Chebacco.” If the residents of Chebacco were allowed to proceed, they would be well on their way to confirming their own legal autonomy.

An early photo of the present Essex Congregational Church, their fourth meeting house, still standing today.

Abigail Proctor, wife of Thomas Varney, saw a glaring legal loophole in the order by which she might force the ways of Providence. On Tuesday, March 21, 1679 she, Sarah Martin and Hannah Goodhue gathered the town’s women and a few men from Wenham, Gloucester and Manchester, and they commenced construction while the men of Chebacco looked on, providing the workers with a good supper at the end of their labor. The Ipswich constable promptly rode to Chebacco and arrested the three women and two men.

At Quarterly Court in Salem on May 28 Abigail Proctor and her co-conspirators acknowledged their offense, but the wives had succeeded in outwitting the general court by getting their meeting house well-started. The restraint was lifted and the building was completed.

The John Wise house, Essex

The people of Chebacco wisely chose the inestimable Rev. John Wise as their first pastor, offering him ten acres of good land and agreeing to build a parsonage on it. His salary was established at £20 cash, £40 in grain, forty cords of oak wood and eight tons of salt hay. The meetinghouse was dedicated in April 1680, and an Ecclesiastical Council met on Aug. 12, 1683 to organize Second Parish of Ipswich (Chebacco Parish) and formally ordain Mr. John Wise, with John Burnham and Thomas Low as deacons.

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