Duxbury Second Meeting House 2008

Research Design

Myles Standish Burial Ground
Recommended Reading
Recomended to Bring on a Dig
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Directions to Project Area
Project Background
Research Design
Project Area Geology
Duxbury Background History
Duxbury First and Second Meeting House History
Field Work Theory and Method

The Duxbury Rural and Historical Society (DRHS), a private non-profit

organization in Duxbury, Massachusetts, owns and maintains the presumed

location of the Second Meeting House built in the town (1708-1785). The site

is located adjacent to the east of the Myles Standish Burying Ground. The

DRHS would like to conduct a professional archaeological Site Examination in

order to have a better understanding and foster a stronger appreciation for the

archaeological resources which it maintains. They would like to have a

preliminary assessment of the site’s integrity, research potential, and

significance, to make an opinion of the potential eligibility for inclusion in the

National Register (950 CMR 70.04:17). Site Examination testing and the

possible identification of structural anomalies or artifacts associated with either

the first or second meeting house would also allow for the creation of more

precise predictive model for the location of other 17th and 18th century period

structures in this area of the town. Site Examination testing would also allow

for a better understanding of the potential prehistoric resources in the area.


Before the separation of Church and state in 1833, the meeting house was the church and the state. It was the location of the Sabbath meetings and the annual court sessions “This one building dominate and focused the entire life of the community..It was an edifice neither sacred nor purely secular, but appropriate for any honorable service.” (Sinnott 1963: 5). Meeting houses were usually situated near the center of the community, within easy reach of all inhabitants during all seasons. They were often placed upon what would become a “meeting house hill”, a higher elevation which, in the earliest periods offered a commanding view and strategically defensible location, and which later allowed the town's people to show their pride in the work of the construction and to offer the delight of lifting up ones eyes to the simple design of the meeting house, the focal point of the community's existence (Sinnott 1963:9). Edmund Sinnott, in his seminal work Meetinghouse and Church in Early New England (1963), concisely described the role of the meeting house in New England as “...a fortified place of refuge against Indian attack, and in quieter times it served as a storehouse for the common supply of the munitions of war. It was the center of public intelligence, where notices were posted and proclamations were read, and in its shadow stood the implements of New England retribution, the whipping post and the stocks.” (Sinnott 1963:6). What traces archaeologically would left from the use of such a structure? That is one of the research questions of this project.

Meeting house construction in New England went through four stages of design evolution. The changes in meeting house design appears to mirror changes that were occurring in the larger American culture and mirrored the changes in social and religious life (Sinnott 1963:15).The first stage was the initial construction period of the seventeenth century into the early eighteenth century (1620-1720). Meeting houses constructed during this period were the ones initially built when a town was settled. These framed and boarded structure varied considerably in plan an dimensions. By the middle of the 17th century a clear pattern had evolved, one which consisted of square or nearly square structure with entrances on three sides and a height sufficient to accommodate a gallery on three sides. The building was surmounted by four steeply sloping roof sides and was often surmounted with a centrally placed turret or cupola Generally, two rows of windows illuminated the unheated interior, one row for the ground floor and one for the gallery. A single pulpit window, usually differing in size, shape and position from the other windows, was located directly behind the pulpit. The pulpit was located directly opposite the main door of the meeting house and was connected with the door by a wide aisle or “broad alley” (Sinnott 1963:16). The pulpit was raised high enough so that the minister could peer directly into the faces of those in the upper gallery. The buildings frame was usually oak, mortised, tenoned, and pegged. This frame was covered with planked walls, that were clapboarded without and either roughly plastered or clapboarded within. Backless benches occupied the floor space and a rigid seating arrangement was enforced. The minister's family received the best seats located directly at the foot of the pulpit stairs, while the foreseats were assigned to the “best people” because it was believed that just as some seats were better, so were some people (Sinnott 1963:7). Men were generally seated on one side and women on the other, single young men and women and possibly persons of color were seated in the galleries. This older more medieval form of meeting house went out of style in England after the Great Fire of London in 1666. An example of this type of meeting house in America is the Old Ship meeting house in Hingham, built in 1681.

It will be seen that the history of the Old Ship meeting house closely parallels that of the Second Meeting House in Duxbury and so the Old Ship Meeting House deserves further discussion. The Old Ship meeting house is the best example of a first period meeting house in New England. The existing building was constructed in 1681 and replaced an earlier meeting house built in 1645. The dimensions are 55 x 45' and it is 21' high at the eaves. The longer dimension is on the east and west sides, the entrance is on the south side and the pulpit is on the north side. Two other entrances are located on the east and west sides. The windows are diamond shaped panes set in lead kames and there is no plaster on the interior, only clapboards. When it was built, there were 350 people in the congregation. Seating was arranged in order of age, wealth and dignity with men on the west side and women on the east, young men and maids were in the gallery (Sinnott 1963: 33). Below, in front of the pulpit, at the end of the broad alley, were two seats for elders and immediately in front of these seats were the seats for the deacons. The front benches were assigned to the esteemed members of the congregation, esteem here meaning highest tax payers and people of prominence such as ship captains (Sinnott 1963: 33). The Old Ship was not a static structure, it grew and changed as its congregation did. In 1730 the north wall was pushed out 14' and in 1734 it was plastered for the first time. In 1755 the south wall was pushed out 14' making the structure 73' x 55' with the longest dimension now north to south. Eventually permission was granted to replace the original benches with box pews and two rows or pews were built on four sides. These were sold at public auction. They were described as having smoothly panalled sides and gracefully turned spindles supporting the rail. Benches remained in the central body of the meeting house (Sinnott 1963: 33).

By the early 18th century a new form of meeting house was becoming popular. The rise and spread of this form has been attributed partially at least to the Great Awakening which tended to increase church membership and attendance As a result of the increasing town populations and service attendees, a elongated rectangular structure was developed with a two sided steep-pitched roof (Sinnott 1963:18). A bell tower could be added onto one of the shorter ends and the main door was in the middle of the long side, often entering through a porch, doors were also often located on each of the two narrow ends (Sinnott 1963:18). Interiors remained simple with the pulpit now being located opposite the main door with a sounding board often being located above it. These meeting houses were almost barn-like in their appearance and had little external ornamentation. An example of this type of meeting house is the Old South Meeting House in Boston, built in 1729.

The third type of meeting house design emerged after the American Revolution. This design made the steeple an integral part of the building, the entrance was moved to one narrow end and the pulpit was on the other. This design has been identified variously as Late Georgian, Post-Colonial, Renaissance, and or Federal style (Sinnott 1963:23).

The fourth style of meeting house emerged after 1840 and can be termed neo-

Gothic (Sinnott 1963:26).

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