6 PAYSON HILL ROAD
RINDGE, NH 03461
First Congregational Church
Way Back When
by Margaret Morabito, Church Historian
Second Meeting House: Open the Doors
United Church of Christ
In the last article, we were discussing the Second Meeting House. This is the fourth article in a series about the Rindge Second Meeting House of 1796 (dedicated in January, 1797). So far, we have discussed the planning, site preparation, hiring of contractors, the raising of the building and its dedication ceremony, some structural aspects, and the steeple. In this article, we open the doors and take a look inside
There is not a lot written about the interior of the Second Meeting House back when it was first built. We have one sketch of the exterior, looking at the west side (which is our current day main entrance side), but I have not seen any sketches of the back side (facing east) nor any detailed sketches of the original interior (although there is a undated pew sketch in our church’s 1965 bicentennial booklet). So, it became a bit of a treasure hunt to discover how the interior might have looked. To do so, I needed to start at the outside.
From a sketch of the original Rindge Second Meeting House, we can see that there was a steeple tower on the west end with an entry door at the base of the tower. Additionally, there was a large door on the long side of the building (facing south); today, we have two large doors on the south side. But, what was on the east end of the building? By looking forward in time to the 1839 renovation, I discovered that on the east end of the building there was a porch. We know this because Stearn’s History of Rindge states that “the porch, which was built at the east end of the meeting-house as a means of access to the galleries, was removed.” So, if it was removed, it must have been there in first place. Once we learn that we had an east end porch and a west end tower, then researching the architectural style of our meeting house led to some interesting tidbits about the interior.
Now, as I understand the word porch, it is an enclosed deck with screened windows or a roofed platform, normally used in the summer time for sitting or for keeping out of the rain. However, as I have discovered in my other historical research, one cannot assume an understanding of old terms from current day definitions. Back in the 18th century, a meeting house porch was actually an enclosed stairway (like an enclosed fire escape), allowing people to enter the church and climb a set of stairs to sit in the galleries. Therefore, the east end porch held a stairway; the west end tower also held a stairway. Both led to the second story galleries (balcony).
In many meeting houses of that time with the three-door arrangement, the door on the long south end was known as the Door of Honor. This was used by the minister, his family, and any honored guests visiting from other towns. We do not have specific documentation stating who entered through the Rindge Door of Honor, but one would presume that they would have followed this protocol. The two end doors leading up to the galleries were typically used by single men and women; the single ladies entered from the east, while the single men entered from the west, according to the tradition of that time. One would presume that families also would enter through the ends and be seated in their own ground floor box pews (remember that church members paid for their own pews back then). Box pews were frequently seen in meeting houses and were designed for family use. You can read more about them and see what they looked like here: box pews and Old North Church pews.
The architectural design of the Rindge Second Meeting House is known as the porch-and-bell tower plan. I will refer to it as the porch-and-tower plan since, in our case, the tower held a steeple, and we did not actually get a bell until 1817. In any event, the porch-and-tower plan was popular between 1743 and 1796. Our building was constructed in 1796. The motivation for an exterior stairway was to save interior floor space for more pews. Over time, the porch-and-tower plan became a popular design and towns selected it not just to save space for pews, but because they liked the look. From a design point of view, the west end tower was balanced off by the east end porch. From a functional standpoint, the porch and tower entrances also allowed people to enter the galleries without interrupting the worshipers on the ground floor, and the two opposite entrances also kept the single men and women apart.
Typically, the galleries would have been built on three sides: east, south, and west. Since we do not have details about our galleries from back then, we can only surmise that ours was similar to other meeting house interiors from the same period and region. The galleries provided worshippers on those three sides with a good view of the pulpit, which was elevated and on the north side (the side closest to our cemetery).