Local Treasure: The Old Ship Meeting House
On Sunday morning, the doors of the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, Massachusetts, swing open to embrace its congregation, as they have for the past 330 years. Built in 1681, the Old Ship is New England’s last surviving 17th-century Puritan meetinghouse and the oldest continuously used church in the country. As they enter, worshippers mingle below the vaulted ceiling. Oak rafters join in curved Vs high overhead, giving the impression of an overturned hull. Below, the creaking wooden floor is divided by traditional box pews. Each family seeks out its favorite; unhooking the latch, they settle onto the old wooden bench that even with cushions scoffs at our modern need for comfort. As the service begins, Rev. Ken Read-Brown looks out over his congregation and welcomes them again to “this house made sacred by the love of generations.”
For a church, the room is remarkably unadorned. There are no paintings or stained-glass windows, and any religious symbols present have been carried in by the congregants. “As a general rule, we let the building speak for itself,” Read-Brown explains. One exception is a line of plaques along the back wall commemorating every pastor who has served the congregation, all the way back to Peter Hobart in 1635, of whom Read-Brown was shocked to discover he is a direct descendant.
Today the congregation is Unitarian Universalist–remarkable because the meetinghouse has never been sold from one group to another. Over more than 300 years, the congregation’s beliefs have slowly evolved from the rigid, authoritarian faith of Puritanism to one that is defined by questions rather than absolute truths. The journey from one to the other is part of what makes the Old Ship so special. “Unlike a cathedral, it wasn’t consecrated by a religious body,” Read-Brown says. The Puritans saw meetinghouses as purely practical places. Sacredness did not lie in the building but in the beliefs and actions of the living congregation within: “The sacredness of it comes through the people who have worshipped here and brought their love, their suffering, their questions, and sorrows.”
No one is sure how the building got the nickname “Old Ship.” Despite popular rumors, it was not built by a shipwright, and its distinctive hull-like rafters were hidden until relatively modern times. But to listen to Read-Brown, the name seems appropriate, as the building is indeed ark-like, preserving the sacredness of past generations while shepherding its congregation into the future.
Read more about New England meetinghouses.