Jack Hauck's talk on June 24, 2012

The history of the Wenham church is plentiful in many areas; however, my comments this morning mainly concern the history of the meeting house. 

Many people refer to the meeting house as the church. 

Even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s primary definition of “church” is “a building for public and especially Christian worship.” 

However, the colonists never called their meeting house a church. 

Cotton Mather said, “I find no ground in Scripture to apply the name church to a house for public assembly.” 

For the colonists, the church was an assembly of believers in Jesus Christ. 

In the Wenham church records, the word “church” appears numerous times; however, the word “church” applies to the assembly of believers, and not to the building, which is called the “meeting house.” 

Some early congregationalists used the term “mouth house.” Martin Luther originated the term. I’m glad this term did not last. 

You are the church. 

We are in the meeting house. 

So, where was the first meeting house? 

In 1638, Hugh Peter, an Anglican clergyman, gave the first recorded sermon in the area. His pulpit was a low conical hill, on the north side of The Great Pond. This was the first church assembly place in what we now call Wenham, but initially was called Enon. 

About 3 years after Rev. Peter’s sermon, a small meeting house was built. 

Some say the meeting house stood,on a slight rise, behind what are now 104 and 106 Main St. The path leading to it from the highway was called “Meeting House Way.” 

The early settlers met at the meeting house both to worship God and to discuss town government. It also was the “watch house,” where a constable and volunteers kept a night watch on the town. 

Wherever the first meeting house may have been, it was a small, square, wooden, “temporary” structure, with a thatch roof, and no windows, no heat, no pews, and no pulpit. 

There were about twenty church members, so the meeting house must have been quite crowded on the Sabbath. 

Rev. John Fiske, a former assistant to Rev. Peter, became the first pastor. Since Rev Fiske, there have been 38 settled pastors. 

The first Sabbath service, at the first meeting house, likely was held on the first Sunday, in the first month of 1642. According to the current Gregorian calendar, this was Mar. 2, 1643. 

In 1656, Rev. Fiske left Wenham to become pastor of a new church in the frontier town of Chelmsford. 

Prior to Rev. Fiske’s departure, the church began discussions for building a larger meeting house. 

In 1663, the town made a land trade with Selectman Austin Killam. He traded a strip of land, near the highway, to the town, on which the 2nd meeting house was built. 

Killam had one condition: the town was to forever provide a passage from his property to the highway. The road behind the current Civil War Monument Park is Killam’s right of way. 

The 2nd meeting house was built about where the Civil War Monument now stands. It was 24 ft square and had two doors on the front, because men and women had to enter by separate doors and sit separately. 

25 years later, in 1688, a 3rd and larger meeting house was erected. Also, parallel to the highway, it was just behind the 2nd meeting house. 

In 1694, the Wenham selectmen, in fear of Indian attacks, voted to have Dea. William Fairfield make a closet, in the 3rd meeting house, to store ammunition. Some say that the closet was in the pulpit. 

The 3rd meeting house lasted 60 years. In 1748, the town “Voted to Build a meeting house for Divine Worship–“.Quite clearly, there was no concept of separation of state and church. 

The 4th meeting house was built on the same spot as the 3rd. It had a gallery on 3 sides, with the back gallery designated as the “Singers Gallery”. Atop the front, there was a base tower; a belfry; a steeple; and a weathervane, instead of a cross. 

On the main floor, there were pews along both side walls. There also were pews on each side of a wide main aisle, called the “Great Alley.” Not exactly in accordance with Matthew 7, 14 “the way is narrow that leads to life.” 

In 1843, just over 200 years after the 1st meeting house was built, a 5th meeting house, the current building, was erected, but not on the Killam lot. 

Originally, the building was 60’ long and 44’ wide. It only had a gallery above the front entrance. In the gallery, there were seats for Negro slaves and other workers. 

Just 10 years after building the 5th meeting house, 1853, the townspeople decided it was necessary to enlarge it. 

Why not, the town’s population for the first time was more than 1,000. 

To expand the meeting house, it was cut it in two, moving the pulpit end back 15 feet and inserting a bay of 20 pews between the two halves. 

The following year, 1854, the town decided it needed a town hall, separate from the meeting house. 

You may ask, why? Wasn’t the meeting house big enough? 

Size was not the problem. 

Back in 1833, the General Court of Massachusetts mandated that town meetings were no longer to be held in a church meeting house. Never ones to rush to decisions, Wenham, 21 years later voted to build a combination town hall and school building on the town common. 

Hang with me, I’m now going to jump ahead over a hundred years to 1962, when the undercroft of the 5th meeting house was excavated. 

Back when construction of the 5th meeting house was being considered, a specific instruction was to "take care that stones are got to underpin the house.” 

Well, they did a very good job of establishing a firm foundation. 

When digging out the undercroft, removing those underpins was a big problem. The granite blocks were huge. 

In 1843, the meeting house builders devoutly followed Luke’s advice, Luke 6, 48, and built a house, digging deep and laid a foundation on rock that could not be shaken. 

Thank you for having invited me to your meeting house. 

Thank you Rev. Evans for your introduction. 

You may be interested to know that a very noteworthy change began back in the late 1800s, during the pastorate of Arthur N. Ward, … namely, a significant increase in women being involved in both church activities. 

In 1896, it was voted to allow women to be full church members. Up to that time women could not vote on church matters, and, yet, at the time, there were 76 church members, of which 53 were women. 

At the Jan. 17, 1967 annual church meeting, they amended the constitution to allow women to serve on the diaconate. Three women became deaconesses. Some years later, all diaconate members became known as deacons. 

27 years later, on Nov. 20, 1994, your church ordained its 1st woman pastor, Rev. Ann G. Abernethy. 

Rev. Abernethy was not the first woman to preach at the Wenham Church. On Apr. 26, 1908, church records state that “Dr. Eaton, having been suddenly called to the sick bed of this father, the morning service was ably conducted by his wife, who read the sermon. It was Mark 9:50, a call for peace with one another. 

Over the many years, there have been many changes in the church:

  • Women can speak at church services, vote, serve as deacons, and even be pastors.
  • There have been 5 different meeting houses and the meeting house no longer is town property;
  • The town does not have a say in the selection of a pastor;
  • Families now sit together;
  • Pews are not owned by church members;
  • Tithing men, with prods, do not roam among the congregation;
  • Music accompanies the choir and hymns;
  • People wanting to be members do not have to personally describe their conversion experience to Christianity; and
  • Christmas and Easter services are not banned;

So many restrictions of the past are gone. 

One might be brought to think of the hymn by Sarah Flowers Adams, written in 1841, which ends with, 

“Age after age, to be nearer my GOD to THEE.” 

Selah, selah.