March 12, 2012
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v2.1 Reference

Meetinghouses of Early New England

Built primarily for public religious exercises, New England's wood-frame meetinghouses nevertheless were closely wedded to the social and cultural fabric of the neighborhood and fulfilled multiple secular purposes for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the only municipal building in the community, these structures provided locations for town and parish meetings. They also hosted criminal trials, public punishments and executions, and political and religious protests, and on occasion they served as defensive forts, barracks, hospitals, and places to store gunpowder.

Today few of these once ubiquitous buildings survive. Based on site visits and meticulous documentary research, Meetinghouses of Early New England identifies more than 2,200 houses of worship in the region during the period from 1622 to 1830, bringing many of them to light for the first time.

Within this framework Peter Benes addresses the stunning but ultimately impermanent blossoming of a New England "vernacular" tradition of ecclesiastical/ municipal architecture. He pinpoints the specific European antecedents of the seventeenth-century New England meetinghouse and traces their evolution through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries into Congregational, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches heavily influenced by an Anglican precedent that made a place of worship a "house of God." Undertaking a parish-by-parish examination, Benes draws on primary sources—original records, diaries, and contemporary commentators—to determine which religious societies in the region advocated (or resisted) this evolution, tying key shifts in meetinghouse architecture to the region's shifting liturgical and devotional practices.

About the Author

Peter Benes is director of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife in affiliation with Historic Deerfield, Inc., in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His previous books include The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689–1805 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1977).


"Peter Benes's Meetinghouses of Early New England is a major publication, an orderly assembly of data from years of research among many hundreds of town records, town histories, and nearly every other source that anyone has heard of. It covers the field as no other book has attempted and was clearly meant to be the standard reference book on this subject for generations. It includes hundreds of photographs, old and new, nearly one hundred pages of appendices and tables of summary data, more that fifty pages of notes, twenty-five of "Works Cited," and an index of fifteen."—Historical New Hampshire

"The product of four decades of thorough and meticulous research, this clearly written work is the most important book on early New England architecture since the publication of Abbott Lowell Cummings's The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay in 1979. It not only builds on Peter Benes's own earlier publications on New England meetinghouses, but it supplants them and to a degree every other book on the subject."—Kevin M. Sweeney, Amherst College

"Complimentary to Peter Benes's Meetinghouses of Early New England is Paul Wainwright's book of photographs, A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England, with an essay from Peter Benes."—www.aspaceforfaith.com

"A handsome and magisterial volume that will be the definitive study of meetinghouses of Puritan New England for this generation. . . . this is an indispensable guide to the relationship between religion and material culture in early America. Essential."—Choice

"This is an important book—for its subject, for its scholarship, and for its comprehensiveness."—Vermont History

"Benes's extensive research has yielded rich details about the regional icon of the meetinghouse, and he has used these details to tease out particular chronologies and patterns of diffusion for the structures that appear in his documentary sources."—The New England Quarterly

"They say there's always room at the top, and Peter Benes's monumental new study, Meetinghouses of Early New England, seems to fit nicely atop all previous scholarship as the new defining work in this fascinating field."—The Congregationalist

"Benes's commitment to the comprehensive assessment of material changes over time offers compelling evidence for his understanding of those changes and lays a firm foundation for future work in the field. It should be on the shelf of all early Americanists."—Buildings & Landscapes

"This book is much more than a catalog of buildings. These utilitarian buildings were caught up in multiple networks of religious and social meaning and change, and Benes deftly puts the buildings, spaces, and the material objects used in them in conversation with Protestant religious and liturgical practices and social and political life."—The Historian

"This book barely mentions Edwards, but demands to be perused by Edwards scholars nonetheless. . . . [Readers] will appreciate this volume on the material surroundings and supports of Puritan liturgy—and on the things they tell about their worshipers' priorities."—Sweeney's Booknotes, Jonathan Edwards Center

"Although a good portion of the material in this book is naturally not new, it is striking how much there was in fact left to say about these buildings. . . . Benes's book will stand as necessary and foundational among studies of early New England religious architecture."—Winterthur Portfolio

9781558499102 : meetinghouses-of-early-new-england-benes
512 Pages
$49.95 USD

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