This past weekend my husband and I were given a wonderful tour of the First Parish Church/Meetinghouse in Plymouth, MA, by Peter Santaw. Although I grew up in Plymouth, I had never visited this place and it was only with the research for my historical novel, The Last Pilgrim, the Story of Mary Allerton Cushman, did this oversight occur to me!
During the Pilgrims’ first winter in Plymouth 400 years ago, the colonists worshiped in a small wooden structure at the bottom of First Street, now called Leyden Street, near the harbor. Two years later, the fort constructed on Burial Hill in 1622 – the site of which is just above and behind the current church –served as a place of worship until the Pilgrims built their first church (a simple square structure) on the north side of Town Square in 1648.
The beams of the fort were not wasted, however, and were incorporated into the Old Fort House/Harlow House about a half-mile away.
As the congregation grew and the 1648 Meetinghouse fell into disrepair, it was replaced in 1683 by the second Meetinghouse. That building was set on common land at the highest point in what was, and still is, Plymouth’s Town Square, placed so it faced Leyden St. and Plymouth Harbor.
Fort 1622, First Meetinghouse 1648, Second Meetinghouse 1683
Plan for Second Meeting House
Until 1744 the church and the town were one entity, with the Meetinghouse serving both the religious and civic needs of the town. In 1744, however, the town gave the church the land upon which the second Meetinghouse sat and build a courthouse for civic proceedings, creating a division between church and state.
The townspeople build a third church in 1744, to replace the 1683 structure. That church remained in use for nearly one hundred years, until 1831, when the fourth Meetinghouse, a large gothic wooden church, was constructed.
The fourth Meetinghouse burned to the ground in 1892, and the congregation made plans for a new meetinghouse, one that became a reality thanks to donors throughout America. The cornerstone was laid in 1896 and the fifth Pilgrim Meetinghouse was completed in 1897 and dedicated on Forefathers’ Day, December 21, 1899. This is the structure we toured.
Third Meetinghouse 1744, Fourth Meetinghouse, 1831, Fifth (and current) Meetinghouse 1897
Fifth Meetinghouse, 1908
Fifth Meetinghouse, 2021
The building is now designated as a Meetinghouse rather than a church, as the result of its donation to the town of Plymouth, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior in 2014. Today, 124 years after its completion, it remains the centerpiece of Plymouth’s historic Town Square.
As Peter Santaw, our docent, explained, the fifth Pilgrim Meetinghouse was designed during a period when the Arts & Crafts Movement was flourishing in Boston. Designed in the Romanesque Revival style, the Meetinghouse’s 88’ high Norman-inspired tower and flanking faux buttresses symbolically reflect the type of church with which the Pilgrims would have been familiar in England.
The exterior reflects the Romanesque Revival style, with an 88-foot-high Norman-inspired tower and flanking faux buttresses reflecting the type of church with which the Pilgrims would have been familiar in England. The church has ten carillon bells and the tower also houses a Paul Revere bell, cast in 1801 and recast after being damaged during the 1892 fire that destroyed the fourth Meetinghouse.
In keeping with the Arts and Crafts style, unique stained glass Tiffany windows celebrate the Pilgrim epic and Pilgrim values, which have become the core values of America.
Meeting of Pilgrims with Massoit Trial of Oldham and Lyford, Bradford presiding
The sanctuary’s center chancel window is called the Signing of the Compact and depicts the signing of the Mayflower compact, the original American instrument of democratic government. The town-meeting concept was established by the Pilgrim Fathers, as was the annual election of officers. It is flanked stained glass windows depicting Civil Liberty and Religious Liberty.
In addition, the sanctuary features carved quarter-sawn oak and is one of the finest examples of hammer-beam construction in the United States. The hand carving of the beams and the pulpit is extraordinary!