277: Meetinghouse Hill, 1630-1783 by Ola E. Winslow

by Gerard

277.4: Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Meetinghouse Hill, 1630-1783. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972. 316 pp. ISBN 0-393-00632-8.

Dewey Construction:

  • 200: Religion
  • 270: Christian Church history
  • 277: Christianity and the Christian Church in North America
  • 277.4: Christianity and the Christian Church in the Northeastern United States

Ola Elizabeth Winslow’s Meetinghouse Hill, 1630-1783 covers the history of New England town churches through Pre-Revolutionary America. What at first seems like a history of a single church in a single town is actually a tapestry portrait of the religion and civics of a whole region. She starts with a group of Massachusetts Pilgrims who go through the arduous process of electing town elders, church pillars, a teacher, and a pastor. Each choice is prayed, reasoned, discussed, and voted on. Church creation was a very serious matter in the mid-17th century and each decision was scrutinized to within an inch of its life.

One interesting thing to note here is that while the Puritans were fleeing from England to because of religious intolerance, they themselves were the same way. Those whose lives were judged to be insufficiently godly were deemed second-class citizens by the town and the church. Every aspect of your life was on display for the town to assess when the early churches formed. Only the truly worthy were allowed to be pillars of the community.

These early church buildings also functioned as de facto town halls as well, with civil meetings being convened on non-Sabbath days. They would meet to consider town laws and decrees, to render judgment on unruly citizens, and to discuss the town’s place in both the colony and the British Empire. And when injustice after injustice was meted out by the Crown upon the increasingly-extorted American colonists, they met to discuss how and when independence would be declared.

This book is a reprint of Winslow original 1952 edition, and as such, is slightly different from modern historical works. Whereas today’s scholars are charged with ensuring that the reading audience is both entertained and educated (as well as pointing out where the documentary record is scant), Winslow focuses more on the story, allowing the primary source material shape the narrative. Also, I’ve noticed that a lot of modern history writers like to tell the reader how they found the materials and interject themselves and their own narratives into the text; here, Winslow is well removed from the book. Still, though, she manages to tell a very good tale.