The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight

The 'Headers
Raise a Meetinghouse

The first meetinghouse in Marblehead was raised some fifty years after a handful of West Country fisherfolk had settled in what is now the area known as Barnegat. It was a simple box-like structure resting on the summit of a ledge-studded ridge (the Old Burial Hill), and commanded a sweeping view of the fish-laden waters of the bay; it was also within easy reach of its parishioners, most of whom lived close by.

In those days, the colonists living in remote villages and hamlets, in regions overrun with hostile Indians, made it their practice to build their houses of worship atop the highest hill in the community where they would serve as a church, a landmark for wayfarers, and as a watchtower whenever they were harassed by sneak attacks or threatened by warlike tribes.
But here -- and elsewhere along the seacoast -- these meetinghouses served as beacons when set on a bold headland or the crown of a conspicuous elevation. Easily spotted from the sea, they were a boon to every mariner who plied the waters of New England's grim and contorted shores. Their presence, (usually distinguished by a turret or belfry) enabled a vessel's captain to determine his position, to lay a course from one seaport to another, and to steer clear of dangerous shoals, sandbars, uncharted reefs and treacherous tidal flats.

But whether these meetinghouses were used as a house of God, a watchtower, a beacon, or a combination of these all-important functions, the raising of a meetinghouse was always a community project. To build such a structure required a pooling of skills and resources, of labor and equipment. Though the majority of the workers employed in building the first meetinghouse in this town were no doubt true believers, the chances are that some were backsliders -- an earthy, graceless breed of Sabbath-breakers. Yet, come rain or shine, fair weather or foul, they all worked as one; none shirked, malingered or napped on the job.
Their pay? A beaker of rum and three shillings a day!

Regrettably, this happy state of affairs was brought to an abrupt halt when an unforeseen and unanticipated altercation erupted. Curiously enough, the weeks of wrangling and squabbling that ensued were due neither to strained relations, a dispute over pay or the demands sparked by one or two troublemakers.

It was the church's faithful who sowed the seeds of discord and strife!

The truth is, the church had become a house divided -- a congregation rent asunder, fired by ego, self-esteem, pique, vanity and status-seeking. Among its members were several who had laid plans to obtain for themselves and their families the choicest pews in the meetinghouse. In this unChristian-like, no-win contest, dog-eat-dog fracas, the well-born were pitted against the well-heeled, the dockworker versus the storekeeper, the employee taking on his employer, the humble fisherman versus the codfish aristocracy!

Ironically, it was the voters who for better or worse eventually resolved this soul-searching dilemma. To restore peace and harmony within the church, the Board of Selectmen issued a call for a town meeting. They then asked that body to figure out a way to settle the issues which had split the congregation in two.

And to its credit, that body did just that: it promptly appointed a committee (composed, no doubt, of absentee voters) and instructed its members to assign pews to whomever they saw fit! That meeting also voted to hire a constable to "look after all persons, men and women ... that they keep [their] seats upon penalties of two shillings, five pence, for every single offense upon every Sabbath day" ... said fines to be shared -- one third to be paid the constable and any balance to be used to aid the town's poor!

How the communicants of the meetinghouse reacted to this arbitrary allotment of pews remains to this day a deep, dark secret.

On the other hand, however, the workers had no reason to complain because the voters at that meeting had generously awarded them double the amount of rum issued to workers in other towns!

Next... || Previous

Table Of Contents