The settlers wanted a central location for religious and political purposes. So they placed the meetinghouse in the center square of the nine squared grid. The next segment of the unit will focus on the importance of the meetinghouse, an essential part of a colonist’s everyday life. Peter Benes provides a more concrete definition of the early meetinghouse.
“To its builders, therefore, the meeting house was an architectural expression of the
Reformed point of view that the “house of God” was not a sacred place. At the
same time, it represented an expedient, if temporary, joining of a number of secular
buildings: powder house, court house, school house, meeting hall, town house,
parsonage, and fort.”
I feel that it is imperative for the students to know that social order was pertinent and maintained in colonial New Haven. It affected every aspect of their lives; moreover, their wealth and lack thereof was evident in everything they did, even attending church. The students will be able to access actual church records showing the seating arrangements the colonists were proud to enforce. The higher your political status the closer you were to the pulpit. There was also gender bias; women were required to sit behind the men. The colonists were required to pay for their seats; the closer one sat to the front of the church the more money one had to pay. The fee on a pew could cost as much as $ 218.00. The seating of the meetinghouse was a matter of court record and the many uses of the meetinghouse made great profit. Even the great Yale College Professors had to pay for a seat, they were charged “two shillings and a six pence per year” until the year of 1752, when it was increased to five shillings (the equivalent to the wages of a day’s work today).
Yale College, as it was known in the early years, had to seek special permission from the First Ecclesiastical Society in order to hold Commencement Exercises in the meetinghouse.
This consent had to be voted on by the House committee. In later years, this same House committee granted Yale College authorization to build a separate pew for the exclusive use of its Presidents. Although, Yale had the approval to build their special pew; they, of course, had to pay a fee. Yale’s designated seat was northeast of the pulpit.
The great details in town records combined with meticulously kept church ledgers document how the meetinghouse was a vital part of colonial life. Outside of their businesses and homes, the caretaking and handling of this structure was crucial to their religious, political and communal culture. The community gathered at least four times a week: twice on Sundays with a morning and afternoon service, then again on Tuesday and Thursday. The students will be able to see evidence of these accounts and use them to compare and contrast their own worship experience if they have any. Also, looking at the actual seating list that was mandated in a court of law will provided an excellent opportunity for classroom discussions on the colonial structure of politics and religion.
Students will then take a field trip to the Center Church on the Green, a later structure but one that preserves some of the similar religious and communal functions, and they will be able to visualize the seating plan. Prior to their visit, the students will be put into groups and with the help of the tour guides; they will research specific families which are located on the Wadsworth Map. The students will be able to determine the social class of each given family and their status within the church. I believe students will have great interest in witnessing the oldest church in New Haven which was formerly used as a meetinghouse. The students will be able to take ownership of the history that is in New Haven. This lesson will culminate with the students drawing their own designs to build their meetinghouse. They will be required to use floor plans that are consistent with the architectural designs of the mid-18
century. Resources for this activity will be provided at the end of unit.