During the 17th century almost every Massachusetts settlement included a meetinghouse which was built by the Puritan settlers as a place for conducting religious and civil meetings. Today not a single one of these locally important buildings exists in its original form. Fortunately several of these structures, though significantly modified over the years, do survive. The 1681 “Old Ship” Meetinghouse in Hingham, Massachusetts, retains much of its original frame, while the West Barnstable Meetinghouse of 1717 and the Lynnfield Meetinghouse of 1714 also have enough of their early framework to allow the scholar and visitor to understand some of the components that went into making this architectural form so important.
In 1985 a film production company, NightOwl Productions, was preparing to film a docu-drama for public television and motion picture release. The film, Three Sovereigns for Sarah, told the story of Sarah Cloyce, who lived in Salem Village in 1692. Cloyce and her two sisters Rebecca Nurse and Mary Esty were accused of practicing witchcraft and of afflicting others in the village. Though Cloyce escaped execution, her two sisters were hanged for the purported crime following their trials before a special court of Oyer and Terminer.
As much of the 1692 witchcraft proceedings took place in the Salem Village Meetinghouse, and as there was no authentic structure available to film these crucial and dramatic scenes, screen writer and producer Victor Pisano asked this writer to research the original Salem Village Meetinghouse so the production company could build a reproduction of it for use in the film. The resulting replica structure was built and located on the historic Nurse Homestead property at 149 Pine Street in Danvers. Following the making of the movie, the building was donated to the Nurse Homestead, and is now used in conjunction with this site for the interpretation of 17th century meetinghouses and to tell the story of the 1692 Salem Village witchcraft breakout. Though much of the building’s fabrication is the result of educated guess work based on original records and study of the three surviving early meetinghouses, the general visual characteristics of this reproduction building would most likely have been very familiar to the inhabitants of 1692 Salem Village.
A review of the history of the original Salem Village Meetinghouse and its association with the 1692 witchcraft hysteria proves to be a fascinating story.
Salem Village was settled as an agricultural area in the late 1630s as a part of Salem Town. By the 1660s the population of the village was large enough that villagers wanted a minister and a meetinghouse of their own, rather than constantly traveling the many miles to the meetinghouse in Salem Town. Salem Town granted the villagers that right, and Joseph Hutchinson gave an acre of land near the corner of Forest and Hobart Streets in present-day Danvers for the location of the new meetinghouse.
In November 1672 the local clerk wrote in the village book of transactions, “…Voted that we will build a meeting of 34 foot in length, 28 foot broad and 16 foot between jointes.”
The meetinghouse frame was composed of massive oak timber of post and beam construction. The roofing frame was exposed to reveal two horizontal summer beams, each supported by a center king post, with elegant curved truss support beams, Besides providing labor to assist the carpenters, the villagers were assessed money or its equivalent in butter or wheat to help pay or materials. Plain or glassless windows were voted to be used. Salem Town donated their old pulpit and it was from this elevated position that the people would hear their ministers preach.
The villagers now had a meeting place of their own, and hired a lay minister, James Bayley, to preach for them. Bayley was replaced in 1681 by Rev. George Burroughs, a Harvard graduate. In 1683, following difficulties with his congregation over his ministerial salary, Burroughs left and was replaced by Rev. Deodat Lawson, who remained until 1688. In 1692 Burroughs would be accused of witchcraft, brought back to stand trial in Salem, and hanged in August 1692. Lawson would also return in 1692 and write a short booklet concerning his observations of the early witchcraft proceedings.
Improvements were slowly made in the meetinghouse, each one noted in the village book of transactions. Among them were:
The Puritan meetinghouse was devoid of any outwardly religious symbols. The high pulpit, visible to all, was the focal point within the building. Above it was located the sounding board canopy allowing the minister’s voice to better resonate. On a cushion on the pulpit desk rested the Holy Bible.
The congregation was seated, not according to family units, but with women seated on the east side and men on the west. The oldest inhabitants were seated near the front, together with the church deacons, followed by governmental and military officials, and then those who contributed greatest to the parish support. Seating of the meetinghouse was serious business. Often much controversy ensued as members paid for their pews, and the seat’s position in the meetinghouse told much of the inhabitant’s status within the village itself. Often slaves, servants, and children were seated in the two side balconies called “galleries,” and on more than one occasion mischievous children would take dried pumpkin seeds given them as a kind of candy, and shoot them out of their mouths towards the adults below. Pews were high sided, and owners often kept foot stools, arm rests, and chairs within. During the cold months, foot warmers, hand muffs, blankets, and well-behaved dogs were allowed into the pews as the meetinghouse was not heated.
Sunday meeting began about 9:00 a.m. with a drummer or trumpeter giving notice of the service, as church bells were rare. Musical instruments within the meetinghouse were non-existent, and it was the deacon who would begin the service from one of several tunes known to all, the deacon would sing the first verse a capella, it then being repeated by the congregation as a whole.
Several versions of the 23rd psalm had been put into various tunes including:
Following the singing of several familiar psalms, the minister would begin with an opening prayer and then give a lengthy and detailed sermon.
As time passed, the deacon would turn over an hourglass to keep everyone aware of the correct passage of time, while a tithing man would be watchful, keeping order in the congregation and chastising ill-mannered people or waking an occasional dozing villager. One Salem Village minister once cautioned his listeners that, “We are not therefore to allow ourselves in unnecessary gazing to and fro, or useless whisperings, much less nodding and nappings,” Most of the congregation, however, found inspiration and spiritual renewal in the service and enjoyed the break from farm chores and monotony. Sermons often lasted three hours, followed by a “nooning” hour, when the congregation could visit the nearby tavern for food and drink, returning to the meetinghouse for the afternoon meeting.
On Communion Sunday, only covenant members who had previously related a profound personal religious experience and had been accepted by vote of the others in full membership, would remain in the meetinghouse following the sermon to participate in the monthly Lord’s Supper. The communion vessels would be set out on a table, and after a prayer over the bread and wine, the covenant members would eat and drink in memory of Christ’s Last Supper and Passion.
Salem Village early on earned a reputation of disagreeableness amongst its congregation and with its ministers. Many arguments arose over the qualifications of various of the early ministers, their pay rate, and other church matters. In 1688 the village hired a new minister, the Reverend Mr. Samuel Parris. With Parris came his family including wife Elizabeth, nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, twelve-year-old niece Abigail Williams, two other small children, and two slaves, Tituba and John Indian. Unfortunately Parris soon fell into the same controversies as his predecessors. With a business background and perhaps believing his status superior to that of his congregation, Parris gave little ground to those who opposed him.
On November 19, 1689, the Church of Christ at Salem Village was formally and officially established as a separate covenant congregation from its Salem mother church. In his ordination sermon, Rev. Parris spoke to the hopes of his new congregation:
The fragile peace at Salem Village, and for that matter of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was torn asunder in early 1692 when the Devil attacked the village. During the mid-winter of 1691-92 the girls living in the Parris household, together with other young women of the neighborhood, began falling into profound and scary fits. Following prayer gatherings at the minister’s house, and the local doctor’s examination of the girls, it was discovered that they were being afflicted by local witches doing the unholy work of their master, the Devil. The girls first cried out upon the Parris slave Tituba and two disreputable local women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn, as causing their afflictions.
On March 1, 1692, the three accused women were examined at the village meetinghouse by two local Salem magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin. Amid the terrifying screams and torments of the afflicted girls, Tituba fearfully confessed that she and the other two accused were indeed witches, and that other witches were also active in the village. Thus began a vicious circle of accusations – suspected witches being arrested, horrifying scenes occurring at the meetinghouse during preliminary hearings to determine if the suspects should be held, the accused jailed to await trial, followed by more people being cried out upon, and the procedures beginning all over again.
Former Salem Village minister Deodat Lawson returned to the village to see the goings on and offer his assistance. His written observations give us a vivid account of these early days of the Salem Village witchcraft outbreak at a time when a new accusation was being made against a covenant member of the church, Martha Cory.
Seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse, though a covenant member of the Salem church, usually attended the village meetinghouse due to its proximity to her and her husband Francis’s 300-acre homestead. The Nurse family had moved from Salem Town to the village in 1678, when they began renting the homestead property in anticipation of purchasing it after a 20-year lease. The large Nurse family prospered and their seeming good fortune was resented by some of the older village families.
Infirm and bed-ridden, Rebecca was visited by friendly neighbors in late March and informed that some of the children were naming her as a witch. After several moments of amazed disbelief Nurse retorted, “Well, if it be so the will of the Lord be done. As to this thing I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of that he should lay such an affliction upon me I my old age?”
On March 24th Goodwife Nurse was brought to the Meetinghouse and questioned by magistrate John Hathorne. Rev. Parris, serving as a clerk to the magistrates, wrote down much of the testimony. Early on in Nurse’s examination Ann Putnam Sr., one of the afflicted women, blurted out – “Did you not bring the Black man with you, did you not bid me tempt God and dye? How oft have you eat and drunk y’r own damnation?”
The witchcraft accusations had now spread to church members, and soon people outside little Salem Village were also being accused. Hearings continued through April and May at the Salem Village Meetinghouse as well as in Salem. By June a special court was established by the governor to try the fast-growing backlog of witchcraft cases. During the ensuing months through October 1692 over 150 persons were thrown in jail. Scores confessed to being witches while 19, including Sarah Good, Martha Cory and Rebecca Nurse maintained their innocence, were tried, found guilty and hanged. By the new year, the colony was exhausted from the witchcraft frenzy, and learned persons were speaking against the validity of evidence formerly used in court, so that when the trials resumed in January 1693, the remaining evidence allowed in court was insufficient to condemn the accused. The worst witch outbreak in North American history was over, yet the Salem Villagers had to cope with the remnants of ill feeling and raw emotions which had scarred their village and church. After several controversial years, Rev. Samuel Parris left the village to be replaced by 22-year-old Rev. Joseph Green who brought gentleness, simplicity, and stability back to the village.
The 1672 meetinghouse had become too decrepit and was small for the growing congregation. Its sad association with the events of 1692 also had a hand in the congregation’s deciding to build a new meetinghouse on a new site at the corner of what is now Centre and Hobart Streets at the location of the present First Church of Danvers.
In July 1702 the new meetinghouse was first used, the original meetinghouse removed shortly thereafter becoming a part of history.
The 1692 Salem Village witchcraft hysteria was a terrible incident. Yet its lessons have meaning for us today. In present-day Danvers at 176 Hobart Street, just across the street from the location of the original Salem Village Meetinghouse, stand the proud granite memorial to the 25 victims of the 1692 witchcraft incident. Besides the names of those 19 who were hanged, there are the names of one man who was tortured to death and five others who died while in jail.
A cast aluminum marker located nearby puts the site and its history into context, declaring:
Online beginning April 2015