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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Winter/Spring 2004 > Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, Location

ABOVE LEFT Exterior shot of the Rocky Hill Meeting House.
ABOVE RIGHT Parishioners personalized their pews by adding footstools, cushions, foot stoves, or arm rests. The pew seats are hinged, possibly to allow women more space for their full skirts while standing.

Situated on a rocky ledge, the Rocky Hill Meeting House is a quintessential example of early American public architecture. Built in 1785 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, it accommodated the two central elements of New England society: church services and town meetings. Today, this remarkably untouched meeting house is one of the few that survive with an intact interior. Recent research on the history of Rocky Hill Meeting House explains why the building remains so well preserved and reveals some of the complex issues that affected New England communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The history of the Rocky Hill Meeting House begins in the early 1700s, long before the present building was constructed. At this time Salisbury was a typical Massachusetts North Shore town. Its industries were agriculture, shipbuilding, fishing, and water-powered mills. A meeting house had been built in the town center in 1640, but parishioners who settled in newly cleared lands eventually requested that a second church be built closer to their homes. Such requests were generally contentious. Townspeople in colonial New England were responsible for maintaining their minister and meeting house through parish taxes, and voters were reluctant to split parishes into smaller units with larger assessments. Salisbury's voters agreed in 1710 to build a new meeting house and split the town into two parishes-east and west-but with the stipulation that both parishes would be supported through a single tax on the entire town.

ABOVE LEFT Many original features of the meeting house remain intact, including detailed finish work like this wood column, painted to resemble marble.
ABOVE RIGHT Exterior shot of the Rocky Hill Meeting House.

The first Rocky Hill Meeting House for the West Parish of Salisbury was completed in 1716; the accompanying parsonage was built in 1718 on a site somewhat north of the present building. In November 1718, twelve members signed the first Rocky Hill covenant and installed Reverend Joseph Parsons as the first minister. Although Parsons had a checkered past (in 1708, he had been dismissed from his previous pulpit in Connecticut for spreading false rumors and slandering fellow ministers and had been rejected by three other congregations before being approved by Salisbury), he had a successful ministry at Rocky Hill. In 1728, ten years after coming to Salisbury, Parsons oversaw a religious revival, sparked by a severe earthquake, which brought 108 members into the church. He served until his death in 1739.

In 1741, Reverend Samuel Webster was called to Rocky Hill. He would serve the congregation for fifty-five years, until his death in 1796 and see it through the birth of the new nation. During the Revolutionary era, Webster became an ardent patriot. He authored six resolutions in support of the Revolution, which were adopted at Salisbury's town meeting in December 1772, and read the Declaration of Independence to the townspeople on the steps of the first Rocky Hill Meeting House in July 1776. Webster's reputation extended beyond Salisbury, and he was chosen to preach a sermon before the Massachusetts legislature in 1777.

By the 1780s, the first Rocky Hill Meeting House was beyond repair, and the town voted in January 1785 to build a new meeting house "Westward of the parsonage house near Rocky Hill." Disputes immediately arose over the location of the new building. At this time, shipbuilding and mill businesses were flourishing along the Merrimac River in the southwest part of Salisbury-a district known as Point Shore-and church members in this area now outnumbered members in the older, northern settlement. A church site that reflected this demographic change was chosen. But northern members, perhaps believing that the new location signaled a loss of prestige for their district, refused to pay for a new meeting house. In August, the town compromised on a new site-a rocky ledge "Eastward of the parsonage house."

ABOVE A nineteenth-century photograph of the parsonage (left) and the meeting house. Like many New England churches, Rocky Hill remained unpainted for many years. It was probably first painted white in 1875, when the church accounts list a large paint expenditure. Note the stove chimney on the roof. The building was unheated until a stove was installed in about 1830.

The new Rocky Hill Meeting House was completed in time for a December 1785 town meeting. To help defray building costs, some timber from the old building was reused. Box pews were sold to members of the congregation, as was typical. According to the original pew plan, there were thirty-five pew holders, with additional pews assigned to the parsonage and the women of the almshouse.

But Salisbury was changing, and despite the magnificent new meeting house, the size of the congregation began to decrease soon after the building was completed. With freedom of religion newly guaranteed by the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution, the influence of the established Congregational Church was eroding. In 1793, the town voted to end the tax assessment that had supported the church, and the West Parish became responsible for its own minister and meeting house. When mandatory church taxes were abolished in 1833, Rocky Hill, like other Massachusetts churches, relied solely on donations for support.

The congregation attempted to adapt to these changes in a number of ways. Despite a liberalizing trend in Massachusetts Congregationalism, Salisbury's church members had continued to adhere to an orthodox religious doctrine. In the 1770s the town's citizens had even censured Reverend Webster, whose theology favored liberal ideas, for failing to preach "the depravity of human nature, the necessity of regeneration and free justification before God by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone." But by 1797, the church passed a more inclusive covenant designed to attract and retain members.

ABOVE LEFT This portrait, by an unidentified artist, hung in the parsonage for many years. It depicts the Rev. Benjamin Sawyer (1782-1871), Rocky Hill's minister from 1835 to 1871.
ABOVE CENTER Thirty-five numbered box pews were sold to parishioners. The remainder of the seating was unreserved.
ABOVE RIGHT The meeting house is filled with historic graffiti. The images of ships reflect its location in a community with many shipbuilders and mariners.

Nevertheless, the membership and financial health of the congregation continued to decline. The growth of other religious dominations in Salisbury had changed the balance of power in the West Parish, and in 1817, non-Congregationalist ministers were allowed to preach at Rocky Hill.

The isolated location of the meeting house caused further problems, as parishioners chose to attend newer churches closer to their homes. With new bridges over the Merrimac and Powow rivers, the Point Shore district grew considerably, and by 1835 it had two churches of its own. Other members left to join churches in nearby New Hampshire. In addition, the meeting house had been primarily patronized by Salisbury shipbuilders, and as the railroad became the preferred means of transportation, this important base of support dwindled. The last minister of the Rocky Hill Meeting House, Reverend Benjamin Sawyer, was hired in 1835. After his death in 1871, regular services ceased.

The building continued to be the site of town meetings. But this use, too, seemed destined for obsolescence. Residents protested having to attend meetings in a distant building. In 1886, residents of the nearby Mills Village-a thriving commercial neighborhood that included parts of Salisbury and the adjacent town of Amesbury-petitioned the state to be united with Amesbury. They hoped to obtain improvements, including a new building for town meetings, and to distance themselves from East Salisbury, which remained an agricultural community. As one representative argued, "the people of Rocky Hill would never feel at home with East Salisbury, whose dialect is so different that when down there they feel that they are in a foreign country."

ABOVE The pulpit was the focal point of the meeting house. Elevated and richly decorated, it symbolized ministerial authority. The minister towered over the congregation as he preached, his voice projected by a sounding board.

After the annexation, Rocky Hill, now part of Amesbury, was no longer used for town meetings. A group that included descendants of original pew holders formed the West Parish Society to maintain the meeting house, but in 1941-42, they transferred the building and its land to SPNEA. In 1964-65, SPNEA acquired the parsonage and moved it next to the meeting house to save it from demolition.

Today, the Rocky Hill Meeting House stands near two major highways, far from the town centers of Salisbury and Amesbury, an incongruous presence in a very modern setting. Over time, the building's isolated location contributed to the loss of its congregation. But its out-of-the-way site also helped preserve it almost completely intact for over 215 years. It remains a powerful reminder of a time when community life centered on a plain, wooden building-a symbol of the faith that was the foundation of New England.

-Eileen Wilde
Eileen Wilde is an MA candidate
in the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University.

Location, Location, Location