Rocky Hill Meeting House (1785)

The center of the community, preserved

Amesbury, Massachusetts

Rocky Hill Meeting House is one of the best preserved examples of an original eighteenth-century meeting house interior. The fact that it has served no active congregation since the mid-nineteenth century led to its remarkable state of preservation. Eighteenth-century hardware remains intact throughout the building. The marbleized pulpit and pillars supporting the upper galleries still boast their original paint.

Rocky Hill Meeting House was built in 1785, replacing a c. 1715 meeting house for the West Parish of Salisbury. It was strategically placed along the only road that crossed the swift Powow River (via ferry) and led travelers to the Salisbury Point area, and then onward toward Portsmouth. In fact, George Washington paused here to greet the townspeople on his northward journey in 1789.

Plan Your Visit

Location

4 Old Portsmouth Road
Amesbury, Mass. 01913

Days & Hours

First and third Thursdays
July 6 – October 19
10:00 a.m. – noon

Concerts offered in June and December. Church services in June and November.

Please call for details.

Admission

$6 adults

$5 seniors

$3 students

Free to Historic New England members and Amesbury residents.

Directions

Rocky Hill Meeting House is just off Elm Street next to the Sparhawk School.

Parking

Please park along the driveway but do not block traffic.

Contact Information

Pulpit

Rocky Hill Meeting House was completed in time for a December 1785 town meeting. Box pews were sold to members of the congregation.

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  • Pulpit

    Rocky Hill Meeting House was completed in time for a December 1785 town meeting. Box pews were sold to members of the congregation.

  • Parsonage

    In 1964-65, Historic New England acquired the parsonage and moved it next to the meeting house to save it from demolition.

  • A Symbol of Faith

    Rocky Hill Meeting House remains a powerful reminder of a time when community life centered on a plain, wooden building.

  • Meeting House Exterior

    Situated on a rocky ledge, Rocky Hill Meeting House is a quintessential example of early American public architecture.

2-salisburyfirstsettlersmarker_364_x_253Town Meeting House

Rocky Hill Meeting House was built in 1785 for the West Parish of Salisbury, annexed to Amesbury in 1886. Its location was determined by the needs of the parish community, and by its proximity to the Portsmouth Road, a direct route from the ferry landing on the Merrimack River to points north. It was built to replace the 1716 meeting house of the same name, located to the north of the present building. After nearly seventy years of use, the original Rocky Hill Meeting House was in need of repairs, and the parish decided to build a new structure. After significant squabbling, the town decided to build the present meeting house in a compromise location closer to the Point Shore neighborhood that had recently become quite prominent.

Reverend Samuel Webster was the minister of the West Parish until 1796, and after his long tenure (he had served the parish since 1741 and it was his first and only position), the meeting house went through a series of ministers with mixed success. Reverend Beattie (1797-1801) died after three years in the pulpit, and his successor, Reverend Balch (1802-1816), was a polarizing and controversial figure.

Exterior view of the Rocky Hill Meeting House and Parsonage, Amesbury, Mass. Two men are gatehred near the front doorway.

Exterior view of the Rocky Hill Meeting House and Parsonage, Amesbury, Mass. Two men are gatehred near the front doorway.

Transitions

Reverend Balch was dismissed from the Rocky Hill pulpit in 1816 after a council was called by church members to address grievances against him. From his departure until 1835, the parish was without a settled minister. It was a time of great uncertainty for the parish. Mandatory parish taxes were abolished in 1833 and many of the members of the church chose to attend services at churches of other denominations or at other locations. The Point Shore area, which had always provided a significant portion of the congregation, built two new churches, one in 1827, and one in 1835. The remaining congregation could not agree on a new minister. In 1834 Reverend Gunnison was hired at Rocky Hill, preached for several months, and then left, taking a significant part of the congregation with him. It was the end of Rocky Hill as the center of worship in the West Parish.

Unidentified artist; Benjamin Sawyer (1782-1871) was the minister at Rocky Hill Meeting House from 1835 to 1871.

Unidentified artist; Benjamin Sawyer (1782-1871) was the minister at Rocky Hill Meeting House from 1835 to 1871.

Benjamin Sawyer

Reverend Sawyer was invited to preach at Rocky Hill on December 17, 1835, and made a determined attempt to revitalize the flagging membership. He met with limited success, but was a hard-working and beloved member of the community, representing Salisbury in the legislature for several years, and sitting on the school committee. In the course of his long tenure at Rocky Hill, Reverend Sawyer presided over 1,400 weddings and 1,100 funerals. Throughout Newburyport and Salisbury, he was known as “Father Sawyer.” He was a cautious and conservative leader whose silence on the issue of slavery in an ardently abolitionist town drove many into more progressive congregations. Reverend Sawyer preached his last sermon in 1870 at age eighty-eight, and congregants noted that he did not require glasses. He died several months later.

These photos were taken for the PMF Survey

These photos were taken for the PMF Survey

Rocky Hill Passed By

After the death of Reverend Sawyer, regular services were discontinued at Rocky Hill. After the annexation of the West Parish to Amesbury in 1886, the meeting house was administered by the West Parish Society, a private group who opened the meeting house seasonally for services.

246700_81228_364_x_253Becoming a Museum

In January 1942, the West Parish Society gave Rocky Hill Meeting House to Historic New England, along with its silver communion service. This gift was the last act of the West Parish Society, and all of its funds and records were transferred as well. A Committee of Stewards was set up to oversee the management of the site and raise funds for its care. In 1965 the Rocky Hill parsonage was moved to make room for Route 495. The Meeting House was opened for tours in 1970, and continues to be open for town events and several services each year.

Property FAQs

Find out about parking, accessibility, photography policy, and more.

Learn More
  • Are there restrooms at Rocky Hill Meeting House?

    No. There are public restrooms available in the shopping center across the street.

  • Is the museum accessible to people with disabilities?

    A tour of any Historic New England property requires a considerable amount of standing and some walking. Rocky Hill Meeting House has not been equipped with handicapped accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. Folding chairs can be provided for visitors who would like to use them during a tour. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first floor tour of the house and grounds. Service animals are welcome. We encourage visitors with concerns to call ahead. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one.

  • Can I take photographs at the museum?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • When can I visit the Rocky Hill Meeting House grounds?

    The museum grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • Who built this architectural marvel?

    The design and construction is credited to Palmer & Spofford of Newburyport, but research is inconclusive as to whether the “Palmer” was the celebrated long-span bridge builder Timothy Palmer. The building is notable for its 61’ x 49’ dimensions, with no supports in the expansive interior except for the columns that hold up the balcony. The 1785 construction used material savaged from the 1716 meeting house, such as the sill on the east side.

  • Why do the bench seats fold up?

    The bench seats folded up so that people within the confines of the pews could all stand for prayer more comfortably. Because of this, the meeting house was known to accommodate as many as 700 people.

  • What were the folding shelves in the pews used for?

    In the early days, church attendance was an all-day affair, and it is believed that many pew owners fashioned the folding shelves as a convenience for eating lunch.

  • Was George Washington ever at Rocky Hill Meeting House?

    George Washington passed through Amesbury on his way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1789. Crowds gathered around the meeting house and parsonage to honor Washington at that time. Despite the graffiti “signature” in the stairway, it is unknown if Washington was ever inside the meeting house.

  • How did Historic New England acquire the building?

    The West Parish Society, a group of descendants of the original pew owners, was formed in the late nineteenth century to care for the meeting house. In 1941 the group transferred the deed to Historic New England for preservation with the stipulation that at least two services be held at the meeting house each year.

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