Please note that there is a small cemetery at the right side of the church, with Folsom and Gilman headstones, and a few others. Our church historian, Carl Peterson, may be able to answer any genealogical questions you may have. Please send a note to the church office at Office@exetercongchurch.org and write “for historian” in subject line.
(Detailed history, with references, can be found at The Exeter Historical Society, located just up the street from our building.)
The story of The Congregational Church in Exeter, UCC is tightly woven into the early religious history of the American colonies. In 1636, six years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Wheelwright and his sister-in-law Anne Hutchinson arrived in Boston and were quickly embroiled in a fierce doctrinal battle. Puritan orthodoxy held that men and women were saved by faith in Christ, who gave them the ability to perform the good works that proved their Christianity. Wheelwright and Hutchinson, however, contended that Christians were saved by faith alone, and that good works were superfluous. Convinced that Wheelwright and Hutchinson were dangerous rebels, the Puritan authorities convicted the two of sedition and banished them from Massachusetts.
Instead of going to Rhode Island with Hutchinson, Wheelwright sailed north to Portsmouth harbor and spent the winter of 1637-38 in a cabin in what is now Newfields. The next spring he bought land from the Indians and after being joined by family and friends, founded the town of Exeter at the falls of the Squamscott River. A year later the male elders in the group signed an agreement modeled on the Mayflower compact at Plymouth, which established an integrated government for church and town in the new community. Wheelwright served as minister of the church until 1643, when he left for Wells, Maine.
During the next two hundred years the Exeter Congregational Church continued to be involved in the government of the town and in religious movements such as the Great Awakening. Today the church is no longer a part of town government, but it remains dedicated to the religious, cultural, and economic well-being of the community and society in general.
A lecture by Donald B. Cole
Tuesday, 27 September 2005
The building we are sitting in tonight is the fifth and surely the most handsome and durable of the meetinghouses built by our church. When Jonathan Wheelwright first arrived in 1638, he and his parishioners settled on the ridge above the present Swasey Parkway. For the first fourteen years they met for worship in a tiny wooden shack. There is a stone marking the location on Salem Street next to the railroad tracks. They finally started building a real meetinghouse in 1650, and for the next two years almost everyone worked on the building. When it was competed, it was a small, one-story structure of rough boards, twenty feet by twenty. Later, as population grew several galleries were added, one of them specifically for women. Apparently it was hard to take care of the meetinghouse, for in 1676 a group of members complained that the door was being left open and cows were walking into the church. (The door was probably broken.)
By the end of the century Exeter had grown, and the population was beginning to cluster around the grist mill and saw mill located at the falls of the Exeter River. In 1697 the third meetinghouse was erected on the hill up from the mills—close to where we are meeting tonight. The front of the building was on the east side (instead of the south as today), and the pulpit was on the north instead of on the west like ours). Everything was on one floor, but again there was a small women’s balcony. Now there was a bell.
This was followed by still another—our fourth building–in 1731—on the same spot—a substantial structure measuring sixty feet long and forty-five feet wide. (Are you keeping track of these numbers? I’ll tell you the size of our present building in a few minutes.) Now for the first time there was a steeple, which was paid for separately by a small group of parishioners. Unfortunately, in 1775, at the start of the Revolution, the steeple fell in a wind storm and was later replaced. Tootie asked me where the church met while the new one was being built. The answer: They didn’t tear the old one down until the new one was built.
By 1796 this fourth church was sixty-five years old. It had lasted much longer than any of the others, but now it was falling into disrepair. We think that we have financial problems facing our church today. We have been having a hard time balancing our annual budget, and our new tower has not been fully paid for. That is nothing compared to the crisis facing the church in 1796. The meetinghouse had become so old and rickety that the members of the parish had to appoint a committee of five to keep children from playing around the building. They were afraid that some part of the structure would give way and hurt some one.
After a year and a half of discussions, the parishioners agreed to a plan—not to repair the building—but to build a new one—the one we sit in today–at a cost of about one million dollars today. The money was available because the town was booming, with a shipyard, many shops and mills, Phillips Exeter Academy, and several academies for women. John Taylor Gilman of Exeter was now governor.
Fortunately there were two architects in town who knew a great deal about building. Actually they weren’t called architects. Ebenezer Clifford was a cabinet maker-carpenter, and Bradbury Johnson a joiner-carpenter. Together they built not only the Congregational Church but also a new main building for Phillips Exeter Academy. Much of the actual construction of the meetinghouse was done by James Folsom, also of Exeter.
The new church was completed in a little less than three years–1799. Now the front was on the south side, but for forty years the pulpit remained on the north. The building was massive—for those days, and still is today. It was (and still is, of course) about eighty feet across the front and sixty feet in depth. Inside there was still only one floor, the pulpit was elevated, as was customary, and balconies ran around three sides.
The height of the pulpit and the sale of pews reminds us how undemocratic the early church was. The minister literally looked down on and preached down to his flock, and the wealthiest parishioners sat nearest to the pulpit. There were a few black people in Exeter, and they and the poorer folk sat in the balconies. I found no reference to a women’s balcony. To quiet the complaints that the minister could not be heard, a sounding board was installed above the pulpit. It is now hanging from the ceiling in the entryway to the church.
But enough details. The meeting house was a stunning building, universally considered the “the most elegant in the state.” The noted Salem, Massachusetts, minister William Bentley commented that “the front of the galleries is the best finished work I ever saw, and with admirable effect. The pews are long, entirely unornamented, and not even painted.” The meetinghouse, he said, was “better than our own.” The master builder and carver Samuel McIntire, famed for his work in Salem and Boston, was so impressed with the church that he came to Exeter to study it before designing the South Church in Salem.
The new meetinghouse was part of the glorious flowering of Federal-style architecture in seacoast New Hampshire that took place between the Revolution and 1820. The style was named for the Federalist party, which had supported the Constitution and dominated American politics for much of that time. Governor John Taylor Gilman of New Hampshire was a Federalist, and Exeter was a Federalist town. One of the first services held in the meetinghouse was held early in 1800 to commemorate the death of George Washington, the greatest Federalist of them all. In the northern part of the United States the Federal style was influenced by architecture in England. Clifford, Johnson, and McIntire, and other Federal-style architects (yes, let’s call them that) got many of their ideas from English architectural notebooks.
The front of the building with its three-stage tower and its two-story pavilion, protruding ten feet from the main mass of the building is especially pleasing to the eye. Until the other day I had never thought much about this pavilion, even though I have walked through it hundreds of times. If the front is eighty feet in length (I’ve only paced it off), the pavilion is about forty feet wide, leaving twenty feet on each side. Without this protruding pavilion, the front would be rather dull. The beauty of the pavilion is enhanced by its decorative Doric-style pilasters.
On all sides of the building the many large windows give the building something of a light, airy appearance, especially the graceful Palladian window on the north side, which first let in light behind the pulpit. It now lets light into the meeting room on the second floor.
And of course, the tower reaching so high into the sky added a dramatic touch to the building. It stood out over everything else.
The interior of the church was greatly changed in 1838, when a second floor was built for church services, with an east-west axis as today. The choir loft was added in 1886. The ground floor was made into two vestries with a hall in between. The rear of the church was extended thirty feet in 1930 to provide more space for church school, kitchen, and ladies parlor. An elevator was installed in 1959. In 1974 the two vestries were combined into one, and the northwest corner angle of the building was filled in make room for a chapel and more office space.
Our meetinghouse is of course not the only Federal-style building in Exeter. The most interesting ones are the three old houses on Front street across from the church, built between 1809 and 1826: Sleeper House, Gardner House, and the Perry-Dudley House. Unfortunately the façades of all three of these houses were changed by the addition of later-style entryways. The front of our church has never been changed.
So here we are 367 years after the founding of the church and 206 years after the building of this meetinghouse, celebrating a new tower and facing new challenges.