From Daniel T.V. Huntoon's 

History of The Town of Canton, Massachusetts (1893)




The first indication we have that the town of Stoughton was dissatisfied with its old meeting-house, either on account of its size or condition, was evinced at a meeting held on Nov. 1, 1739. It was voted that the article in the warrant which had reference to the building of a meetinghouse, and granting money therefore, be continued until the next March meeting. The matter was thus disposed of. It was often discussed in town meeting, and as often voted down ; nor was it until October, 1745, that a vote was obtained in favor of building a new meeting-house. Having determined to erect a new house of worship, the inhabitants in the first precinct decided that it should be placed near the old one, on the land owned by the parish. Preserved Lyon, James Endicott, and Silas Crane were chosen a committee to procure the materials for building the house; and it was decided that the building should be fifty-four feet in length, thirty-four feet in breadth, and twenty-four feet high. It was originally intended to have a steeple, after the manner of the Dorchester meeting-house. Money to the amount of .1,500, old tenor, was granted by the precinct; and it was deemed advisable to add three more gentlemen to the building committee, to provide for raising the meeting-house. The house was raised on the 4th of July, 1747. After the building was completed, and had been in use for some time, some of the inhabitants wanted a porch erected at the east end of the church; but it was not looked upon favorably by the precinct. Thomas Shepard, Ezekiel Fisher, and Stephen Badlam offered afterward to build this porch at their own expense. A request to build four pews in the two south corners of the meeting-house was received with better favor, and assented to. Two committees were chosen to see in what manner the pews in the new meeting-house should be disposed of; but neither of the two reports appear to have been satisfactory to the parish, the first report advising that the pews be disposed of to the highest bidder, provided he be a free-holder and an inhabitant of the parish, and that those who stand the highest on the real-estate valuation list have the preference. The report of the second committee recommended that the pews be settled upon those that were rated the highest last year for real estate, the man rated the highest to have his first choice by paying the price of- the highest pew, and so on until all the pews were disposed of, the parish finally deciding that the twenty-nine persons whose valuation was the highest were to draw the pews, the two highest to have their choice, paying the highest prices; and so on until the pews were all taken up. The money obtained from the sale of the pews was appropriated toward paying for the erection of the house, and the money received from the sale of the old meeting-house was devoted to the same purpose. The house was not finished for some years. In 1750 the parish voted to do something toward finishing it; and yet in 1752 it was not done, and the building committee were forbidden to do anything more toward finishing the meeting-house until further orders.

On the 26th of October, 1747, although the meeting-house was by no means completed, the ceremony of dedication took place. Mr. Dunbar, then in the twenty-second year of his pastorate, preached the sermon from Isa. lx. 7, " I will glorify the house of my God." The following Sabbath, services were held in the new meeting-house for the first time. This meeting-house was the third erected by the town. It was located within what is now the town's cemetery. It stood about forty feet from the modern street, and forty-four feet nearer the street than its predecessor of 1707-47, about ten feet intervening between the rear of the one and the front of the other. 

The house did not differ materially from the other meetinghouses of its day. Its exterior was pierced with a double row of windows. The snows of winter and the rains of summer gave it a color which, innocent of paint until 1790, was not peculiar to itself, but uniform with most if not all of the houses in town. It had entrances on three sides, on the southeast, facing the street, on the southwest, and on the northeast. The appearance of the house on the outside was very plain; no ornamentation was visible. It had not the golden pineapple, with its green leaves, to delight the children of that generation, which was once so conspicuous on the present church, and which, long years ago, we gazed at with infantile delight, although of late years this golden pineapple has been painted like the rest of the house. The roof was a common pitch-roof, not unlike that of the present meeting-house. Near it was a row of sheds, or stables, capable of holding one horse and wagon each. The liberty to erect these sheds on the parish property, " nigh the meetinghouse," was granted in 1749 to Joseph Esty and others. In 1764 the same privilege was granted to John McKendry, Elijah Crane, John Davenport, Jr., Elijah Dunbar, and Seth Pierce, the sheds to be on the back side of the meeting-house; and again in 1765 sheds adjoining the " buerael" place were erected by Benjamin Gill and William Crane. There were also two horse-blocks for the assistance of the ladies in mounting the pillion. Here they awaited the arrival of their husbands or sweethearts. From the entrance, which faced on the modern street, a central broad aisle ran directly to the pulpit; on either side were oblong pews, while a row of square pews extended around the walls, broken only by the pulpit and the entrances. These wall-pews were raised one short step above the aisle. The pews, backs and partitions, were so high that but little except the heads of the sitting occupants could be seen; and a part of the congregation were obliged, from the shape of the pews, to sit with their backs to the pulpit. The seats in these pews were a curiosity in their way. The seat was a board lid, hung on hinges, which were attached to the side of the pew; and the seats, when in use, were kept in position by a movable support in front. The seats were turned up when the congregation rose in prayer, and let down again when the prayer was ended. It was a delicate matter to adjust these seats, and was always provocative of more or less noise; and it sometimes happened that an unlucky tyro, unaware whether the lid-seat had been let down or not by another in the pew, near the conclusion of a long and solemn peroration, came to grief, and found himself seated upon the floor, with a clatter and a bang, much to the amusement of the boys and the horror of the elders, especially those who were appointed to keep the boys from playing in time of meeting. On the northwest side stood the pulpit, high up against the wall. It was reached by a flight of steps, which were placed on the minister's right, and protected by a balustrade. Beneath the pulpit, and directly in front of it, were the deacons' seats, the occupants of which faced the congregation. In 1769 these seats were brought out as far in the alley as the lower step of the pulpit. Over the head of the minister was the old-fashioned sounding-board, not suspended from the ceiling, as the one in the " Old South " at Boston is, but attached to the side of the meeting-house. Directly behind the pulpit was an oval window. The galleries were on three sides of the house; in these were five long seats. Those persons who had no pews sat there, the men in the southwest gallery, the women in the northeast. There were no seats in the galleries until 1754. In 1787 thirteen were added in the front gallery. The gallery directly opposite the pulpit was devoted to the singers, who stood around a table; and after singing, the singers turned and faced the minister.

In the meeting-houses early in the last century we hear nothing of pews; in fact, the first church had no pew except for the minister's family, but was furnished with long seats, and the males and females sat respectively on the left and the right hand sides. The older persons occupied the front seats, the middle-aged the next; and in the west gallery were the boys, under the charge of some competent person or persons. After the new church was built, families sat in the same pew; and the pews nearest the pulpit were considered the most desirable, and were occupied by those who laid claim to the highest standing in the parish, the wealth)' and influential having the best seats. The men all sat nearest to the door of the pew, in order to be ready to start upon an alarm, a custom which, said to have originated in Indian times, has continued long after the occasion for it has been forgotten. The pew-doors were paneled with something of elaborateness. The following are the names of those persons who met on the 10th of October. 1748, and selected twenty-nine of the pews :

Isaac Royal Esq. & William Royal . . . No. 12 at 44

John Davenport......... No. 11 at 44

Majr. John Shepard........ No. 13 at 42

Cap. Charles Wentworth...... No. 14 at 42

Joseph Hartwell......... No. 22 at 40

John Billing.......... No. 17 at 40

James Endicot......... No. 16 at 40

Robert Redman......... No. 4 at 40

D'n Silas Crane......... No. 2 at 39

Joseph Fenno ......... No. 15 at 39

John Fenno.......... No. 6 at 39

William Billing, Junr........ No. 5 at 39

Lieut. William Billing....... No. 20 at 37

Thomas Jordan......... No. 8 at 37

Joseph Jordan ......... No. 28 at 37

Timothy Jones......... No. 21 at 37

Philip Liscom.......... No. 10 at 35

Joseph Billing.......... No. 3 at 35

John Wentworth......... No. 23 at 35

John Puffer, Junr......... No. 27 at 35

Ebenezer Clap......... No. 30 at 32

Sion Morse.......... No. 9 at 32

Richard Stickney......... No. 26 at 32

Michael Shaller & Stephen Billing . . . No. 25 at 32

Jeremiah Ingraham........ No. 1 at 28

Edward Baily.......... No. 29 at 28

Lieut. John Puffer ......... No. 18 at 28

John Pierce.......... No. 19 at 25

William Wheeler......... No. 7 at 25

Ministerial Pew . . ...... No. 24 ■--------

In 1783 the back seats in the body of the meeting-house were sold to build pews, and were purchased by Adam Blackman, William Bent, George Jordan, and Isaiah Bussey.

Over the porch which supported the belfry was a second small gallery, which was protected by lattice-work. This was at first intended for the use of the Indians, and was so placed in accordance with a vote of the precinct " that there should be a convenient seat or seats for the Indian inhabitants of Stoughton to sit in on the Sabbath." Very few, however, of the Ponkapoag tribe availed themselves of the opportunity; and in course of time, about 1788, these seats were occupied by colored people. The church must have been very cold in winter. Stoves or furnaces were not known in those days, and there was no way of heating such a large building. In 1799 the town refused a stove for the use of the meeting-house, but in 1818 agreed to accept one as a gift from the ladies. With its forty-five pounds of old funnel, it was sold to Gideon Mackintosh when the building was pulled down. In cold weather it was the custom of our ancestors to fill a small tin box, called a foot-stove, with live coals from the open fireplace, before starting for church. The foot-stove was then placed in the wagon or sleigh, under the feet of the occupants. On arriving at the church, it was lifted by its bail and transferred to the pew, where it kept the feet of the worshipper warm. Twenty-five years ago I remember seeing many of these foot-stoves in the present church ; but in all probability they were not much used. The steeple, or bell-tower, was not placed upon the meetinghouse at the time of its erection; but fifteen years later, on the 6th of October, 1762, it was framed and joined on to the main building. It was like a porch, and stood against the southwest end of the house, thus constituting a new entrance, in which were situated stairs leading to the gallery above. A porch, similar, but without a bell-deck, was constructed against the northeast end of the house. When this belfry was raised, a sad accident occurred. While the workmen were engaged in adjusting a rope attached to a crane, the rope broke, and Isaac Fenno, Jr., was precipitated to the ground and instantly killed, having fallen a distance of sixty-one feet. The Boston " News Letter," of October 8, thus alludes to it: "On Wednesday last a sorrowful accident happened at Stoughton. As a number of persons were raising the spire of the new meeting-house there, some of the tackling gave way, when Mr. Isaac Fenno, Jr., fell to the ground and was killed in an instant. He left a widow and four children."

In 1805 the steeple had become so rotten that the town repaired it.

On the 15th of October, 1764, the precinct voted the sum of 48 to purchase a bell, the weight of which was to be four hundred pounds or upwards. The committee, however, thought that fifteen pounds would not matter much, and contracted for a bell weighing only three hundred and eighty-five pounds. The precinct, not being satisfied with this, voted on the 22d of July following to purchase a bell weighing six hundred and sixty-nine pounds, and " to pay the odds."

In July, 1766, the first bell was placed in its proper position in the belfry, and for many years, until it was cracked by careless usage, sent forth its varying tones of joy or sorrow. It sounded many an alarm when the house of some early settler was in flames; it rang joyfully on that August morning in 1769 when the news came that the hated Governor Bernard had left our shores; and it rang the loud and sharp call to arms when the redcoats were marching on Lexington. Old Parson Dunbar heard its vivacious clamor, almost for the last time, when its tongue joined in the glad tidings of peace; its joyous peal again resounded when George Washington was proclaimed first President of these United States. Again its voice, sad and doleful, has pierced the heart of some mourner, as from the ancient church all that was mortal of a dear friend has been borne away; and it continued, as its successor does to-day, to strike the age of the dead on the morning after death, a custom dear to the people of Canton from the fact that it is the last perpetuated by us of the customs brought to this country by the early English settlers.

Our mother town, Dorchester, continued until the middle of the last century, possibly later, the ringing of the curfew, and I was in hopes to find that her daughter, Canton, had stuck to the good old English custom ; but I never heard mention of it, nor have I seen bills for the payment of the ringer. Mr. Aaron E. Tucker writes me as follows:

"It was a custom about 1840, and I think for a number of years, to have the Orthodox bell rung at sunrise, noon, and at nine o'clock in the evening. The expense was paid by subscribers; and Mr. Royall T. Kollock, a deaf mute, was employed to do the work, who, although he lived a mile away, was always on time."

The first bell was in use until 1790, when it was carried to Colonel Hobart's foundry at Abington by William Wheeler and Adam Blackman. The sum of 4 10s. was paid for recasting it. It was ordered that the bell be rung at nine A.M. and one and a half p. M.; and in 1803 that it be tolled on application of the friends of the dead, " expressive of their decease." In 1810, from excessive wagging, the tongue of the bell became demoralized ; and it was even a question of procuring a new bell in exchange for the old one. Ten years more passed, and I presume the tongue of the old bell was repaired, till in 1820 the matter was again agitated. Simeon Tucker, Thomas Kollock, and Frederic W. Lincoln were appointed a committee to get the bell recast whenever the expense should be borne by individuals. The following year it was voted that a bell weighing one thousand pounds be procured in exchange for the present one, and a committee appointed to put it up at the expense of the parish. This bell was made at the foundry of Paul Revere. It was heavier than the old one, and was hung Dec. 21, 1824, in the belfry of the present meeting-house, where it still remains.

In very early times it was the custom for the men and women to have separate seats in meeting, and the children were placed by themselves. Juvenile misdemeanors were sometimes so conspicuous in the midst of divine service that it was often necessary to take some action in town meeting in reference to the disturbances in meeting. Thus, in 1732, a  committee was appointed "to inspect ye boys on ye sabbath." In 1734 the town voted that there be four men appointed whose duty it shall be " to take care of ye boys in our meeting house in time of publick worship on Sabbath days, to restrain them from play." In 1739 a committee was appointed "to inspect ye youth on ye Sabbath in time of public worship in our meeting house, to inform against or moderately correct them as they should see fit." In 1744 Ezekiel Fisher and Nathaniel Stearns were appointed " to take care of and prevent playing at meeting on the Lord's day." In 1747 John Pierce was " to seat himself in the middle of ye hind seat in ye front gallery and watch ye boys." Nathaniel Adams and Samuel Strowbridge helped him to perform that pleasant task; and two years later the burden was thrust upon Nathaniel May, James Andrews, Enoch Lyon, Elihu Crane, and George Talbot, Jr., of keeping order over the boys on " Sabath " days. In 1750 Thomas Tolman sat with the youngsters, and was succeeded by Thomas Spurr and Paul Wentworth. In 1752 it was voted that those that were chosen to take care of the boys should bring them to the seats where they were ordered to sit, and George Talbot and Henry Crane attended to the matter. Under Capt. Abner Crane in 1767 the boys were subject to stricter discipline than ever. William Patrick, afterward killed by the Indians, took care of the young people in 1774. As late as 1803 it was necessary to post notices in the porch calling on the young people not to make a tarry after public worship had begun.

Dogs were no less troublesome than boys. It seems to have been the custom to allow the dogs to follow the family to the meeting-house on Sunday. In 1749 an article was inserted in the warrant for the town meetings " to consider and act on some proper method to prevent ' Doggs' coming to ye house of public worship in this town on ye Lords day," and the selectmen were desired to draw up some proper order or bylaw touching the matter. In 1809 the town voted to restrict dogs from frequenting the meeting-house, as " it was a disturbance to social worship," and the owner of any dog making such disturbance was to be fined fifty cents and pay the same to the sexton. 

Attempts were made at various times to adorn and beautify the grounds by the planting of trees near the meeting-house. In 1794 Gen. Elijah Crane set out some trees, and his example was followed the next year by Col. Benjamin Gill. In 1796 Colonel Gill, Captain Bent, and Elijah Dunbar set out trees. In 1802 the town appointed a committee to procure " Lombar de Poplar " trees, and " place them in such order around the Meeting House as shall tend to ornament and convenience." Twenty-four trees were accordingly planted, under the direction of the selectmen, and so well watered by Luther May that, thirteen years after, their growth had been so rapid that their tops were ordered to be cut off. When the ground was abandoned, all the standing wood was sold.

In the days of which I am writing, two services were held on Sunday, both by daylight. The services consisted of extemporaneous prayers, sometimes fearfully long; the psalms were sung in metre, and it was considered sacrilegious to have any instrumental music. The sermon was divided into heads; sometimes it lasted an hour, and sometimes an hour and a half. An hour-glass stood on the pulpit by the side of the minister, which sometimes regulated the length of the sermon. As the distance from home was great, the worshippers were in the habit of bringing their dinner or luncheon with them; and after the morning service, the intermission furnished an excellent opportunity to discuss the news of the week, the weather, the state of the crops, the girth of oxen, and possibly the morning sermon. Groups were formed; some sat beneath the shadow of the meeting-house, some loved to linger among the old gray stones of the burying-ground and contemplate the stone willows that were never in foliage; while others enjoyed the grateful shade of the " old oak." Returning from across the way to get his flip at the May tavern, the goodman drew from his breeches-pocket a short-stemmed pipe, and if the sun shone brightly would adjust his spectacles so as to bring the rays to a focus and furnish fire to all. Both men and women enjoyed the luxury of tobacco; and the noon-day smoke prepared the mind and heart for the tranquil enjoyment of the afternoon discourse.

While this meeting-house stood, it was the only place where the annual town meetings were held. This is also true of the meeting-house that preceded it. The notifications for the meeting were posted " on ye east porch ; " in later days, " on ye frunt."

Many of the timbers of the old church building were used in the framing of the present house ; the vane and indicator are also on the present building; the lock on the front door, and its immense key, served the old church; and the sills of the sheds back of the meeting-house are part of the old building.

On the 24th of April, 1824, the Rev. Benjamin Huntoon preached the farewell sermon in the old meeting-house, from Haggai ii. 3. The church was filled with a very large audience, many from the adjacent towns being present. Mr. Huntoon gave a brief historical review of the parish, from the ordination of Rev. Joseph Morse. In speaking of his own ministry, he says:

" Since my ordination the church has enjoyed an unusual degree of harmony and concord. We have not had a single church meeting on account of difficulties and animosities. For these blessings I would be devoutly thankful to God, the Author of all goodness ; and while I know not what remains concealed for me behind the veil of futurity, I would confide in the unchanging kindness and protection of the Almighty Father, who rules in the armies of heaven, and does His pleasure among the inhabitants of earth. ' Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that would build it.' The circumstances under which we have this day assembled, and the view which we have taken of the past, forcibly remind us that the rapid wings of time are sweeping from the earth the perishable monuments of human art, and collecting the successive generations of men into the icy arms of the oblivious grave. It becomes us, my brethren, to pause for a moment and reflect on the changes and vicissitudes of this fugitive state. Who is left among you that saw this house in its first glory? And how do you see it now? Is it not, in your eyes, in comparison to it, as nothing? While the wasting hand of time has been despoiling this temple of its glory, the numerous crowd of delighted worshippers who were present at its dedication have, one after another, fallen victims to the unrelenting stroke of death; none who assisted in laying its foundations remain to be witness of its fall. Do you ask where they are to be found? There, in yonder silent house, where we shall all soon be assembled with them. And he that can look for the last time on these walls, these seats, this altar, hallowed by their devotions, and not feel his heart swell with tender and melancholy emotions, is formed of sterner stuff than ought to enter here. Who can forbear to drop the silent tear as he departs, never again to pass the threshold of the religious home of his fathers ? Where is the man whose sensibility is so blunted that he can feel none of the melting sympathies of humanity on bidding adieu to that sacred place which has been the witness of his purest joys and the sanctuary of his keenest sorrows ? These feelings are too strong to be resisted. They are awakened by a thousand mournful associations of kindred and parents and children who have long since slumbered in forgetfulness. But this season is too precious to be all occupied in unavailing regret. The hand, writing our fate, is visible on these ruined walls. Its characters are too legible to need an interpreter. The occasion calls us to serious thought, to manly resolution, to vigorous exertion. Our time is short, our duties great, our labors arduous. This world is not our home; these houses of clay in which we now dwell are not our only residence ; the horizon that bounds our mortal vision marks not the limitations of our existence ; yet a few years, or days perhaps, and death will be open to our view. With what energy and perseverance should we labor to erect a temple of virtue on the Rock of Ages, against which the winds shall beat, and the storms of time shall rage in vain ! Farewell, thou sacred sanctuary of our fathers! The angel that is to make the record of our improvement here is about to take his departure to the courts above. And oh, when Time shall have finished his allotted pilgrimage on earth, and all his cycles have mingled with eternity, may we, with the blessed multitude of the redeemed, of every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, be admitted to that temple not made with hands, that house eternal and in the heavens; which God grant, for Jesus Christ's sake ! "

A few days after the delivery of the farewell sermon, the parish voted to authorize the building committee " to take down the old house, on the first Tuesday in May, provided the weather will admit; and that they be directed to give a general invitation to the inhabitants of Canton, with a viciv to have the same done gratis." This general invitation was as generally accepted, and a large crowd of men and boys some of the latter of whom are still living at the appointed time took hold of the rope, and with a long pull and a strong pull and a pull all together brought the old meeting-house to the ground. While the present church was in process of building, the society held services in what was then known as Downes's Hall, and here they continued to meet until the new church was ready for occupancy.



Back to the main page of