Old Ship Meeting House spans the centuries

The Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, built in 1681, is said to be the oldest church in continuous use in New England.
The Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, built in 1681, is said to be the oldest church in continuous use in New England.
DAVID LYON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England

HINGHAM—New England’s longest-serving church, Old Ship Meeting House, has stood on a hill on the north side of town since 1681. The people of Hingham have gathered under its ample arched roof — said to resemble the upturned hull of a great ship — to proclaim their faith and, for the first 140 years or so, to conduct town meetings. When the National Historic Landmark program launched in 1960, Old Ship was among the first sites recognized.

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Its longevity is a testament to the enduring power of faith as a bedrock of community and to the building skills of those 17th-century colonists. But the church was not always so revered. In 1792 it was so badly in need of repairs that four town meetings debated whether to fix it or tear it down.

“It was just after the Revolution and a lot of people in town wanted a pretty Bulfinch church,” said Nina Wellford of the Friends of the Old Ship Meeting House. “In the end, they decided to just fix the roof and be done with it.”

The church, it seems, is also a testament to good old Yankee frugality.

The Friends conduct tours on request and often find themselves leading architects who have made a pilgrimage here. “It’s a prime example of New England king post architecture,” said Wellford, who noted that the church’s style is often characterized as one variant or another of late medieval English Gothic. “But it really is its own style — meetinghouse style,” she said.

The building has an elegant, unadorned simplicity. Naturally curved oak beams — no two alike — were used to form the ceiling’s hull-like shape. “It holds it all up. Nothing had to be done to those beams,” said Wellford, referring to the recent wholesale restoration that replaced and restored the roof, repaired the 1755 Georgian double windows, replastered and painted the interior walls, and upgraded lighting and other systems.

Hingham was incorporated in 1635 when it was settled by the Rev. Peter Hobart and his Puritan followers, who constituted the first body of the church. “About three-quarters of the town of Hingham, England, came here to settle this town,” said Wellford. The 1681 meetinghouse replaced a smaller structure. “Town affairs were held here and all the town leaders worshiped here. If you wanted to vote, you had to be a member of this parish.”

As the town grew, the first wing was added to the church in 1731. A second wing and deeded box pews were added in 1755, the same year the carved pulpit was installed. In 1869, in a misguided nod to fashion, the interior was redone in Victorian style with wallpaper, carpeting, drapes, and cushioned pews.

Fashion’s pendulum swung back, and in 1930 the Colonial Revival movement spurred a restoration of the church to its 1755 appearance. According to Wellford, many people brought back the pews that their families had taken home in 1869. About one-third of the pews are original and descendants of the original parishioners still worship here today. “I sit and look across the pews and out the windows and I feel the presence of the people who have been here before me,” said Wellford.

She also appreciates the old building’s quirks, such as the foot-worn wide wooden floorboards. “Nobody minds the creaks,” she said, “but you can’t sneak in if you are late for the service.”

In fact, Wellford notes that a lot of the worship service is silent. “Just coming in, sitting, and experiencing it is very special.”

Old Ship Meeting House
90 Main St.. Unitarian Universalist worship services on Sundays at 10:25 a.m., September-June.

Open daily for tours July 4- Labor Day 1-4 p.m.; tours also available by appointment; call 781-749-1679 or visit www.oldshipfriends.org . Donations welcome.