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UU congregation celebrates 325-year-old building

Hingham, Mass., church dates to Puritan era.
By Jane Greer
Fall 2006 8.15.06

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Old Ship Church, Hingham, Mass.

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The Old Ship Church was built for the First Parish in Hingham, Mass., in 1681. Click for interior view. (John Stobierski)

Few American public buildings have survived from the original American colonies in the seventeenth century. One is the “Old Ship Church” of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Hingham, Massachusetts, the oldest timber-framed meetinghouse in continuous use in the country, and a national historic monument. Built in 1681, the church is celebrating the 325th anniversary of its construction with a six-month celebration that started July 29.

Old Ship began as a meetinghouse, which meant that the building was used for both civic and religious purposes. Built out of local pine, the building features arched ceiling support beams typical of the English Gothic style. The building is further distinguished by being the first American structure to use a king post—part of a truss that allows the building to be wider.

The origin of the name Old Ship is not known for certain. One of the most likely explanations, said Marty Saunders, the congregation's historian, is that the spire was used as a mariner's landmark.

The congregation showed its liberal bent early on, according to Saunders. The people who colonized Hingham were eager to get as far away from the influence of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as they could, so they settled in Hingham, twenty miles south of Boston. Ebenezer Gay, who served as the congregation's pastor from 1718 to 1787, rejected Calvinism in favor of Arminianism, the precursor of American Unitarianism. By the end of the eighteenth century, the congregation was essentially Unitarian, according to the Rev. Ken Read–Brown, the church's minister for the last twenty years.

The building is a source of inspiration for many, including Saunders. “When I go there, I think about all of the history that this building has lived through,” she said. “I like feeling that I'm a part of that.”

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