The origin of the town meeting form of government can be traced to meetinghouses of the colonies. Early English settlers came to America for religious freedom from the Church of England. They set up a society that was free of the ornate, rigid traditions of the Anglo-Catholic church.
The central focus of every New England town was the meetinghouse. These structures were usually the largest building in the town. They were used both for religious worship, and for conducting town business. Taxes supported these structures.
They were always very simple buildings, with no statues, decorations, or stained glass. Not even a cross hung on the wall.
The practice of supporting the church with tax money continued until about 1820, when individual states passed laws separating church and state. Until that time, it was common (except in Rhode Island) to support the dominant church – referred to as the “standing order” – by taxing the citizens.
In fact, in the early years a town was not granted a charter until it had built a meetinghouse and hired a minister. Rhode Island did not support the church with taxes because it was founded by the Baptists who were expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for refusing to pay the church tax.
These structures have evolved over the centuries. Most that are still standing have been renovated several times to meet the needs of their owners and the styles of the times.
In the early 1800s, people wanted ‘modern’ churches that had one entrance on a short end of the building, a long isle to a pulpit on the other short end, and slip pews instead of box pews. At this time it was also common to build steeples over the entrances, either incorporated into the building, or as part of an entrance porch that was added to the building’s end.
Many a typical white New England church started out as a colonial meetinghouse. An interesting variation to the “make a church” type of renovation took place in several towns when the separation of church and state took place.
In these cases, the thrifty New Englanders complied with the law by building a floor at the balcony level, and using the first floor for town business, and the second floor for church. Many meetinghouses thus have a floor at what used to be the balcony level. (ColonialMeetingHouses-com)
Plymouth Meeting House
The first structure the Pilgrims built at Plymouth was a fort (it also served as the Pilgrims’ meeting house). As noted by Bradford,
“On ye 15. of Desemr : they wayed anchor to goe to ye place they had discovered, & came within 2. Leagues of it, but were faine to bear up againe; but ye 16. day ye winde came faire, and they arrived safe in this harbor.”
“And after wards tooke better view of ye place, and resolved wher to pitch their dwelling; and ye 25. day begane to erecte ye first house for comone use to receive them and their goods.”
According to John Cuckson’s A Brief History of the First Church in Plymouth, the first meetings of the congregation in Plymouth were held in a common house built ca. 1621 and located on the south side of Leyden Street, the first street laid out in Plymouth, which runs between the harbor and what is now known as Town Square. This building consisted of a twenty-foot-square form. (NPS)
Unfortunately, that initial structure was lost to fire, “… ye 14th of January  the house which they had made for a general randevoze [rendezvous/meeting house] by casualty fell afire, and some were fain to retire aboard for shelter.” (Bradford)
Worship services were then held in a fort, built ca. 1621, on what is now known as Old Burial Hill. The fort was located directly behind the current First Parish Church.
According to Isaak de Rasiers, who visited Plymouth in 1627, the building consisted of “a large square house with a flat roof made of sawn planks set on oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannon…. . The lower part they use for their church, where they preach on Sundays and the usual holidays.” (NPS)
Later, a separate meetinghouse was built in either 1637 or 1648 – accounts differ.
Since the Mayflower Pilgrims’ first Meetinghouse was built at the top of Leyden Street in Plymouth, MA in 1621, a place of spiritual ministry has continued to this day. Presently, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Plymouth worships at this centerpiece of the Plymouth, MA cultural district.
The Mayflower Meetinghouse (formerly the National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse) is the fifth spiritual structure built on this location. The first meetinghouse was built on common land on the north side of Town Square, at a different location from the subsequent four meetinghouses. (GSMD)
When the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) became aware that the congregation was having trouble with the increasing maintenance and restoration of the building, it approached the congregation about donating the Meetinghouse to GSMD as a place to fulfill its educational mission.
To save the building they love, the First Parish Church congregation has agreed to donate it to GSMD upon the condition that funds be put in place to permanently maintain it, and that they be allowed to continue scheduling their services there.
The General Society of Mayflower Descendants and First Parish Church signed a Joint Venture Agreement, which led to the Charitable Trust, during Congress 2017.
Along with the Meetinghouse, GSMD will be given all the church records from modern times back to 1620, written by William Bradford, William Brewster, Robert Cushman, and many others.
Click the following link to a general summary about the Meeting House: