When New Hampshire was a royal province, the integration of civil and religious affairs and institutions was an accepted fact. Although New Hampshire never established a particular church throughout the colony, each town was allowed to establish its own church and to pay the minister’s salary and other church expenses through public taxation.
The Town of Acworth, N.H. was first settled in 1767 as part of the expansion of settlement in northern New England following the French and Indian War. The town grew slowly and it was 1787 before construction of a meetinghouse was started. The frame of Acworth’s meetinghouse was raised and perhaps covered in 1784 with a town vote of “18 pounds toward the purchase of rum for the purpose of framing and raising the meetinghouse”. Because of their poverty, the town had been 20 years without a place of worship and the materials were mostly contributed in lieu of money. Acworth’s mixture of rum and religions was to have far-reaching results in its history.
The first Acworth meeting house was a frame building of nearly a square form and had entrances at the south, east and west sides, adorned with porches. The pulpit was at the northern end. The pews were of the roughest kind and about five foot square. The deacon’s seat were benches in front of the body pews and the gallery ran around three sides of the meetinghouse. A sounding board was placed over the pulpit.
The meetinghouse took several years to complete and was not actually occupied until 1789, with some work done as late as 1790. However, in 1787, the work was far enough along for the town to appoint a committee to sell pews in the new building.
Although the town could not afford a full time minister, Thomas Archibald was voted in as their first settled minister. The town government was involved not only in building the meeting house and choosing the minister, but also in the worship service. In 1790, They chose Jonathan Holmes as lead singer, John Duncan as assistant and Abner Houston to sit first place in the deacon’s seat. The Acworth Town Meetings held there voted to confine hogs and rams, build a town pound, elect a surveyor of bricks, paint the meetinghouse, buy a mourning cloth and to accept the vote of the church that the lead singer sit in the deacon’s seat and that the other singers gather in t he front seats and in the side galleries.
When Rev Phineas Cooke settled in Acworth in 1814, the Acworth meetinghouse was in need of repair. Then, too, new state legislation in 1819, regarding the separation of church and state passed NH’s Toleration Act. This allowed towns to continue to honor contracts with their regularly settled ministers but prohibited towns from collecting ministerial taxes from persons who were certified of not being of the same reglious beliefs as the minister and also allowed towns to use public funds to repair town owned meetinghouses useful to the town but not for religious purposes.
At the first town meeting with the Toleration Act in effect, the townspeople appointed a committee to discuss the future of their meeting house and they decided that the church should be allowed to build a new meetinghouse on the common and the town would give up any claim to the old meetinghouse.
In 1821, the fate of the old meetinghouse was decided .. it was to be torn down and a new building would be constructed on the same location. A new town house would also be built on the common, northeast of the old meetinghouse. The question of the claims of the pew holders was settled and they surrendered their rights to the town. Although the services of the then minister, Rev. Cooke were no longer paid for by town taxes, he stayed on as the minister of the new Congregational Church.
The new Congregational church, and the current Acworth edifice, was built in 1821, on the site of the original Acworth Meetinghouse, by Elias Carter from original plans from the Asher Benjamin handbook in the style of Christopher Wren. It first contained one single high room with two galleries with the pulpit was so high that the minister was referred to as “The high priest of New Hampshire”. A stained glass rose window was placed on the northern wall behind the pulpit. The roughness of early handwork along with the beauty of the intricate craftsmanship of local carpenters is stunning; especially when one considers that they were paid in New England rum..it must have been some powerful stuff..indeed!
In 1856, renovations were made and the galleries were removed, the ceiling lowered and a gallery installed for the choir. In 1871, the church was painted, shingled and auditorium walls papered at a cost of $550. Two cupboards behind the pulpit show evidence of this work and record the history of these major changes.
In 1886, the church was again remodeled to the interior form that we see today, with the sanctuary above and a ”vestibule, vestry, ladies parlor and kitchen below”. The stained glass side windows were installed and the ceiling and walls were “tastefully frescoed” in the designs of the period and retaining the motto over the high pulpit of the old church..”Holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, Forever” (project cost: $2600)
The exterior facade, however, remained in the original design with double pediments and quasi-Ionic fluted pilasters; it’s tower rising in four stages like the layers of a wedding cake. The steeple boasts a bell inscribed “Boston Copper Co. 1828” and is one of only 4 bells credited to Paul Revere, 4th, decedent of the patriot. It now sits in a safe place, awaiting its return to the inspiring steeple.
By 1973, the sanctuary had fallen into such disrepair that a local committee was formed to seek funds to once again restore this 19th century architectural achievement. George Hanson and Bob Yale headed the work of preserving the interior, restoring the unique frescoes in the sanctuary and other necessary repairs. In 1986, with the assistance of the NH State Historic preservation Office, The United Church of Acworth was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All funds ($25,000) were raised locally and Federal funds were returned, unneeded. A proud moment for a proud community.
In 1993, an Inherit New Hampshire Preservation award was presented to “The Town of Acworth, N.H. for demonstrating through preservation and restoration of the Acworth Congregational Church, that a small group of dedicated people can prevail after 20 years, against all odds, to save one of New Hampshire’s finest icons.”
Now, we have reached another plateau in the history of our beloved “Church on the Hill”. The church steeple has been removed from its precarious position to the church lawn and although Federal and State assistance is being actively sought, the total cost is far more than this small community of 800 can provide for such important restoration work.
An Acworth Meetinghouse Committee, headed by John Putnam and Jonathan Clowes and consisting of both church members and community members, has been formed to take on the project. The whole community has responded positively to the restoration and preservation of their town’s most revered building with fund raising events and donations. A preservation specialist, Arron Sturgis, has been hired to assist with the restoration plans and costs and local building craftspeople have been included to assist in the project.
This undertaking is immense for such a tiny town, as much weather and water damage has been uncovered by the complete inspection of all parts of the building from the underpinnings to the top of the steeple. The raising of funding for this undertaking will present another challenge for community residents and we are ready for it. We believe that the restoration project will take at least 5 years or more and plans are being made to create a maintenance fund to assist us in the future care of this exceptional building.
The hearts of all Acworthians are with us and, with God’s blessing and much arduous work, we will succeed in preserving Acworth’s beloved “Church on the Hill”. Future generations and historians will marvel at the strength of those who live here and have willingly provided their love and dedication to restoring a wonderful historic building to its former glory.
Please join with us by visiting the Donations part of this web site.