The Jamesport Meeting House
By Richard Wines and Jane Roberts (Edited by Jon Hanson)
The meeting house at Jamesport, now over 275 years old, is the oldest religious structure on the East End of Long Island. However, its history has by no means been smooth and uneventful. Instead, this remarkable survivor, built the year before George Washington was born, has witnessed all sorts of controversy and dissension. Its members have struggled with membership and finances; they have argued and split over theological issues difficult to fathom today; and several times the church fell on really hard times – but remarkably, each time it was resurrected, and again came to play an important role in the lives of the communities it served.
The meeting house came alive again in the spring of 2005 when the North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship moved into the building and began holding services in the sanctuary every Sunday, within the same structure and with much the same cultural, spiritual and architectural vision of people for the last almost 300 years.
For the past ten years the NFUUF has struggled to remain independent in spite of problems with fluctuating membership and finances and has persevered in its search for an appropriate place to gather for spiritual enrichment. The link and correlation with the past has been established once again as the meeting house emerges with and important role in the community.
Church bells toll once more for weddings and on Sundays in the simple, freshly painted sanctuary. Music and flowers regularly fill the space. There are meetings and gatherings for youth groups and for community projects. Bulbs are planted by the congregation’s children on the grounds and a thrift shop operates in the parsonage next door on two weekend days each week. The meeting house truly has been resurrected yet another time, 300 years since its beginning. It gives one pause to reflect.
The Religious and Architectural History
The meeting house was conceived and built in a remarkable example of community harmony. As the Southold colony expanded both east and west from the original settlement in the early 1700s, residents of outlying areas began to desire meeting houses more convenient than the one in the distant village of Southold. This led to the construction of meeting houses in Orient, Cutchogue, Mattituck and finally this one here in Jamesport, then known as Lower Aquebogue. The 1732 deed for the cemetery across the street described this as the “western most meeting house in Southold [town]”. The closest meeting house to the west was in distant Setauket.
Deed of gift specifies “house for the worship of God”
Built in 1731, the original building is still standing on the original foundation and ground -- the ground which was given “only for the purpose of erecting a house to worship God.” The deed of gift from Silvanus Brown contained a clause stipulating that if the parcel ceased to be used for this purpose, it was to revert to his heirs.
Construction of the meeting house was a community wide effort – and the community was quite wide, stretching from what is now the Laurel area all the way to Wading River and reaching across the Peconic River into nearby areas of Southampton Town. Fortunately, a little account book kept by Daniel Wells, one of the pioneer settlers in Riverhead Town, survives. It includes an “account of those who Work’t upon the meeting hous tember,” and “account of those who carted” and a list of individuals reimbursed for their work – 31 names altogether. A separate set of accounts lists 27 who contributed to the construction of a parsonage in 1735 and 1736. There is some overlap of the two lists, but 51 unique names. Remarkably, this list includes virtually every able-bodied male know to have lived in the area at the time.
Specifications called for 6 x 12” oak beams. The timbers were first cut from the nearby forest and then laid out for hewing. All beams and braces were marked and chiseled to fit a mortise and tenon frame. Boards were sawn in local water-powered mills, probably in Riverhead. Shingles were split by hand and secured by hand-wrought nails made by the local blacksmith. The side wall shingles have never been replaced and the heavy oak beams can be seen today in the cellar and attic. The beams are adz-marked and flinty with age. Some are still covered with bark. The total cash outlay in 1731 for nails, locks and other metal work was only $18.00…an amazingly low cost for a structure that has already lasted 275 years.
There was a narrow balcony surrounding the inside of the church and the pulpit was in the south end -- a sort of boxed-in space with a door enclosing the minister. Below this there was a similar space for the deacons. At first there was no ceiling and swallows flew around during the services distracting and amusing the congregation.
First Minister Reverend Nathaniel Mather
The church was founded in the Puritan tradition under the leadership of Rev. Nathaniel Mather, a descendent of the famous Mather family of New England. His great-grandfather, the Rev. Richard Mather (1596-1669) was minister of Old North Church in Boston and an early president of Harvard College. Other famous Puritan ministers in the family included Nathaniel’s great uncle Increase Mather and Increase’s son, Cotton Mather. Nathaniel’s father, was one of the first trustees of Yale College, where Nathaniel graduated in 1715. He married Ruth Terry of Aquebogue. It is thought that he is buried in the Jamesport cemetery in the space beside Ruth, but the grave is unmarked.
Early dissension and schism
However, this remarkable example of social harmony did not last long. Within a decade, the deep turmoil of the First Great Awakening began sweeping over the Puritan churches of New England and the East End of Long Island. It was a century since the great Puritan migration to New England of the 1630s, and like establishment churches everywhere, the spirit and enthusiasm of it members was gradually deadening. Into this came some remarkable individuals such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield who started a revival movement similar to those we see today in fundamentalist Christian churches, but far more powerful and far more destructive.
Churches everywhere were torn apart by feuds between the “Old Lights” who wanted to maintain the status quo and “New Lights” who wanted more enthusiasm in their religion. John Davenport, for a while the influential minister at Southold and a leader of the “New Lights,” was so fervent that many in his congregation apparently thought he was mentally unbalanced. Rev. Mather in Jamesport also apparently leaned towards the “New Light” side, although the dissention did not break into the open in his flock until after his death in 1748.
The squabbling got much worse under his successor -- also apparently a “New Light” – who was formally charged with heresy by the Presbytery. Although the charges were thrown out for lack of evidence, the congregation never recovered. At the same time, the churches of New England and Long Island also argued over whether they should follow the Presbyterian model of church government, with its more centralized organization, the direction in which the original Puritan churches seemed to be headed, or the Congregational model, where each individual society was fiercely independent, more or less where the Puritan churches had started a century before.
Inevitably, as the bickering got more intense, a schism occurred. A group, most likely the Old Light part of the membership, split off and began worshiping separately in Upper Aquebogue (now Aquebogue). The early history of this group is murky, but by 1758 (?) they had formally organized as a Congregational church – with sharp distinctions between themselves and their former New Light Presbyterian brethren left behind at the old meeting house in Jamesport. The new group, now worshiping in its third meeting house built in 1862, is known today as “Old Steeple Church” in Aquebogue.
Union with Mattituck
Weakened by dissension and schism, the Jamesport parish joined forces with the Mattituck parish. Even the combined parishes, however, continuously had difficulties supporting a minister with only 22 members. Only about a quarter of the members came from the Jamesport. The rest were from Mattituck. As was typical of many churches, two-thirds of these were women.
This arrangement, with some form of union with Mattituck, lasted on and off for a century. Generally this meant the two parishes shared in the expense of hiring a minister, who preached alternate Sundays in the two meeting houses. At one point, they even shared with Westhampton, with the minister preaching there two Sundays a month and then splitting the remaining time between Mattituck and Jamesport.
Reverend Benjamin Goldsmith “Pious” Slaveholder
The longest ministry in this period was that of the Rev. Benjamin Goldsmith, a 1760 Yale graduate who served from 1764 to 1810 as pastor of the Presbyterian churches at Mattituck and Lower Aquebogue (now Jamesport). Much beloved by his parishioners, he was described as a man of “sound mind, solid acquirements … and of unfeigned piety.” However, neither his religious convictions nor his Yale education led him to reject human bondage. Like the minister at the time in the Aquebogue church, he was a slave owner -- with one slave recorded in the 1790 census and two in 1800. He still held a slave in 1810 at the time of his death. The two leading deacons of the church were also slave owners. Not until the 1820s did the local tide and state law turn against slavery. There is no evidence that the church took a leading role in this movement.
Attempted Consolidation in 1817
In 1817, the two Parishes further consolidated their organization with the formation of a Union Parish that intended to consolidate into a single meeting house to be constructed half-way between the two old meeting houses in Mattituck and Jamesport – in what is now Laurel, but was then called Franklinville. However, this plan did not work either. Instead, parishioners in the Franklinville area seceded and built their own meeting house in 1831. (That church was later moved to Jamesport to serve as the Mechanics Hall. Still later it was converted to the apartment structure across the main road from the Jamesport meeting house.) When it became apparent that they would not have a combined sanctuary, the Mattituck part of the parish built a new church and the Jamesport portion “repaired” their old meeting house in 1830, as commemorated on the plaque over the front door.
Division to form Methodist Society in 1831
Yet another division occurred about 1830 when several members left to form a Methodist society. This movement was lead by David Tuthill, scion of one of the parish’s leading families and brother of James Tuthill, who founded Jamesport, a would-be whaling port on Peconic Bay, about the same time and named it after himself. This society built a church in the new port, on what is now South Jamesport Avenue, and soon grew to have about 45 members. “James’s Port,” as it was know, saw an initial burst of prosperity in the 1840s in the area now called South Jamesport. Later, after the railroad station and post office took on the “Jamesport” name, usage spread to the area around the meeting house previously known as Lower Aquebogue and what had been the Lower Aquebouge Church became the Jamesport Church.
Vacant and Derelict in 1850
Gradually, the Jamesport parish fell on even harder times – sharing a minister with not only the Mattituck society, but at times also with the Franklinville one. By 1850, things had gotten so bad that the Jamesport meeting house appears to have been mostly vacant and the building derelict. One neighbor complained in his diary about the windows being broken. Another contemporary commentator wrote that the “society appears never to have been very robust.”
Reactivation as Congregational Church
After being left totally without a minister for a while, some of the members of the Jamesport church met with others from the community and decided to form a new church in 1854 – organized under Congregational principals. This new organization attracted 34 members, including some from the Congregational churches in Aquebogue and Northville.
Almost immediately, the new Congregational church began taking vigorous steps to modernize its facilities and increase its membership. It purchased the parsonage in 1854, and later moved it slightly and added a second floor.
Major Rebuilding and New Steeple
In 1859, they completely rebuilt the old house of worship, adding about 10 feet to the front of the sanctuary, removing most of the balconies, moving the pulpit to the north end, adding a new balcony on the south end, replacing the old windows with the large ones there now, and installing a beautiful barrel-vaulted plaster ceiling. 1831
The reinvigorated congregation may have suffered from a case of steeple envy. This seems to have been the era of steeples. The Aquebogue Church had added a spire in 1833 to its second building, and became know as “Steeple Church.” Other churches in the area soon added steeples too. The Congregationalists in Jamesport were not to be out-done, so they also added an octagonal steeple that sharply tapered to a height of 100 feet. It carried a solid wooden ball 12 inches in diameter which was pierced by a 6 foot long weathervane. During the blizzard of 1888 the ball split open and fell to the ground in several pieces.
Steeple Destroyed by Lightening in 1900
This was replaced but in 1900 the steeple was struck by lightning. Because firemen could not reach it with water, it was chopped down at its base. Later it was rebuilt, but shorter and stubbier because of lack of funds. One can still see where the original timbers were cut off – about 15 feet above the bell – and the flaming tower pushed off into the churchyard.
First Heater and Instrumental Music
At some point in this same period, the Jamesport Congregationalists also made two other radical steps that would have shocked their Puritan forbearers. First, they introduced heat in the meeting house, in the form of a cast iron stove. There was heavy opposition because some felt it was wicked. One woman worshiper was so shocked that she fainted at the mere sight of the contraption. They also took the radical step of introducing instrumental music – initially with a melodeon and later with an organ (the devil’s instruments) – to accompany the singing.
Addition of Lecture Room Wing in 1897
Ministers came and went with alarming frequency. Nevertheless the church continued to grow. In 1897, it built a “lecture room” on the east side, which could be opened into the main sanctuary for large services.
Before lecture room After lecture room added
In 1898, the south balcony was closed off. The current pressed tin interior was also probably installed at that time, hiding the older vaulted plaster ceiling.
Columned portico added in 1912
In 1912, the final architectural element was added – the simple columned portico across the front.
Before Portico With Portico
Stagnation in mid-20th century
The church continued on into the mid-20th century, never growing much, although at one point it considered purchasing the parcel to the rear to add a parish house. It always made the dubious claim to be the oldest Congregational church in the state. In reality, it was the Congregational church with the oldest building, but by no means the oldest Congregational church as “Old Steeple Church” just down the street in Aquebogue had become Congregational at least a century earlier.
Tri-Parish cooperative agreement in 1962
In 1962, as membership gradually declined in all of the Congregational churches in the area, the Sound Avenue, Aquebogue and Jamesport churches formed the Tri-Parish. It was not a true union, but rather just a cooperative agreement between three churches to share two ministers. In 1972, they attempted to form a consolidated church, but the vote, which required a two-thirds majority in all three congregations, was defeated when the Aquebogue Church decided to separate. At that point, the other two churches merged to from the “First Parish Church” in the United Church of Christ denomination. They chose the name “First Parish” because the old meeting house in Jamesport -- then 231 years old -- was indeed the first parish in the area that eventually became the Town of Riverhead.
For many years, this parish met for part of the year in the Sound Avenue Church and the other part of the year in Jamesport. However, as membership continued to dwindle, they decided in the early 1990s to consolidate into the larger Sound Avenue building.
House of Praise 1990-2002
The First Parish rented the Jamesport meeting house to the House of Praise, a charismatic black congregation. The House of Praise continued to use the building until about 2002 when First Parish decided to reclaim the building and put it on the market.
North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship rents and starts restoration in 2006
The North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which had been meeting in the Sound Avenue Hall also owned by First Parish, moved to the old Jamesport meeting house in the spring of 2006, renting it, with and option to purchase, and began restoration of the structure – with a goal of making this ancient meeting house once again the vital center of the North Fork community it has served for 275 years.