For someone who puts no credence in the traditional concept of the capitalized God, I’ve always been unusually fascinated by the ways in which religion has guided history, and how history has sometimes guided the course of religion. Especially in rural environments, religious buildings exert a similar appeal for me, standing as reflections of both the spirit and spirituality of a community. Churches were the places where nearly everyone in country hamlets used to congregate, partly for worship but also for their principal social interaction of the week.

The denomination of the church might not matter at all to the communicants. If the Congregationalists or Episcopalians met miles away, but a Baptist or Methodist church stood close by, the provincials would often attend there. Eventually they might become Baptists or Methodists by convenience, rather than by conversion. Such was the influence of the social element on church attendance.

Originally, all New Hampshire landowners were taxed for the support of their town’s Congregational church and the support of its minister. Rival denominations had to fund their own churches or clergymen on top of those costs — just as parents today who send their children to private schools still have to fund the “established” school system they find unacceptable. That all changed exactly two centuries ago, when the New Hampshire Legislature passed the Toleration Act in the summer of 1819. That law exempted anyone from religious taxation who did not share the tenets of the established church. Thereafter, public funds could only be raised to maintain meetinghouses that were used for municipal purposes.

The Toleration Act of 1819 initiated a decades-long flurry of church construction that included a new Congregational church on the south side of Main Street in Conway Village in 1826. Another Congregational church was built below North Conway Village.

The law also encouraged churches for newer denominations by saving their adherents the cost of religious taxes, which they could invest in their own buildings. Poorer farmers in the hill districts were gravitating to the Baptists in the 1820s, and in Conway a society of Freewill Baptists on the eastern side of Walker’s Pond built a meetinghouse of their own at a now-vanished intersection on the Gulf Road. That structure was abandoned just before the Civil War, and was cannibalized for lumber over the next few decades. No exterior image of it has ever been identified. Old-time residents recognized a vague description of it in Louisa Mae Alcott’s “Eight Cousins,” written after she vacationed nearby, but I’ve long wondered what it really looked like. The design and degree of detail might say much about the Goshen neighborhood that has gone unrecorded.

Freewill Baptists in Eaton belonged to that society and sometimes attended the Goshen services. After that meetinghouse fell out of use they built the Little White Church in Eaton Center, with the tall, slender steeple that was just taken down after 140 years. Churches of the 19th century seemed to engage in an erectile competition not unlike that of the local fire departments that vied with each other for ownership of the longest extension ladders. For the churches, the contest implied that the height of their steeples indicated their proximity to God.

I presume that is not the motivation behind the campaign to rebuild the steeple on the Eaton church, when more modest renovation might leave it resembling equally iconic churches in Stark or Stoddard. The effort may only reflect the resistance to change in revered landmarks. I certainly understand that, for I’ve never fully reconciled myself to the addition to the Conway Public Library, despite valiant efforts at architectural compatibility.

I harbor my own fond memories of the Little White Church, dating from my first job at Camp Waukeela, in 1964, but my attachment is also grounded in events that took place before I was born. Everything memorable, however, took place inside. Only last winter, while trying to replicate a vintage photo of the church, did I appreciate the real height of the steeple. Before that, I’m not sure I had noticed it enough to even describe it.

Having just taken down a beloved tree that threatened my house in this era of increasingly violent storms, I might think twice about rebuilding so vulnerable a feature, especially considering what the 1938 hurricane did to the more substantial steeple of Keene’s Congregational church. Such factors have probably already been raised and evaluated by the overseers, however, and I hardly feel inclined to kibbitz a private project outside my town. 

Whether they replace the steeple or opt for a truncated belfry — or roof over the front gable and remove the bell — the building will still remind me equally of those who meet there today and those who will never meet there again.

 

William Marvel lives in South Conway.

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