Printed in Sacred and Secular: Historic Meetinghouses and Churches of the Monadnock Region.
Historical Society of Cheshire County, 2006
At the first town meeting held in 1772, it was voted to build a meetinghouse on a lot designated for that purpose in the center of the town. It was a simple log building, twenty-five by thirty feet, described by Rev. Edwin N. Hardy as “roughly constructed, unpainted, unheated and unadorned.” However simple, it met the needs of the church and town for fifteen years.
The Rev. Ellsworth P. Phillips (1861-1931), a former minister, describes the church community in this early period:
“The Rev. Jacob Foster ministered to this sturdy church on the frontier for ten years. The early years had been full of privations and hardship. The families were few and scattered, the roads rough and mere paths indicated by marked trees. Many of the houses were only rude structures in their stump dotted clearings. The frame houses were scantily furnished, the outfit and tools were mostly home made, the conveniences meager and the food supply uncertain. But the hardy settlers were strong of mustle and brave of heart. They cut away the forests, cleared the land, built miles of stone walls and other miles of roads with here and there an old fashioned saw-mill or grist-mill. They welcomed new settlers.”
As the town continued to grow and prosper, it was decided to build a large new meetinghouse measuring sixty by forty feet to accommodate the increased number of church members and town residents. It was an impressive wood-framed structure of two stories painted a light yellow with porches at either end housing staircases to the upper gallery. They also served as separate entrances for men and women for in this period they did not sit together during services. This structure served from 1787 to 1846 as the focal point of the old village on the hill.
Inside the sanctuary, the pulpit was the main feature of the meetinghouse. It was handsomely made of white pine, carved, paneled, and ornamented to match the pews and galleries. It was of commanding size and height, level with the gallery floor. The pulpit was reached by a narrow staircase extending from the main aisle. Over the pulpit was a large, very ornamented sounding board suspended from the ceiling. Pews were located on either side of the center aisle and along the walls.
The Nelson Church, built in 1841
After the policy of separation of church and state was established by The Toleration Act in 1819, the First Congregational Church of Nelson was incorporated in 1822. The present church was built 1841 in the newly developing village at the base of the hill just north of the former location. The frame of the old meetinghouse was taken down and used in the construction of the present town hall in 1846. The porches were bought by George Whitney and moved by oxen to the new village where they placed opposite each other. A span was built to connect them forming the handsome residence called “The Porches” still in use on Old Stoddard Road.
Ecclesiastically, the new meetinghouse was used solely for two religious services on Sunday or for special meetings such as ordinations, installations, or conferences.
The new Center School, District No. 1, built in 1838
When the new District No. 1 schoolhouse was built in the village in 1838, the church voted to add a second floor to provide space for meetings and other church activities such as bible study groups and a music school. This was paid for by subscription from the church members. The barreled ceiling of room can still be seen over the partitions that were later installed to make it usable as a town office. The present church served the community for over 150 years before a major renovation was undertaken. The building was raised up, chimney and all, and a basement was added under the structure in 1990 that includes a large meeting hall, office space, storage, bathrooms, and a modern kitchen that supports many church and community activities. The Sunday school no longer has to leave the church to have their lessons in the town hall across the street. The benches from the old meetinghouse now have a home almost 200 years after The Toleration Act was passed.