Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
Ownership and Administration. First Parish (Unitarian), Hingham.
Significance. Some authorities contend that this church, also known as the Meeting House, erected in 1681, is the oldest English church in continuous use in America. The major rival for this distinction is the Newport Parish Church (St. Luke's) in Smithfield, Va. Old Ship Church is certainly the earliest of New England's churches, and it is a striking survivor of the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts in the 17th century.
The earliest settlement within the bounds of the present town of Hingham dates from 1633, and the major period of settlement began in 1635, when a party arrived under the leadership of the Reverend Peter Hobart and soon built the first meetinghouse. The present structure was erected in 1681, according to tradition by ships' carpenters. This tradition, plus the "look-out," or "captain's walk," surrounding the belfry, and the curved roof timbers which give the interior the appearance of an inverted ship's hull, all probably contributed to the church's name.
For more than a century following its construction, the church was used for town meetings and village gatherings. In 1791, when the congregation voted to raze it and erect a new church, it narrowly escaped destruction. Fortunately, this move was reconsidered, and the church continued to serve its congregation without interruption.
Present Appearance. The plain wooden structure reflects the Puritan rejection of the Gothic architecture of the Anglican tradition and represents a style of building common to New England meetinghouses of the 17th century, for which no Old World precedent existed. The Puritans also abandoned traditional interior arrangements; the pulpit replaced the altar as the focal point of the service, and benches faced it and ran lengthwise of the church. The main entrance was in the rear of the benches, opposite the pulpit.
The church is a unique example of the primitive type of church that has been restored to its original condition. Except for the early 18th-century gallery additions, thanks to careful restoration in 1930, it stands today much as it was originally built. It is handsomely maintained by its Unitarian congregation. 
NHL Designation: 10/09/60
Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005