They came from Watertown walking along old Indian paths through the dense forests of Pine Plain toward the fertile meadowland along the Musketahquid (Sudbury) River. These Puritan families had petitioned the colonial legislature for the right to settle a new town to the west.
After a harrowing ocean voyage to Boston in a small sailing ship, now in September of 1638, they were facing the further challenges of building rude shelters, gathering firewood, and drying what edible foods they could find to be able to survive the biting winds that would sweep across the river plain.
The native Indians had been there before them and were still there in small numbers, relatively peaceful and even helpful when their paths crossed. The tasks of felling trees, building dwellings, and planting crops occupied every waking moment to insure survival until there was time in 1640 for the community to be “gathered” as a church.
The first small meetinghouse for the settlement was constructed in 1642 on the upland above the broad river valley where our North Cemetery is today. It had a pitched roof and a dirt floor. At first there were no benches and, of course, no heat. This building would do for worship for ten years – a very strict orthodox form of worship.
The need for a larger meetinghouse to accommodate the growing population with large families was satisfied by the building of the second meetinghouse in 1652 on the same spot as the first. It was said to have had several gables with steep pitches to prevent snow from accumulating and larger plain window openings to admit more light. The only heat might have been provided by the parishioners’ dogs sleeping below their feet.
During the whole period leading up to King Philip’s War in 1676, the unrest among the Indians, who were fast losing ancestral land led to tense times for the settlers along the frontier and Sudbury was a frontier town at that time.
An even larger third meetinghouse was constructed thirty-four years later on the same spot in 1686. We have to recall that the meetinghouse was not only a place for worship but one for deciding the allotment of lands in an equitable manner. It was a storage spot for guns and ammunition that might be needed for later defense. The experience of almost having been driven back into the Atlantic by King Philip’s warriors combined with a growing population made defensive measures a must.
The 1686 meetinghouse had a bell on the ridgepole. This replaced the beating of a drum that had heretofore been used to call the people to worship. Ringing the bell could also signal danger for farmers working in their fields.
The fourth meetinghouse was built in 1725 and, like the three previous ones, paid for by the whole community of Sudbury. The controversies leading to its completion began in 1707 and involved heated debate whether or not the west side inhabitants across the river would have a meetinghouse of their own or that a larger new meeting house east of the river would meet everyone’s needs – east and west. Back and forth went petitions to the General Court (the legislature) in Boston since the idea of a division of Sudbury at the river into two different towns was always lurking in the background. Finally, the General Court approved the funds and location for a west side meetinghouse at Rocky Plain in Sudbury Center where its successor sits today. Since the so-called Natick farmers had joined the town in 172l, they soon urged the General Court to build another meetinghouse in Wayland Center closer to them. This resulted in expending town funds for both meetinghouses and two ministers. Despite agitation, Sudbury remained as one town and undivided until later.
The 1725 meetinghouse was built on land at the end of Pelham Island Road in Wayland Center just behind where Dr. Cooper’s office is located. Many of the timbers were used from the third meetinghouse at North Cemetery – hauled over the frozen snow from the old burying ground. Some have described it as “a rather undistinguished, square built structure”. The dimensions were exactly the same as the meetinghouse built in the West Precinct: 46 feet long and 58 feet wide. The Puritan tradition continued to stress simplicity, and there was no chimney, steeple or architectural frills for adornment.
By the time the fifth meetinghouse was built in 1814-15, ninety years had passed during which our nation had fought for and gained independence. It was clear from discussions beginning in 1806 that townspeople wanted the new building for religious purposes only. Town meetings, traditionally the most significant civic use, would have to go elsewhere.
Debate over which side of Mill Brook to locate the meetinghouse went on for seven years before 1814. Townspeople living south of the new town center wanted it on the south side and those living north of the new town center wanted it on the north side of Mill Brook, which today runs under Route 20. At last, at the April 1813 town meeting, a motion was made to have citizens from the south end of town purchase an acre of Mr. Wyman’s pasture land for a meetinghouse and carriage sheds. (The carriage sheds, that once extended in back of the church as well as on the east side, were built in 1815.) In exchange, the north end of town would accept the site preferred by the south of town. The motion passed and debate ended. Thus, this church is on this spot today!
A master carpenter, Andrews Palmer, adapted Asher Benjamin’s design for a rectangular church with a three-doored entrance porch, Palladian windows, and an open belfry topped with a golden dome and weathervane. It had the outward appearance of a church but legally it remained a municipal meetinghouse until the separation of church and state in Mass. in 1833.
Inside was a larger open space in 1815 than now, all white with a minimum of ornamentation.
Seating was on the main floor with galleries supported by fluted columns on three sides. The pulpit formerly stood on six slender columns high above the floor, approached by winding stairs on either side. The family pews, of the old square type, were introduced for the first time in the fifth meetinghouse. They were entered by a door from the aisles and had seats on three sides so that nearly one-half of the congregation – usually the children – sat with their backs to the minister.
35 years later in 1850, major changes took place inside: the old white interior woodwork was “grained” in imitation of hardwood, and the walls were frescoed elaborately in imitation of columns, arches, alcoves and panels. Two stories were created by flooring over the space between the galleries. The window behind the pulpit was closed up while the windows on each side were lengthened. In addition, the choir loft was built at the rear and ceiling decorations, still visible, added. All surfaces were covered in rich yellow-brown, light ochre, and tan paints. All of this change lasted only until century’s end when white returned!
In 1992 an addition to provide a minister’s office was added to the back of the church that included an elevator for handicapped access. The choir loft was enlarged and cantilevered over the sanctuary.