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Speaking of a Space for Faith
Wainwright_CoverNH BOOKS

Paul Wainwright shoots ancient spaces with an old view camera. His large-format photography (no digital, no color, all natural lighting) perfectly matches the colonial meetinghouses in his newest book. In this interview Wainwright talks about how and why he prefers to go slow ina fast world. (Continued below)


The Puritans of colonial New England did not distinguish between civic and religious life – the two were one in their society. In his new book, A Space for Faith: The Colonial Meetinghouses of New England, photographer Paul Wainwright explores the architecture and ambience of America’s earliest municipal buildings. These were spaces where townspeople prayed, conducted town business, and developed an early form of town-hall democracy that led to the one we know today.

An interview with Paul Wainwright

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Q: Who built the meetinghouses in your book?

A: Most were built by the Puritans, who had rebelled against the Church of England. Several present-day denominations can trace their roots to the Puritans, including the Congregational, UCC, and Unitarian Churches.

In Rhode Island, the situation was a little different, because that colony was founded by Baptists, people who themselves had rebelled against the Puritans’ own religious intolerance. Rhode Island’s meetinghouses were built with donations, not taxes, and were primarily used for worship.

Q: How did you select your subjects?

Wainwright_PortraitA: My criteria were primarily artistic. There are presently about 500 buildings in New England that were built originally as meetinghouses during the Colonial period, but the vast majority have been substantially altered, many having been converted into churches with a purely religious function. Only about 30 are essentially unchanged, and it was these I chose to photograph.

Q: What is a typical colonial meetinghouse like?

A: It’s important to understand that they were not churches; they served all the social needs of their communities: cultural, municipal, and religious. Most had no steeple. They had separate entrances for men and women on the two shorter ends. In the middle of one of the longer walls was another entrance, the "door of honor," used only by the minister and other dignitaries.

Inside, a pulpit was mounted high on the wall opposite the door of honor, and there was a window above and behind the pulpit. There was no altar. Families sat in box pews, while single people and slaves sat in a gallery that wrapped around three sides of the second level.

Q: How did you become interested in colonial meetinghouses?

A: I have always been drawn to photograph old buildings, and some of my best photographs are of interiors of them. I attended a public showing of the colonial meetinghouse in Freemont, New Hampshire, and began to learn about the history and function of meetinghouses. I found the building to be gorgeous – the space, the workmanship, the play of the light on the old wood – and I made several very nice photographs of the Fremont meetinghouse. Later the same day I drove past another meetinghouse and I recognized the type immediately. I looked up the caretaker and got permission to make additional photographs. Without any definite plan, I began looking for more meetinghouses and photographing them over a span of several years. After I posted a few of those photographs on my website, I noticed that they were getting more hits than anything else, and I realized that there were a lot of people interested in colonial meetinghouses.


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