In certain quiet nooks of Old England, and, by contrast, in some of the busiest centres of New England, landmarks of religious history are to be found which are not to be easily understood by every passer-by. He is familiar with the ordinary places of worship, at least as features in, the picture of town or village. Here is the parish church where the English episcopal order has succeeded to the Roman; yonder is the more modern dissenting chapel, homely or ornate. But, now and then, among the non-episcopal buildings we find what is called distinctively a ’Meeting House,’ or more briefly a ‘Meeting,’ which may perhaps be styled ‘Old,’ ‘New,’ or ‘Great’. Its architecture usually corresponds with the simplicity of its name. Plain almost to ugliness, yet not without some degree of severe dignity, stand these old barn-like structures of brick—occasionally of stone; bearing the mellowing touch of time, surrounded by a little overshadowed graveyard, they often add a peculiar quaintness and solemnity to the scene. Mrs. Gaskell has described one such in her novel Ruth, and admirers of her art should know well that her own grave lies beside the little sanctuary she pictured so lovingly.
Sometimes, however, the surroundings of the ancient chapel are less attractive. It stands, it may be, in some poverty-stricken corner or court of a town or city. Whatever picturesqueness it may have had once has long since vanished. Unlovely decay, an air of desolation, symptoms of neglect, present a mournful sight, and one wonders how much longer the poor relic will remain. Many places of the kind have already been swept away; others have been renovated, enlarged, and kept more worthy of their use. Not all the Meeting Houses are of one kind. Independents, Baptists, and Friends, each possess some of them. Now and again the notice-board tells us that this is a ‘Presbyterian’ place of worship, but a loyal Scot who yearns for an echo of the kirk would be greatly surprised on finding, as he would if he entered, that the doctrine and worship there is not Calvinistic in any shape whatever, but—Unitarian.
A similar surprise awaits the visitor to New England, it may be even a greater. For if he should tread In the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers and find the ‘lineal descendants’ of their original places of worship at Plymouth, Salem, or Boston, he will find Unitarians in possession. So it is in many of the oldest towns founded by the American colonists of the seventeenth century. In their centres the parish churches, ‘First,’ ‘Second,’ or otherwise, stand forth challenging everybody’s attention. There is no lack of self-assertion here, nothing at all like the shrinking of the Old English Presbyterian into obscure alleys and corners. Spacious, well appointed, and secure, these Unitarian parish churches, in the words of a popular Unitarian poet, ’look the whole world in the face, and fear not any man.’