Why is there a Congregational church in every town center?
Stately white Congregational churches dominate just about every village center in the Berkshires. Their origins lie in the 17th-century settling of Massachusetts by the Pilgrims and Puritans. The two groups differed in their aims, but they agreed on three key points: Congregationalism was their system of governance, their faith was based on the teachings of John Calvin, and other religions were not tolerated. As the colonies expanded, new settlements were required to form a Congregational parish before a town could be incorporated. Outsiders could expect harsh treatment.
Congregationalism was declared the “established” church of the Massachusetts Colony by legislative act in 1692. Church and town were separate corporations, but leadership was the same and the “meetinghouse” held civic and religious functions. Every town was required to raise money through taxation in support of the church. That continued until 1833 when Massachusetts became the last state to “disestablish” its founding religion.
Gradually, other religious groups had arrived in Massachusetts and toleration slowly increased, but Congregational churches were already at the core of virtually every Massachusetts town. Sheffield, incorporated in 1733, became Berkshire County’s first town, with its church (pictured here) officially founded two years later. Only Baptist Cheshire (1793) and religiously diverse Savoy (1797) have origins outside the established church.
Most Congregational churches are now affiliated with the United Church of Christ Congregational. The religion has evolved, but those signature white steeples still lead the way to most town centers.