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Land Used as a Place of Religious Tolerance

For the week of Monday May 20, 2013

On May 24, 1821, the land transfer deed for the construction of the Free Meeting House in Moncton, New Brunswick, was signed. In the spirit of religious tolerance and co-operation, the meeting house served as place of worship for various religious denominations until 1963.

Façade of the Free Meeting House
© Parks Canada / 2008
In New Brunswick, before the arrival of Protestant immigrants from the United States in the second half of the 18th century, the majority of the population was Catholic. When a wave of settlers of various denominations arrived in the province, the towns had to adjust their way of functioning. Most of the inhabitants were spread out in small communities and had to turn to their parish for social services. Not every religious group had its own place of worship, so New Brunswickers used meeting houses for this purpose.

Inspired by British classicism, the building was constructed in the style of a New England meeting house designed to accommodate various groups. The Free Meeting House in Moncton was built in 1821 through the efforts of Joseph Crandall, the first Baptist leader in the province. The land was deeded by Hannah and William Steadman, and the building was constructed by the community mainly with donated materials. The finished building consisted of a large open space on one level, surmounted by a hipped roof of cedar shingles. The exterior featured birch-bark cladding. The Free Meeting House’s modest appearance does not diminish its historical importance, especially for the region. It is one of Moncton’s oldest buildings!

East entrance of the Free Meeting House, 1892
© Moncton Museum
Over the years, the Free Meeting House served as a home for people of many religious faiths, including Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Methodists and Presbyterians. In fact, the Free Meeting House was made available to religious groups that were waiting to build their own churches and community centres. Some groups made it their home for as many as 57 years! Other community members also used it. For example, in 1838, soldiers who were encamped in the area established their headquarters there because the Free Meeting House was the only public building in the region at that time.

The Free Meeting House was designated as a National Historic Site in 1990 because it symbolizes the interfaith religious tolerance that prevailed in the Atlantic Provinces at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. The Free Meeting House has been owned by the City of Moncton since 1964, and it is part of the Moncton Museum.

For more information about the history of New Brunswick, see Loyalists Arrive in New Brunswick, Still Going to School! and A Collision of Orange and Green in the archives of This Week in History.

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