Date of Award

Spring 2021

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Jessica M Lepler

Second Advisor

Lucy Salyer

Third Advisor

Cynthia Van Zandt


This dissertation examines Unitarian and Congregational religious societies in northern New England port cities from 1790-1850 and argues that pew proprietorship created a plutocracy, which resulted in the development of a corporate character for Protestant churches and a prioritization of secular over theological concerns. Scholarship on Protestant New England churches during the Early Republic is sorely lacking and historians need a greater understanding of the role proprietors played in church affairs. In the antebellum period, wealthy Protestant elites in Portland, Maine, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Boston, Massachusetts consolidated their power through the purchase of pews, which provided them proportional control over religious societies. In some cases, proprietors used such influence to oust ministers with competing economic or political views. For African Americans, the inability to purchase pews and wield control led some to create their own churches where they could express their ambition and work toward economic betterment. Proprietors applied a corporate model to the pecuniary affairs of the society and this led to increased expenditures in the search for gentility and for competitive efforts. Such expenditures and concern over the debt pew owners were individually accumulating negatively affected a church’s ability to respond to national economic crises. Additionally, as pew ownership and the plutocratic nature of religious societies caused increasing conflict, religious societies increasingly employed legal and market mechanisms to regulate their financial affairs. However, the business model which proprietors applied was often inefficient due to variable costs and a revenue base, which could not be expanded or diversified. Ultimately, proprietors in the Early Republic tended to be champions of economic modernization, individualism, and ambition, which shaped the theological expression of Protestant churches and religious societies.