Odd church steeples

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While researching our book Curious New England, co-author Diane E. Foulds and I set out to find every oddity we could. We searched museums, islands, dusty corners of public buildings, even deep into the New England woodland. But the one place we almost forgot to look was up. Specifically, at the top of church steeples. And the winner hands down for church-top oddities is the state of New Hampshire.

In the town of Milton Mills, you can see what we call “God’s Hand” high atop the Methodist church. The story is that in 1871 local folks built the Church using donated materials. By summer’s end, most of the crew had quit. However, church founder Aratus B. Shaw, was no quitter. He worked alone throughout fall and winter, determined to finish the job. After building the pews, he decorated the exterior. But he needed a grand finale.

From a solid block of wood he carved – carefully to scale – a giant closed fist with its forefinger pointing upward. The whole thing is about 44 inches tall. The wrist is 20 inches in circumference; the extended finger, 11 inches long. Somehow Mr. Shaw hoisted his creation to the dizzying summit of the steeple. Today the hand is easy to see, but over the years there has been a lot of speculation about exactly what it means.

The obvious message is that it points the way to Heaven. But some folks say Mr. Shaw carved it to show who’d given him the courage, strength, and endurance to see the project through. Then again, maybe he just wanted to show he’d done the work… single-handedly.

New Hampshire’s other church-top oddity is in downtown Hampton Falls. It’s easy to miss it if someone doesn’t point it out to you. You have to look way up at the top of the steeple on the First Baptist Church. Use binoculars or a telescope. Then ask yourself: Is something unusual up there? Could it be a five-and-a-half-foot beer bottle? And what in the world is it doing on top of a Baptist church?

As with all such oddities, there are several competing explanations. The most popular may well be apocryphal. It holds that in the mid-19th century a local brewery offered funds to construct a new steeple. But there was a catch: their product had to be displayed at the top for all to see. Well, if this is product placement, certainly far worse things could be up there. At least this promotes spirit. It’s as if the raised bottle is the parish toasting their maker: “This Bud’s for You!”

I’m Joe Citro.

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter. He lives in Burlington.

(C) Copywirght 2003, Joseph A. Citro

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