Union Meetinghouse lottery payout list. (from Newport Historical Society notes 1912).

Union Meetinghouse lottery payout list. (from Newport Historical Society notes 1912).

Meeting at the Southermost School in 1820, a group calling themselves the “Rhode Island Union Society” wanted to built a church where people of all denominations could worship together. They tried to raise money, but the church was left half-built. So in 1824 they petitioned the State of Rhode Island for permission to hold a lottery to raise the sum of $2000 to complete their church.

From Revolutionary times to the 1840s, lotteries played a big role in providing revenue for civic buildings in Rhode Island. Banks were rare and taxes were too low to cover needed civic improvements. In the same year that the Union Meetinghouse lottery was approved, the town of Portsmouth was granted a lottery to pay for Charity Bridge and roads along what we call Park Avenue today. In Newport County lotteries were used for rebuilding Long Wharf, buying books for Redwood Library, building a public school in Newport and even paying for the reconstruction of the 1795 bridge over the Sakonnet River!

“The bridge connecting the island of Rhode Island with the mainland at Howland’s Ferry was first opened for crossing on Thursday, Oct. 15th, 1795; it was washed away in the great gale of September, 1815, and in the October following the Rhode Island Bridge Co., under whose auspices it had been originally built, and subsequently managed, obtained a grant from the Assembly to raise the sum of $25,000 by a lottery, the money so raised “ to be expended in rebuilding the bridge and rendering the same permanent ” (Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, 1912).

Maybe lotteries were not such a great idea. Lotteries were ended by the state in the 1840s. Many of the lotteries authorized didn’t raise the needed funds. The lottery for the Union Meeting House didn’t quite generate enough money and the church was forced to “sell” pews to members to make up the difference.

By 1865 the little meetinghouse was too small for the congregation and the building was moved to the Sisson lot across East Main Road. A larger church was built on this same site and renamed the “Christian Church.” The Portsmouth Historical Society now has the care for this historic building. Should history repeat itself? Do we hold a lottery to raise funds to repair our building?