So long as Boston shall Boston be,
And her bay tides rise and fall,
Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church,
And plead for the rights of all.
-- John Greenleaf Whittier, 1877
Old South Church in Boston has stood at the heart of American ministry for nearly 350 years, playing an integral role in the fight for American independence, the Abolitionist movement, and the founding of myriad charitable organizations.
The roots of Old South Church reach to the 17th century, when dissenters broke away from Boston’s First Church, forming what became known as the Third Church in Boston in 1669. The congregation grew to include some of America’s most prominent thinkers and statesmen; Benjamin Franklin was baptized at the Church in 1706, and the patriots Samuel Adams and William Dawes were counted as members. In 1773, Adams gathered some 5,000 citizens in and around the Church, then situated at the Old South Meeting House, shouting out the Mohawk “war whoops” that signaled the patriots to storm the trade ship Dartmouth--thus starting the Boston Tea Party, the most iconic event of the American Revolution.
Thomas Thacher, the Church’s first pastor, published the Colonies’ first medical broadside in 1678, specifically to treat “Small-Pocks,” and member, judge, and diarist Samuel Sewall not only presided over the Salem Witch Trials in 1692—later publicly recanting his verdict and repenting of his part in the hysteria—but also published the first anti-slavery tract in the Americas in 1700. Phillis Wheatley, enslaved as a child, became America’s first published black poetess and was a member of Old South in the 18th century. During the Civil War, Old South Church served as a Union Army recruiting center, and throughout the 19th century the church solidified its reputation as theological home of personal freedom and civil liberties in the United States. Church members have founded important American civic institutions including the YMCA, the Boston Seafarer’s Society, and the City Mission Society.
Old South Church’s current building on Copley Square was designed between 1870 and 1872 by the firm Cummings and Sears, architects of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. With distinctive wrought iron ornamentation, large open porticos, and elaborately carved decorative fauna, the building is one of the most significant achievements of the Venetian Gothic style in North America, and is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Old South Church’s storied past has also blessed it with some of its most important treasures, including silver objects by the earliest silversmiths in colonial America, John Hull and Robert Sanderson, and their successors Jeremiah Dummer, John Coney, and Paul Revere, among others. John Hull, the first working silversmith in New England, was a founder and deacon of the church, and his grandson Joseph Sewall, son of the diarist, served as minister from 1713 to 1769. A wine cup made for the Church by Paul Revere has been recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In addition to the silver, published by E. A. Jones in 1913, the church possesses 1600 volumes of rare books and manuscripts, including a copy of the celebrated Bay Psalm Book of 1640, the first printed book in the British colonies.
At the base of Old South Church’s Boylston Street portico is the Latin inscription: Qui transtullit
sustinet (“The God who has brought us thus far will continue to sustain us”). Indeed, perhaps no
other congregation in America has figured so greatly in the American social fabric as Old South Church. At the forefront of social justice for more than three centuries, the church’s mission to serve the lost, the impoverished, and the marginalized continues to this day.
PROPERTY OF OLD SOUTH CHURCH IN BOSTON