You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Standing at the northwest corner of Copley Square, Old South Church is an outstanding and colorful example of Northern Italian Gothic architecture, advocated in the 1850s by the English architectural critic John Ruskin. This National Historic Landmark building is an unusually ornate design for a New England Congregational church. It radiates the opulent taste and the sense of optimism and progress of the Industrial Revolution following the Civil War. The building, formally known as the “New” Old South Church, is the third home of the congregation, which was gathered in 1669. The building was completed in 1875, and is distinguished by its tall bell tower (campanile); brown, pink and grey stonework; walls of Roxbury puddingstone; decorative carvings; its polychromatic roof of red and black slate tiles; and its copper cupola or lantern.
Famous personages related to Old South Church include the following: Our first minister, Rev. Thomas Thacher who, during an outbreak of the small pox and measles, published in 1677 a useful medical broadside, said to be the first “patient information brochure” in the colonies. Samuel Sewall was a judge and diarist. In 1697 at the Cedar Meeting House (Old South’s first building), Sewall publicly recanted the error of his rulings as one of the nine Salem witch trial judges who in 1692 condemned so-called witches to death. Sewall went on to publish in 1700 the first anti-slavery tract on this soil, The Selling of Joseph. In this work he argued strongly against slavery making him one of the earliest colonial abolitionists. Moreover, his 1725 essay, “Talitha Cumi” refers to the right of women. In 1717, Sewall was appointed chief justice of Massachusetts. The Old South congregation baptized Benjamin Franklin on the day he was born in 1706 and his family members were prominent leaders. Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black poetess, and Mary Chilton, the first woman to step ashore at Plymouth in 1620, were members of this church. So, too, were Samuel Adams, revolutionary and patriot, William Dawes who rode with Paul Revere, and Thomas Prince, book collector.
Old South Church played a significant role in early American history through the bold actions of the Sons of Liberty at the Old South Meeting House. There, in 1773, Samuel Adams gave the signal for the “war whoops” that started the Boston Tea Party. (Read "Sanctuary of Freedom," a keynote address delivered by Rev. James W. Crawford, Senior Minister Emeritus.) During the Civil War, 1,019 men enlisted in one day at Old South to fight for the Union cause. Old South’s ministry has been distinguished by eloquent preaching on matters of theology and conscience and by our Congregational commitment to freedom of the pulpit, free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, public education and civil rights. As poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “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.” Members of Old South have helped found numerous institutions serving economic and social justice, including the City Mission Society, the YMCA, the Boston Seafarers Society, Training Inc., Boston Aging Concerns – Young And Old United, Match Up Interfaith Volunteers and Tent City Corporation.
Origins of the Congregation
The Old South Church congregation is a descendant of the fusion between separatist and dissenting Pilgrims, Puritan reformers, and Bay Colony merchant adventurers, who left England in the 17th century, some to escape persecution, and others to forge a more prosperous life in the New World. The congregation (initially called the Third Church in Boston) was born in controversy in 1669 over the question of baptism. Both the First and the Second Church in Boston were headed by ministers who opposed the “Halfway Covenant” of 1662. These ministers required that baptized adults have a regeneration experience of God (a born again experience) before they could have their own children baptized.
Twenty-eight lay members of the First Church seceded and founded this congregation in the belief, consistent with the Halfway Covenant, that childhood baptism should assure young adults that they would be full members and could baptize their children, who in turn should automatically be members as adults.
The founders of Old South understood themselves to be a priesthood of all believers, related to God solely through Christ and justified by grace through faith. Their covenant stated “We…being called of God to join together into a Church…do in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, trusting only in his grace and help, solemnly bind ourselves together as in the presence of God, constantly to walk together as a Church of Christ…. We give up ourselves and our offspring…unto our Lord Jesus Christ as the only mediator, our only spiritual head.” In the early 19th century, this congregation, under the leadership of ministers Joseph Eckley, Joshua Huntington and Benjamin Wisner, again went against the prevailing congregational theology of the day, and resisted becoming Unitarian. Old South Church was in fact the only congregational church in Boston to remain Trinitarian during the Unitarian movement, and to continue worshiping God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Today this Trinity is expressed as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
Later in the 19th century, Old South joined with Park Street Church to found the City Mission Society to address the needs of the urban community. Under the leadership of minister Jacob Manning (a radical abolitionist), the meetinghouse was opened to become a recruiting station for the Union Army. Although reluctant to embrace war as a means to solve the nation’s problems, the congregation, nevertheless, became convinced of the Union cause during Manning’s tenure.
Old South Church moved to its current Back Bay site in December 1875. Since the first Boston Marathon in 1897, Old South has been known as being the Church of the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon. The Boston Transcript described the New Old South Church as “the most beautiful basilica in North America.” It is designed in a style inspired by the architecture of medieval Venice (Ruskinian Italian Gothic). The exterior is of Roxbury puddingstone and the interior is of plaster with Italian cherry woodwork. The architects were Cummings and Sears of Boston. Notable among the interior features are Venetian mosaics and stained glass windows of 15th century English style. The sanctuary was completely renovated in 1985.
With the leadership of George Angier Gordon, Old South entered a new era of inclusivity. Gordon was one of the great liberal pulpiteers of the time and preached an expansive and liberal faith, inspired by intellectual rigor and combined with love of neighbor. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Old South’s commitment to urban mission in Christ’s name has been shepherded by pastors Russell Stafford, Frederick Meek, James W. Crawford and Nancy S. Taylor (the latter of whom serves as the 20th, and first female, Senior Minister).
Old South in the 21st Century
Today, Old South Church continues to outfit itself for mission and ministry in the 21st century as a thriving urban church in the heart of Boston. As proclaimed in its bylaws, the purpose of Old South Church is “to worship God, preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate the Sacraments; to realize Christian fellowship and unity within this Church and in the Church Universal; to render loving service towards humanity; and to strive for righteousness, justice and peace.” Old South is a Protestant, Congregational church and a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), a socially inclusive and progressive denomination. Old South joined the UCC at its birth in 1957, when the denomination was formed from the merger of several streams of Protestant Christianity, including the Congregational Christian Churches of which Old South was a member.
Old South Church is a spiritual home to more than 650 people raised in many different faiths, who have responded to the invitation of Christ carved into the stone of the church’s portico, “Behold, I Have Set Before Thee An Open Door” (Revelation 3:8). We affirm each individual as a child of God, and recognize that we are called to be like one body with many members, seeking with others of every race, ethnicity, creed, class, age, gender, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to journey together toward the promised realm of God, relying upon the healing, unconditional nature of God’s love and grace to be our help and guide.
The church rests its existence on confidence in the great Latin affirmation chiseled into the stone of its Boylston Street portico: Qui transtulit sustinet. (The God who has brought us thus far will continue to sustain us.) In this assurance Old South immerses itself in the stress and flux of changing times, eager to proclaim and serve the living God.
Ministers of Old South Church
Thomas Thacher 1670-1678