Across three-and-a-half centuries, Old South Church has had three distinct homes in which to gather and worship.
The Cedar Meeting House (inhabited 1669-1729)
Old South Church, the third congregation gathered in Boston, was gathered on May 12, 1669. Later that year, on December 19, they held the inaugural service in their first home: the Cedar Meeting House. Erected on land originally belonging to Governor John Winthrop (and deeded to us by Mary Norton, widow of the former pastor of First Church), it was made of cedar, with a steeple, galleries, and square pews. The pulpit was situated — as in the current Old South Meeting House — against the side wall. Several founders of the church described it as “a large, spacious and faire meeting house, with three large porches, every way completely fitted, and covered with sheete lead, the house and said porches, which stood them and their associates neere if not above two thousand pounds.” (Hamilton Hill, vol. 1, p.140) As the building was located in what was then the south end of town, the new church came to be called the South Church.
Old South Meeting House (inhabited 1730, evacuated 1872)
Our second home, the Old South Meeting House (today a museum on Boston’s Freedom Trail), is something of an historic personage it its own right. It was the largest building in Colonial New England and became the venue for a great many events leading to the founding of this nation. There we hosted the meetings that led to the Boston Tea Party. We like to say that we’ve been brewing trouble and getting into hot water ever since. It was in this Meeting House that Samuel Adams often led the singing. It was here that Phillis Wheatley was baptized. Under the leadership of our 15th minister, Jacob Manning (a radical abolitionist), the Meeting House was opened to become a recruiting station for the Union Army. Over 1,000 men signed up under our steeple; they successfully convinced Manning to join them. He followed them into duty, serving as Chaplain to the 43rd Tiger Regiment, based in North Carolina. A sign once affixed by the main entrance to the Old South Meeting House, also known as The Sanctuary of Freedom, proclaimed: “HERE were held the town-meetings that ushered in the Revolution HERE Samuel Adams, James Otis and Joseph Warren exhorted HERE the men of Boston proved themselves independent courageous freemen worthy to raise issues which were to concern the liberty and happiness of millions yet unborn.” Architecturally the Old South Meeting House is typical of Puritan meeting houses: simple, no ornamentation, no stained glass, no cross, no altar. The pulpit is the central defining feature, highlighting the importance of an educated clergy expounding learnedly upon the ancient texts and interpreting them for each new occasion. Following the Great Boston Fire of 1872 the church evacuated the Meeting House for finer surroundings in the Back Bay which afforded additional land on which to build meeting spaces, offices and a rectory. In 1875, Old South Church officially left the Meeting House to move to its current location in Copley Square.
The New Old South Church (completed in 1875)
Completed in 1875 it is anything but a Puritan Meetinghouse. It is as if its builders were determined to shout to all the world, “We’re not Puritans anymore!” Built during America’s Gilded Age, the New Old South Church—colorful, exuberant, highly ornamented—is one of the US’s finest examples of Northern Italian Ruskinian Gothic. You can see a 360° view of the Sanctuary here. With a soaring campanile, large copper lantern and an interior of carved cherry wood and Caen stone, it is warm and welcoming. The building was designed by the architects Cummings & Sears, who apparently so admired their work that they both had their faces carved on to stone columns in the portico. The complex of buildings located at the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth Streets, is home to more than just the members of Old South. We are home to a Preschool, a high school’s daily theatre class, several musical ensembles, and a variety of community organizations including Poor People’s United Fund, Healing our Community Collaborative, many Twelve Step programs, programs for the unhoused and more. Today’s congregation is determined to keep our doors open, seven days a week, providing to all who walk past a Sanctuary in the City.