One by one, Job’s fortunes turn to misfortune, his joys turn to agony. Yet, with an outsized determination he cries: When God has tried me, I shall come forth like gold. He was one plucky guy, Job.
Let us pray.
It is the spring of 1686. From this very spot we hear the guns of the frigate, Kingfisher. To a person we know what those guns mean. They announce the arrival of Sir Edmund Andros, sent by the crown, to assume the governorship of this colony. Sir Edmond’s personal zeal for King and church (not this dissenting church, I assure you) burns hot to the touch.
The very moment his foot touches land, Sir Edmund strides to the town-house. His commission is read. He takes the oaths. He assumes the mantle of Governor ... and immediately swears in his own councilors.
Hardly are these ceremonies concluded before the new Governor summons the ministers of the three congregational churches.
Foregoing niceties, he informs the ministers (including our Samuel Willard) that he intends forthwith to establish on these shores an Anglican Church (that dreaded church from which they and their forebears had fled).
Second, he intends to tax the three Congregational Churches for the maintenance of his Anglican Church.
Third, one of our three meeting houses should be made available for Anglican services.
The royal Governor leaves it to the three ministers to decide which of our meeting houses it will be. Meeting adjourned.
The ministers, together with the elders of their respective churches, go into a huddle. They emerge from the huddle of one mind. Together, they stride to the Governor’s office with this response:
First, as to setting up an Anglican Church, they cannot stop him.
Second, as to taxing the Congregational Churches for the maintenance of an Anglican Church ... even to suggest such a thing is an outrage beyond imagining ... and one to which they cannot and will not consent.
Third, after searching their consciences and after seeking guidance from God, they are agreed that the stain of Anglican worship cannot be allowed to soil their pure Puritan Meeting Houses.
Well, it not long after that the royal Governor announces his decision and intention to take forcible possession of the most eligible of the meeting houses: the most beautiful, the most spacious and well-appointed ... ours!1
And so it is that on Good Friday, at the Governor’s command (oh, and did I mention at rifle point?) the keys to our Meeting House are handed to the King’s chaplain. Wearing surplus and bearing his Anglican Service Book like a weapon, the King’s chaplain flings wide the doors to our meeting house, the bell rings, and in flow high Anglicans with service books, incense and bells. And, for the first time in its life, the walls of our Puritan Meeting House echo to the responses and anthems of the Anglican ritual.
From that day until the Governor is deposed, this congregation can assemble in our own Meeting House, when and only when, the Governor and his retinue have no use for it. The humiliations and indignities suffered by this congregation at the hands of this Governor are great.
How then do our forebears respond? How do they handle this high indignity?
Here is how: Our own minister, Samuel Willard preaches a sermon to his embattled flock. He chooses as his text a verse from the Book of Job: When God has tried me, I – shall – come – forth – as – gold!
Rev. Willard, no stranger to trials himself2, proves in his sermon that afflictions are a trial, an examination ... and where trial is met with sincerity, with faithfulness, with Gospel ... the product will be glorious.
Inspired by Brother Job and determined to come forth as gold, the congregation invents ways to rise above the humiliations and inconveniences.3
Move ahead in time now ... some 86 years, to 1775. The British regulars are garrisoned within Boston. A majority of Boston’s residents have fled. The royal army and their officers, take over or have the run of virtually every home, every church and every business.
While it is fair to say that they misuse most of the properties they inhabit (looting, soiling and damaging), they single out two buildings upon which to visit the full force of their fury and distain: the home of Samuel Adams4 and this: our Meeting House.
Our Meeting House is seized again. This time by the Light Horse 17th Regiment of Dragoons. Our pulpit, pews and seats are cut to pieces and carried off. Deacon Hubbard’s pew, finely carved and appointed with silk furniture, is torn out, carried away, and used as a hog sty.
Having, as it were, clear-cut the sanctuary of all its furnishings, many hundred loads of dirt and gravel are carted in, and spread upon the floor. A bar is fixed (a jump) over which the cavalry are taught to leap their horses at full speed.
The galleries are left for the accommodation of the officers, their friends and ladies. These gather to witness feats of horsemanship while enjoying refreshments, including liquor.
Our parsonage too is torn down and used for fuel, thus obliterating the house in which Governor Winthrop had lived and died. The same house which later became home to John and Mary Norton ... and still later: home to several generations of ministers of this church.5
The Siege of Boston lasts 10 months, 3 weeks and 6 days. Less than a year ... but long enough to do terrible mischief.
On Sunday, the 17th of March, the gates of the town are thrown open to the army under General Washington. Bostonians trickle back in only to find their homes, buildings, businesses, streets and commonplaces left in a state of ruination.
Our Meeting House is unfit for occupancy and the families of the church are widely dispersed and, in most cases, much impoverished.6 It will be seven years before the church summons the will and gathers the funds to rebuild and restore the Meeting House and move back home.
Yet again this church summons the patience and resilience of Job: When God has tried us, we—shall—come—forth—like—gold.
Now, turn the clock ahead again, 89 years to Saturday, November 9, 1872. It is a glorious fall evening … the kind of fall evening New Englanders live for. The air is unseasonably balmy. The leaves of the trees are vermillion and tangerine, golden, rust and russet, coral and carmine. Bostonians stroll through the city’s streets. Crowds linger at the doors of brightly lit theaters.
At 7:20 that evening fire bells ring. A fire has started in a commercial warehouse on Summer Street ... the very heart of the city’s wholesale district ... the worst place for a fire.
Engine companies 2, 4 and 7 respond ... taking up positions as close as they can.
Quickly sensing that this is no ordinary fire, and hoping to get a fix on the fire’s perimeter, the Fire Chief runs three blocks to Milk Street. Using his ax, he smashes in the door of the tallest building. Lantern in hand, he climbs to the sixth floor to survey the fire. From there, with fear close to panic, he sees the fire unfolding.
The fire is leaping from mansard roof to mansard roof. Although the steam engines are chugging away, the streams of water from the hoses are weak and cannot rise to reach the fire. While most fires burn upward, this one rages at the tops of buildings and then eats them down to the ground.
Witnesses hear the fire roaring like a blast furnace ... punctuated by the crack of windows shattering. Firefighters are falling back, away from the ferocious, unbearable heat.
By 8:00 pm (40 minutes after the fire is begun) all 21 Boston engine companies are either at or racing to the fire. Additional companies, from Cambridge and Charlestown, are on their way.
Even so, by 11:00 pm fiery tongues are licking the wharves along Boston Harbor and a schooner, the Louisa Frasier, is consumed.
Working through the night firefighters are reinforced by companies from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
By 4:00 am the fire has taken Trinity Church, and the buildings housing most of Boston’s publishing business.
“Worst of all” writes Stephanie Schorow, author of Boston on Fire, “is the threat to the Old South Meeting House, one of the last remaining Colonial structures.” The fire is at the door now.
Firefighters drench these walls with water. Daring souls climb upon the roof to sweep sparks away. And yet, by 6:00 am it looks as if this building too will be taken.
Then, in the very nick of time, a steam engine arrives from Portsmouth, NH. Fresh fire fighters hook hose to hydrant and work the fire lines. Their efforts turn the tide. They stop the fire here at Washington and Milk Streets. The Meeting House survives ....”7
In the end, the Great Fire of Boston rages for twelve hours. Seventeen hundred firefighters and 100 companies are employed to end the conflagration. At least 30 people die. The fire consumes 65 acres, 776 buildings, including most of the financial district. Thousands of families are left homeless. Twenty-thousand persons are left jobless.8
While this Meeting House survives, it is damaged and, more to the point, it is seized. Again! This time by municipal authorities for the accommodation of troops called out to guard the burnt out district.
The afternoon of the day the fire is extinguished our minister, Jacob Manning, holds a service here for the troops. This, it is believed, is the last service held here until 58 years ago, when we commenced our annual migration to this place on this Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The Great Fire of Boston and our eviction from the Meeting House, were the last straws in a series of considerations that prompted our relocation to Copley Square.
Last spring we were evicted yet again from our meeting house. Following the Marathon bombings. For eight days, from April 15 through April 22, the New Old South Church was within the FBI’s crime scene.
As I reflected on that experience, a mere eight days—hardly a hardship compared to what our forebears endured—I was moved to research the other occasion, over the course of the past three-and-a-half centuries, we have been evicted from our Meeting House.
I cannot help but reflect upon the effect of place and circumstance. It mattered that we were located in the pulsing heart of the city during the American Revolution and the years that led up to it. It matters that we are in Copley Square, in today’s pulsing heart of Boston.
Our physical location assists and facilitates our engagement with the issues of the day... We cannot avoid being caught up in God’s wild and wooly world.
I find I am in awe of our defiant and resolute forebears. I am in awe of their pluck and courage.
And then it occurred to me that you have inherited every bit of our forebears’ pluck and Christian courage.
As I reflect over the past nine years alone, I am in wonderment …
- At the way you managed and navigated through my husband’s illness and death.
- At your gracious welcoming in 2005 of our first openly transgender member.
- At your willingness to host Bishop Desmond Tutu with his advocacy of Palestinian rights … and the heat you incurred and your resolute determination to navigate a course faithful to God.
- At your eager support of the MBTA’s accessibility upgrades at the Copley T Station … even after the MBTA damaged our building ... because accessibility is a cause near and dear to the heart of God.
- At your pluck and adaptability with the introduction of three additional worship services.
- At your patience, determination and sincerity in the long and thoughtful process that led to our adoption of our Vision for the 21st Century.
- And, more recently at the supposed “controversy” surrounding the sale of one of our Bay Psalm Books and the way you have and continue to comport yourselves … despite misleading characterizations of our church and its purpose.
- And, not least, at your response to the Marathon bombings ... your prayers, your pluck, your gentleness ... your determination to be a part of the healing … your refusal to be a part of the hating.
The average lifespan of a church in the US is 75 years. You beat those odds, you rise from the ashes, you endure humiliations and ruination—you rebound from evictions and explosions, from revolution and retaliation—by holding fast to God. By never letting go.
Like Brother Job, you too have an outsized determination, proclaiming in the very face of hardship: When God has tried me, I—shall—come—forth—as—gold!
Thanks be to God!
And Plead for the Rights of All: Old South Church in Boston 1669-1969, by Ola Elizabeth Winslow
Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston, by Stephanie Schorow
A Two Volume History of Old South Church: Boston (1669-1884) by Hamilton Hill
Samuel Adams: a Life, by Ira Stoll
Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution, by Mark Plus
Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick
George Washington: Gentleman and Warrior, by Stephen Brumwell
1A committee composed of our most eminent men immediately appears at the Governor’s door to remonstrate with him in person. They explain what a representative of the crown surely cannot understand: That this Meeting House and the land on which it stands belong to them and to those whom they represent; That the property was long ago paid for by private generosity; That it has been set apart for their own religious uses; They present to the Governor as evidence Mary Norton’s will and the deed of land... and a list of the original founders; They plead in every way, persuasively and reasonably in defense of their rights. But their remonstrances are in vain. The outrage has been decided upon. Having announced his intentions, the royal Governor sends for the keys to our Meeting House.
2In 1663, Willard began preaching in Groton, Massachusetts, then at the very frontier of the Massachusetts colony. Groton was destroyed on March 10, 1676, during King Philip's War, and the 300 residents abandoned the town. Willard and his family removed to Charlestown, Massachusetts. It was while he was serving Old South Church that the hysteria around so-called witches erupted. Willard placed himself in the very midst of it, finally persuading the Governor to dismantled the special court of Oyer and Terminer.
3Years later a minister of King’s Chapel, then associated with the crown and the Established Church of England, wrote of these humiliations: “Looking back on this event, we are obliged to consider it as one of the most arbitrary acts ever perpetrated in this country while it remained under the English government. It was such a deliberate outrage on the common rights of property, to say nothing of conscience and liberty ... no excuse is to be rendered for it.”
Our congregational records from these three years of humiliation and eviction are scant.
4Royal officers occupy Samuel Adam’s home. They wantonly mutilate the interior, destroy the outhouses and, ridiculing his tender piety they cut into the windowpanes obscene and blasphemous words. They paint caricatures on the walls and ruin the garden. Indeed, soon after the departure of the Royal troops, the Adams return with the design of occupying their home, but find it utterly uninhabitable...unsalvageable.
5To add injury to these insults, it is in the span of this same lamentable year, 1775, that our young minister, the Rev. John Hunt sickens and dies. He is but 31 years old. Cause of death? A weak constitution coupled with the rigors his ministerial duties and its never-ending demands. In preaching the funeral sermon for our young pastor, the Rev. John Hooker, takes his text from Job’s sufferings.
6It will be a full year before the church gathers again for worship, and then at King’s Chapel.
7Trinity’s Rev. Philips Brooks writes: “The desolation is bewildering.” Harper’s Weekly later reports of the fire: “The scene was one of dreadful magnificence.”
8Twenty of thirty-three insurance companies will go bankrupt trying to cover the losses.