The Old North Church

Title: The Old North Church

Date: April 18, 1923

Location: Boston, MA

Context: A speech that celebrated the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the establishment of Christ Church, known as the Old North Church


The doings of mankind always hold for us a vast interest. Any two hundred years of which we could secure the record would not be lacking in this vital element. It represents a very substantial period. It is more than one-tenth of the Christian era, and two-thirds of the time since the coming of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts Bay. But when those years lie between 1723 and 1923, because of the contribution which they have made not only to the progress of our own country but to that of the world, their interest becomes, for us, one which is predominant. There are few organized institutions and still fewer buildings in all the land that go back to that day. The continuity of some religious bodies has been kept up, but in nearly all else there has been a break. This building stands with the Old South Church, the old State House, King’s Chapel, and Faneuil Hall as the sole remaining public buildings of Boston constructed before the Revolution.

The period around 1723 is one in which the interest centres in the activities of peace rather than war. Massachusetts was then a loyal colony of the British Empire. The Treaty of Utrecht had been signed a few years before, preserving the brilliant victories of Marlborough and leaving to the British navy the long-to-be-maintained supremacy of the seas. George I had succeeded Queen Anne. The old Whig aristocracy was in control of the government. The King, being unable to speak English, ceased to attend cabinet meetings. A passion for speculation arose which reached its height in the South Sea bubble. When this collapsed, Sir Robert Walpole became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1721, to restore financial order. The strength of his personality and the foreign language of the King brought about a responsible cabinet under parliamentary government, and the beginning of the prime ministry. The policy of the empire at this time was national unity, toleration, peace, and commercial development. It was not an era of warfare, but rather one in which were being harvested practically all those results which warrant warfare in behalf of human liberty.

In the colonies somewhat similar conditions existed. Indian warfare had for the time ceased to be an overwhelming peril. The narrowness of the old theocracy of Massachusetts, under Cotton and the Mathers, in the administration of the local government had given way to a more liberal spirit. The Old South Church stands as a monument to the beginning effectiveness of this new light. This society was formed by those who insisted on the broadening of the franchise under the ”Halfway Covenant” to include those who had been baptized and led decorous lives, even though they might not be church communicants. While the theocracy was intolerant at home, it had the virtue of being independent abroad. It was just as defiant of English tyranny as it was of colonial disbelief. In fact, it narrowed the franchise to church communicants in order that it might keep out of any control of its government representatives of the established church, which meant to them representatives of the tyranny of Laud and the Stuarts, the Court of the High Commission, and the Star Chamber.

The days of Andros had come and gone. The old charter had been taken away, under which Massachusetts had been practically autonomous for more than fifty years. The new charter, granted by William III, required of voters only a property qualification and reserved to the crown the appointment of the governor and the right to veto laws passed by the colonial legislature. Thus was laid the foundation for that long struggle between the provincial legislature, which had the power of the purse, and the royal governors, who held the power of the sword, which was finally to be decided only by the American Revolution. One of these unending squabbles was in process at this time, so that Governor Shute sailed away in disgust in the last days of 1722, because the Assembly had haggled over his salary and refused to appropriate money with which to provide protection from the Indians, leaving the office to Lieutenant-Governor Dummer, who continued as acting governor for about six years. But after the fall of the Stuarts, the rebellion against Andros, the seating of William and Mary and their successors on the British throne, these quarrels were more or less incidents of administration. There was no apparent deep-seated organized resistance to British authority until, after the expenditures made necessary by the French and Indian War, Parliament thought it necessary to lay taxes and regulate trade in America to reimburse the home treasury for the cost of colonial defense.

In the old days Episcopal services had not been tolerated in the colony, but Andros took possession of the Old South Meeting-House by royal order for that purpose, often keeping the minister and his parishioners waiting outside. At that time the building of King’s Chapel was started. The disturbing feature of this to the colonists was not a question of toleration, but the fact that this, in their eyes, represented a part of the tyranny of the Stuarts, and they suspected it to be the forerunner of an assault on their own liberty of worship. No such condition existed in 1723. Under the reigning dynasty at that time there was no apprehension of the loss of their political liberty or unwarranted interference with the religious views of Congregational churches. Judge Sewall relates that Doctor Increase Mather “much bewail’d the Connecticut Apostacie; that Mr. Cutler and others should say there was no minister in N. E.,” but the public does not appear to have joined in this sentiment, and the old man was gathered unto his fathers and laid at rest in yonder burying-ground before this church was opened by the installation of Reverend Doctor Timothy Cutler, who had been to England to receive his ordination from the Episcopal bishops. Had the tendencies of the time not been liberal, there would have been no founding of the Brattle Church, where Benjamin Coleman preached, requiring for admission no examination by the presiding clergy but merely a subscription to the Westminster creed. The proposal for a religious test for the president and fellows of Harvard College, made at the end of the seventeenth century, would not have failed. The Reverend Samuel Willard would not have succeeded Doctor Mather in the performance of the duties of president of Harvard, and he, in turn, would not have been followed by John Leverett, who was associated with the extremely liberal clergy of that day. At Northampton Reverend Solomon Stoddard would have required for admission to communion more than baptism in infancy.

Another evidence of the awakening of the public mind was the reaction which had arisen against the witchcraft persecutions. Many of those who had been concerned in them, either as officers or witnesses, laity or clergy, had expressed the belief that they had been in error, and made public renunciation. That state of terror which had held the land for more than two generations, arising from a fear of Indian attacks at home and the peril of ecclesiastical and political tyranny from abroad was at last dissipated. The people were returning to that normal condition of public mind which is the result of an untrammelled freedom for self-expression. They were beginning to seek development, not through the monotony of a dead uniformity, but through the variations of individual choice and inclination.

But while there was a distinct reaction in matters of religion, there was at the same time a rising Tory flavor in the community. One of its leading spirits was Joseph Dudley, who had been thrown into prison with Andros, whom he had served under and supported to the extent of declaring that the people of New England had no privileges left except not to be sold for slaves. But public opinion had softened since 1687, so that he had acted twelve years as a royal governor, beginning in 1702, without public protest. He represented a second generation, who were very active commercially, had become people of wealth and influence, and were attached to the old form and the old ritual. They were the rising tide of aristocracy. He was opposed to Doctor Mather, who had led the town meeting in the Old South in defiantly refusing to surrender the old charter, but was on good terms with those who were inclined toward liberality in religion, perhaps because Doctor Mather and his party also disagreed with them. These people were naturally drawn toward the established church. Their aspirations were to move in an atmosphere of culture under the domination of the customs of polite society.

The community was interested in the advancement of learning. The Commonwealth had just appropriated funds for the erection of Massachusetts Hall, at Harvard, built under the administration of Governor Shute, which is still standing. This spirit was prevalent in Connecticut, where a college had recently been located at New Haven and named for a native of Massachusetts, Elihu Yale. It is said that the Mathers looked upon this more conservative institution with some sympathy, which may have been modified when the rector and president of the college, Doctor Cutler, became the first clergyman of this church. There was as yet little in the way of literature, though Anne Bradstreet, wife of the old governor, had written verses which were republished in London and were not without admiration. The narrative of Governor Bradford and the history of Governor Winthrop had, of course, been written but not published. There were journals and chronicles, and of sermons there was no lack. Edward Johnson’s “Wonder-Working Providence” dates from 1654. These sporadic works, which are of great value now, were probably little regarded at that time. Among the books on religion and government which were published and well distributed, one of the most famous is that of Reverend John Wise, of Ipswich, entitled “A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches,” printed in 1717. This was an arsenal in the demonstration of the freedom and the equality of man, which did valiant work in supporting the principles of the Revolution. This patriot author, who had been fined and imprisoned under Andros, could have looked down with satisfaction on Bunker Hill and could have seen the influence and almost the language of his writings in the Declaration of Independence.

Of newspapers there were as yet very few in all America. The Boston News Letter was started in 1704. There was a Boston Gazette in 1719. James Franklin started the New England Courant in 1721. This paper apparently held to a critical attitude. Judge Sewall refers to it as a “virulent libel,” because it quoted Watts’s “Psalms” against judges. On account of their theological views, the Reverend Mather Byles characterized the men who edited this paper as the “Hell-Fire Club of Boston.” But when criticism was made of the Assembly, fine, imprisonment, and suppression followed, making future publication necessary under the new name of Benjamin Franklin, the brother of James. It was out of this circumstance that Benjamin was released from his indenture to his brother James, so that in 1723 he was making that journey, at the age of seventeen, with all that it was to imply to learning, to science, and to liberty, to his new home at Philadelphia.

Another young man, Jonathan Edwards, was just rising to a great place in the world at this time. He was about to become a tutor at Yale, “helping to overcome the shock,” Doctor Allen tells us, “to the College and the community caused by the secession of its Rector Mr. Cutler, Mr. Johnson one of its tutors, and others, to the Episcopal Church.” In the years to come he was to preach the Great Awakening at Northampton, in which he was to be joined by Whitefield, the Episcopalian from England, the great revivalist of that day. A little later he writes: “On January 12, 1723, I made a solemn dedication of myself to God … engaging to fight with all my might against the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Franklin and Edwards indicate to us the quality of manhood which these times were raising. What they were to do in behalf of the freedom and regeneration of mankind is now known to the world. In nine years George Washington was to be born. These names declare a spirit dedicated to truth deep-rooted in the beginnings of the eighteenth century.

It was under such conditions that some of those of the Episcopal faith in this town, finding King’s Chapel was no longer adequate for their accommodation, associated themselves together for the building of this church. They were a people of devotion, of patriotism, ready to defend liberty, probably with a healthy primal instinct for the support of the existing order of things. They represented that conservatism which is the strength of all civilization. Considering the change which time has wrought in this portion of the town, there is a significance in the text from which Doctor Cutler preached the opening sermon, when he chose a verse from Isaiah, which declares: ” For mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” This was a church of dignity and importance. It numbered among its pewholders the names of Vassall, Sewall, and Thomas Graves, who was the first senior warden and chief justice of the Superior Court of the province. Professional men, merchants, and ship-owners were among its parishioners. The church still has a Bible and prayer-books, presented by King George II, in 1733, and it installed the first chime of bells that was set up in this country, bearing the date of 1744. It has been adorned by the enterprise of American privateers in the French wars. Although this was a parish of the established church of England, the clergy and membership of which were generally inclined toward loyalty to the King, we read in the diary of Ezra Stiles of “Doctor Byles’ little Flock which are more for liberty than any Episco. Congregation North of Maryland.” One of its parishioners, Captain Daniel Malcom, was a stanch opponent of the revenue acts and a leader of the patriots. This attitude, no doubt, was partially the reason that Doctor Byles was formally separated from the parish on the eighteenth day of April, 1775, the day that has given to this church and its steeple so much of enduring fame.

It was from that steeple, one hundred and forty-eight years ago to-night, that the signal-lanterns gleamed, warning the watchers on the Charlestown shore that the British troops were on the move toward Lexington and Concord. There seems no doubt that these lights were displayed by the sexton, Robert Newman. Probably he was assisted in entering the church by Captain John Pulling, Jr. Back of this activity and directing it was Doctor Joseph Warren, who was within three months to give his life for his country at Bunker Hill. He had two messengers that he despatched on this night to warn Hancock and Adams, who were at Lexington, and arouse the countryside to resist the advance of the hostile forces. One of these was William Dawes, whom he sent out over Boston Neck, and the other was Paul Revere. It was Revere who arranged for the display of the signals which, as it turned out, were unnecessary, because he himself coming directly from Doctor Warren was stealthily rowed across the river, almost under the British war-ships, to Charlestown. He had been one of the moving spirits in a band of mechanics at the North End, organized to watch and report on all British actions. He knew what was acting, as he himself said, but had he been intercepted in crossing, as he feared, the lanterns would have conveyed the correct message to his confederate, Colonel Conant, who was waiting and received him on his landing. It is because his ride on this night was the consummation of a long period of watching and working, largely under his immediate oversight, that Paul Revere rises to the plane of true heroism. It was his plan and his preparation, as well as his execution of it, that gave him the authority in that eventful hour to speak

“A word that shall echo forevermore!”

And yet it was because his word was received and acted upon that he rose to so grand a place in history. He became a hero only because the land was filled with heroism.

It was from the same lofty belfry tower that General Gage looked out across the water on the historic day of Bunker Hill. Twice he saw his troops reel back in disaster under the terrible execution of the patriots’ fire. In their last charge he saw them prevail at the expense of one of the bloodiest hours in warfare. It was in this last assault that Pitcairn, the old major of marines, who always rested under the charge, which he denied, of having first fired on the minute-men at Lexington, received his death-wound. He was buried under this church. Alone, among British officers, he had dealt fairly with the townspeople. Although a monument rises to commemorate him in Westminster Abbey, there is strong probability that his bones still rest here, where out of the common sacrifice of American and Briton the liberty of the world was made more secure.

The old church was closed now, its congregation nearly all away supporting the patriot cause. It did not meet the fate of at least one other church and many buildings, of being pulled down by the British for lumber and firewood. It did not become training-quarters for horsemen like the Old South. It was reopened again, after Washington had driven the British from Boston, by Reverend Stephen Christopher Lewis, who, though he had been deputy chaplain in Burgoyne’s regiment of light dragoons, took the oath of allegiance to the colonial cause. He was directed by the parish “to prepare a proper form of Prayer for the Congress of the United States, for the several States, and for their success in the present important contest, to be used Daily in the Church.” Prayer-books and liturgy were accordingly changed, and this was the first Episcopal Church in New England that transferred its form from the ”Church of England” to the ”Protestant Episcopal Church of America.” Truth here had been supreme. Duty had not faltered.

That spirit had now reached maturity which was to send Samuel Nicholson, one of the parishioners of this church, to be the first commander of the frigate Constitution, known in song and story as Old Ironsides. The conflicts of those days have been decided. The contests of arms and of principles have been won as America would have them won. Into her keeping there is more and more intrusted the support and defense of those immortal truths which make for the progress and salvation of the world.

The old days are gone. The Green Dragon, where Paul Revere and his fellow mechanics met and watched and worked for freedom, is no more. But the voice of the common people has not been weakened. They are still ready when need be to meet the counsel and rise in the spirit of the stout old patriots. The belfry lanterns are dimmed, but the light of inspiration which has gleamed from this chancel for two hundred years has not paled. It still sheds its radiance over the way of patriotism, truth, and righteousness. It still throws out its signal warning good to resist evil. The nation and the government which were the product of all these experiences still remain strong and vigorous.

There are voices which are counselling the destruction of the rights of the individual which our institutions were established to maintain, some by out-and-out revolution. But these need only to be brought into the light of publicity to wither away. There are others which are more insidious, more dangerous, which come under the guise of government activity instigated for the general good. Our fathers sought for an enlarged freedom, for the right to enjoy the rewards of their own industry. They had felt the oppression of government regulation, competition, and monopoly. They wished to be rid of these restrictions. That most precious privilege they gained. They can maintain it only upon one condition, that they use it righteously. It is the abuse of liberty which warrants oppression. If the people will pursue a course of economic and industrial righteousness there will be no motive for interfering with their liberty by drastic government regulation, or sequestration of their property by government operation, or a confiscation of the results of their industry in the name of taxation. It is the existence of a wrong public sentiment, a wrong standard, whether expressed in private economic relations or in government attempt to remedy what cannot be remedied by law, which causes the evil. In either case, there is a harmful curtailment of freedom. In the teachings of religion lies the fundamental remedy.

The times which built this church and succeeding history have been productive of progress because they have represented a spirit of liberality, of toleration, and of freedom. They have permitted the people to be the masters of their own destiny and the individual to be the keeper of his own conscience. They have given to the world the inestimable stimulant of making persons think for themselves, act for themselves, and be responsible to themselves. This is the spirit of knowledge, of science, and of true wisdom. These are the fundamentals upon which human welfare depends. Their increasing maintenance will mean increasing industrial peace and commercial development.

It is because this church, irrespective of its connection with the stirring events of local history, stands as a monument to these principles that it survives, and has reached the day when it may glory not only in its good works but in its antiquity. It is a representative of the realities of life, without which all else is vain. It has stood now for two hundred years, ministering to the spiritual needs of the community. As an influence for sound government, ordered liberty, righteous living, peace and good-will among men, it will endure forever.


Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of John Struck who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “The Old North Church”

  1. John Struck

    As a history teacher I greatly appreciate Vice President Coolidge’s use of U.S. history and the value of individual freedom and how this freedom was instrumental in the initial development of the values of the United States of America. The values of Mr. Coolidge and the values of the American people in the 1920s were consistent with the ideals of the men and women who worked and sacrificed to make the U.S. independent and strong. This speech was not only meant to celebrate a church building but also celebrate America itself.

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