History of the Old South Meeting House – Revolutionary Spaces

Built in 1729 as the largest building in colonial Boston, Old South Meeting House has been an important gathering place for nearly three centuries. The Puritan congregation built their first wooden meeting house on this site in 1669 as the “Third Church” in Boston. When overcrowding became a problem, they replaced it in 1729 with the beautiful spacious brick meeting house that still stands today.

Standing in the center of town, the Old South Meeting House was colonial Boston’s largest building and was used for public gatherings as well as for worship. In Boston, meetings too large for Boston’s town hall, Faneuil Hall, were held at the Old South Meeting House because of its great size and central location. It was a prominent building with a bell and an enormous 1768 tower clock that is still working today. The Old South Meeting House clock is the nation’s oldest American-made tower clock still operating in its original location.

The congregation that built the brick Old South Meeting House in 1729 was descended from the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century.

What Happened Here

The largest building in colonial Boston, Old South Meeting House was the site of the most dramatic and stirring mass meetings leading to the American Revolution.
Boston’s anger at British taxes and policies exploded at town meetings. These meetings drew thousands of people who could not fit inside the usual town meeting place at Faneuil Hall, and instead were held at Old South Meeting House, the largest gathering place in Boston.

Old South Meeting House became the center for massive public protest meetings against British actions in colonial Boston from 1768-75. Samuel Adams recorded that:

“The transactions at Liberty Tree were treated with scorn and ridicule; but when they [Parliament] heard of the resolutions in the Old South Meeting-house, the place whence the orders issued for the removal of the troops in 1770, they put on grave countenances.”


Meeting against the Impressment of Sailors

On June 14, 1768, a town meeting was called to protest the impressment, or forcible induction, of New England sailors into British Naval service and the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop “Liberty” for violation of customs law, i.e. smuggling. So many people came to protest that the meeting was moved to Old South Meeting House. At this meeting, outraged colonists called for the British Sloop-of-War “Romney,” to stop seizing sailors to work “for the service of the King, in his ships of war.”

The meeting was successful, but as a result the British ministry concluded that their customs officers needed protection from Boston’s mobs. Nearly 4,000 British soldiers arrived in Boston in the fall of 1768. At this time Boston had a population of approximately 15,000 and many colonists considered this “military occupation” to be an infringement of English political law, yet another challenge to their liberty. In response to these initial protests, the Governor ordered all but two regiments out of the town. The continued presence of armed British troops quartered in Boston was seen as both dangerous and insulting.


Marking the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre: The Annual Fifth of March Orations

A town meeting resolved to mark the anniversary of Boston Massacre with a public speech “to commemorate the barbarous murder of five of our Fellow Citizens on that fatal Day, and to impress upon our minds the ruinous tendency of standing Armies in Free Cities.”

Each year from 1772 to 1775, these massive gatherings of men, women and children were held at Old South Meeting House to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, with speeches by John Hancock, Benjamin Church and Dr. Joseph Warren. Through their orations, these speakers kept outrage over the Boston Massacre alive and built consensus over time for independence.


The Boston Tea Party

It was the series of meetings that culminated on December 16, 1773 that sealed Old South’s fate as one of this country’s most significant buildings. On that day, over 5,000 men crowded into Old South Meeting House and joined in a fiery debate on the controversial tea tax. When the final attempt at compromise failed, Samuel Adams gave the signal that started the Boston Tea Party. The Sons of Liberty led the way dumping 342 chests of tea into the harbor at Griffin’s Wharf.


A British Riding School and the Siege of Boston

When war broke out in April of 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British retreated to Boston and occupied the town. The Continental Army besieged Boston for nearly a year. While patriots fled the city, British troops destroyed and vandalized visible symbols of the patriotic cause. The Redcoats gutted the interior of the Old South Meeting House. They tore down the pews, the pulpit, and the galleries and burned them for fuel. Hundreds of loads of dirt and gravel were spread on the floor, and a bar was erected so the men could practice jumping their horses. In the east galleries, the officers enjoyed drinks while they watched the feats of horsemanship below. The British left the Old South congregation with a building unfit for occupancy. It took nearly 8 years for the congregation to raise the funds and restore the interior.

In 1916 Old South Meeting House launched a popular forum featuring diverse speakers and public discussions of contemporary issues.

During this time Old South Meeting House hosted increasingly controversial events. The Board of Managers were divided over how far free speech at Old South Meeting House should go: Some favored meetings that were purely “educational” or “charitable,” while others believed that Old South’s revolutionary history mandated a strong free-speech, anti-censorship policy.

In 1929 the issue of free speech at Old South Meeting House reached a boiling point when Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude was banned in Boston. A major forum protesting the ban took place at Old South Meeting House. But some board members felt it went too far. The board held a special meeting to decide Old South’s free speech policy. After much discussion, they voted to open the doors of Old South Meeting House to speakers and public discussion “without regard to the unpopularity of any cause.” The building’s role as a public meeting place, often for radical causes, was once again an important function just as it had been in the colonial era.

Preservation of the Old South Meeting House

After the American Revolution, the congregation restored the building and used it again as a church. Despite its growing status as an historical landmark, the very survival of the building was threatened in the 1870s. The first threat came from fire, when almost all of downtown Boston was destroyed in a huge three-day blaze in November of 1872 known as The Great Boston Fire. The Old South Meeting House almost burned down; 40 acres of downtown Boston across Milk Street were lost.
Old South’s congregation decided to build a new church in fashionable Copley Square in the newly created neighborhood of Back Bay – and sell their old home.

The 1729 Old South Meeting House was put on the auction block and a local newspaper advertised the sale:

All the materials above the level of the sidewalks except the Corner Stone and the Clock in the Tower, of this ancient and historical landmark building, which has now come under the auctioneer’s hammer, and will be disposed of on Thursday, June 8, 1876, at 12 o’clock noon on the premises, on the corner of Washington and Milk Streets. The spire is covered with copper, and there is a lot of lead on roof and belfry, and the roof is covered with imported Welsh slate. 60 days will be allowed for the removal. Terms cash.

Old South Meeting House was saved and opened to the public as a museum and meeting place in 1877 by the Old South Association. Old South launched an ambitious educational programs in American history and citizenship and began to publish primary documents from American history as “Old South Leaflets.” Events such as “Children’s Hour” activities, Young People’s Lectures and essay contests drew hundreds of students of all ages who crowded into the Meeting House.

Below are some notable recent preservation projects:

  • In 2014 a project to paint, preserve and restore the steeple and exterior windows of the building was completed, funded by the National Park Service Repair and Restoration Program.
  • In 2011 an award-winning project to return a bell to the Meeting House was made possible through the generous support of the Storrow family, which funded both the purchase and installation of an 1801 Paul Revere bell.
  • In 2009 an award-winning project to preserve and restore the 1766 Old South Meeting House tower clock was completed. It is the oldest American-made tower clock still operating in its original location.

For information on ways in which you can help preserve this national treasure, please call (617) 720-1713 ext. 160, or send an email to development@revolutionaryspaces.org.

What’s On at the Old South Meeting House