Old South Meeting House

Congregational Church & the Starting Point of the Boston Tea Party

The Old South Meeting House began its life as a Congregational Church, or a Puritan house of worship. The original Congregational Church on this land was a 1699 wooden meeting house called the Third Church. By the early 18th century the congregation was too large for the building, so they decided to build a new one. When construction finished in 1729, it was the largest building in Boston at the time, and forty or so years later, when meetings involving Patriot Resistance got too large for Faneuil Hall, they gathered here at the South Meeting House. The Ministers during the leadup to the Revolution included Joseph Sewall, Samuel Blair, and John Bacon.

Many important figures from the early days of the American Revolution attended either church or political meetings in this building. Here was where the community demanded that Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson remove both regiments of the military out of the city to Castle William. Beginning from 1772 to the beginning of hostilities in 1775, the Meeting House hosted an annual commemoration of the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Speakers included John Hancock, Benjamin Church, and Dr. Joseph Warren. These anniversary commemorations helped to unite local residents behind the idea of independence from Great Britain.

The Sons of Liberty also held their meetings leading up to the Boston Tea Party here in this building, after meetings over the outrage of the Tea Tax overflowed the capacity at Faneuil Hall. These meetings became known as the Body of the People and included folks who normally would not be able to vote, such as women, youths, and people of color. If Faneuil Hall is the Cradle of Liberty, the Old South Meeting House was the cradle of rebellion.

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British Army took over Boston. The various colonial militia units and minutemen – the fledgeling Continental Army –surrounded the city in what is referred to as the Siege of Boston. During this time, the British took over the South Meeting House and destroyed the interior. They covered the floor in dirt, and used it as an indoor ring for riding practice.

After Evacuation Day (March 17, 1776) the Church was in such a state of disrepair that it took nearly a decade for the congregation to fix the building. In the centuries following the Revolution, the community used the church not only as a meeting house, but as a place to hold discussions about important topics. Approximately 100 years later, the congregation relocated to Copley Square following the Great Boston Fire of November 1872.

Shocked by the recent destruction of John Hancock’s mansion, a number of influential members of the Massachusetts social scene including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott jumped in to save the building. In 1877, the Old South Meeting House opened as a museum and educational institution.

Well Known Attendees of South Meeting House

Phillis Wheatly: A young woman from West Africa, sold into slavery and brought over to Massachusetts Bay Colony in childhood. The Wheatley family purchased her and named her Phillis, after the ship she made the harrowing journey in. Recognized by the family that enslaved her as a brilliant individual, tutored by their daughter, and Mercy Otis Warren, she attained a level of education that was rarely offered to free women of the time, never mind individuals that were enslaved. Phyllis quickly learned to read and write in English, Greek, and Latin. She also wrote incredible poetry. The Wheatly family emancipated her in 1773 after she published the first book of poetry by an African-American author. Much of her poetry echoed patriot calls for independence. One poem of hers, written in 1775 for George Washington, captured his attention and he met with her in 1776 at his headquarters in Cambridge during the Siege of Boston. Her poetry also faced criticism from those who refused to believe that an enslaved African woman wrote the poems.

Phillis Wheatley illustrated in 1893 from Women of Distinction

John and Susanna Wheatley: John Wheatley was a well-off tailor, merchant, and money lender with influential clients, and the wealth to own more than one enslaved individual. He was also a constable in Boston. Susanna, his wife, first noticed Phillis’s intelligence after she started copying letters with charcoal, removed her from housekeeping duties, and had her educated. They both held Phillis up as an example of the brilliance that enslaved people were capable of, in a time when many people thought them as incapable of such work. Both of them were involved in the independence movement.

Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis) *oil on canvas *126.05 x 100.33 cm *circa 1765

James Warren and Mercy Otis Warren: The Warrens were well known revolutionaries, well-educated, and well-connected socially. James Warren was a merchant and member of the Massachusetts state legislature, and his wife Mercy Otis Warren wrote prolifically about politics and the nature of liberty and the morality of the new nation. The Warrens were also friends with the Wheatleys, and were an influence and supporter of Phillis Wheatley. As a family, they hosted political meetings at their home, which eventually led to the Committees of Correspondence. The Committees of Correspondence existed in each of the 13 colonies to allow for the colonies to communicate and work together.

Samuel Adams: Harvard Graduate, Politician from Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Boston Town Meeting, influential Son of Liberty, author of the Massachusetts Circular Letter, attendee of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, proponent of the Declaration of Independence, co-author of the Articles of Confederation and the Massachusetts Constitution. Served in the Massachusetts State Senate after the United States became its own Country, and eventually served as Governor of Massachusetts.

Samuel Adams, Painted by John Singleton Copley ca 1772 painting located at the Museum of Fine Arts

William Dawes Jr. – Most well known as one of the men who rode along with Paul Revere and Dr. Joseph Warren to warn Lexington and Concord about the approach of the British Military. Member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, housed to this date in Faneuil Hall.

Benjamin Franklin: was born on Milk Street across from the Old South Meeting House, where his parents had him baptized. He left Boston at the age of 17, and the rest is as they say, history.

Questions for Consideration

Why do you think that the British Soldiers went through the effort of completely ruining the interior of the South Meeting House?
What made Phillis Wheatley so unique among her peers?
In the links on Phillis Wheatley below, select a book and read or listen to one of her poems. What do you think of them? What do you notice about them?
Examine all of the images of the Old South Meeting House. What do you notice? How has the neighborhood changed over time?

Sources and Further Reading