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Old South Sanctuary (photo by Sarah Musemuci)

A History of Old South Church

History of Old South Church by Hamilton Hill, Volume I

History of Old South Church by Hamilton Hill, Volume II

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy native, God’s people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty arts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
-- 1 Peter 2:9


Looking at Old South Church from Copley Square, you see an outstanding and colorful example of Northern Italian Gothic architecture, advocated in the 1850s by the English architectural critic John Ruskin. This National Historic Landmark building is an unusually ornate design for a New England Congregational church. It radiates the opulent  taste and the sense of optimism and progress of the Industrial Revolution following the  Civil War. The church, constructed between 1872 and 1875 for a congregation founded  in 1669, is distinguished by its tall bell tower; brown, pink and grey stonework; walls of Roxbury puddingstone; decorative carvings; a roof striped with tiles of red and black slate; and a cupola or lantern of green and russet-colored copper.

Benjamin Franklin was baptized in 1706 at the congregation’s Cedar Meeting House on downtown Washington Street. Members of this historic congregation include Samuel  Adams, Revolutionary patriot and brewer; Samuel Sewall, judge and diarist; Thomas  Prince, minister and book collector; William Dawes, Paul Revere’s fellow rider in 1775;  Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black poet; and Elizabeth Vergoose, said to  be the Mother Goose of nursery rhymes. Old South is also known for being the church  at the Boylston Street finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Old South Church played a significant role in American history through the bold actions of the Sons of Liberty at the Old South Meeting House. There, in 1773, Samuel Adams gave the signal for the “war whoops” that started the Boston Tea Party. During the  Civil War, 1,019 men enlisted in one day at Old South to fight for the Union cause. Old South’s ministry has been distinguished by eloquent preaching on matters of theology and conscience by Samuel Willard, Benjamin Wisner, Jacob Manning, George Gordon,  Frederick Meek and James Crawford. As poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “So long as Boston shall Boston be, And her bay tides rise and fall, Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church, And plead for the rights of all.” Members of Old South helped found institutions serving economic and social justice-the City Mission Society, the Boston Seafarers Society, Training Inc., Boston Aging Concerns-Young And Old United, and  Tent City Corporation.


The Old South Church congregation is a descendant of the fusion between separatist and dissenting Pilgrims, Puritan reformers, and Bay Colony merchant adventurers, who left England in the 17th century, some to escape persecution and others to forge a more  prosperous life in the New World. The congregation was born in controversy in 1669  and was initially called The Third Church in Boston. Both the First and the Second  Church in Boston were headed by ministers who opposed the Halfway Covenant of  1662. They required that baptized adults have a regeneration experience of God (a born again experience) before they could have their own children baptized.

Twenty-eight lay members of the First Church seceded and founded this congregation in the belief, consistent with the Halfway Covenant, that childhood baptism should assure young adults that they would be full members and could baptize their children, who in turn should automatically be members as adults.

It was a priesthood of all believers, related to God solely through Christ and justified by grace through faith. Their covenant stated “We... being called of God to join together into a Church... do in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, trusting only in his grace and help, solemnly bind ourselves together as in the presence of God, constantly to walk together as a Church of Christ... We give up ourselves and our offspring... unto our Lord Jesus Christ as the only mediator, our only spiritual head.” In the early 19th century, this congregation, under the leadership of ministers Joseph Eckley, Joshua Huntington and Benjamin Wisner, again went against the prevailing congregational theology of the day, and resisted becoming Unitarian. Old South Church remained Trinitarian, worshiping God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Today this Trinity is expressed as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.


The only Congregational Church in Boston to remain Trinitarian during the Unitarian movement of the early 19th century, Old South later joined with Park Street Church to found the City Mission Society to address the needs of the urban community. During the Civil War, the congregation, under the leadership of Jacob Manning, was a recruiting left for the Union Army. The congregation, though not certain that the war would solve America’s racial problems, became convinced of the Union cause during Manning’s tenure.

Old South Church moved to the current Back Bay site in December 1875. With the leadership of George Angier Gordon, Old South entered a new era of inclusivity. In the 1900’s Old South’s commitment to urban mission in Christ’s name has been shepherded by pastors Russell Stafford, Frederick Meek, and James W. Crawford, who just recently retired after serving from 1974 to 2002.

The Boston Transcript described the New Old South Church as “the most beautiful basilica in North America.” It is designed in a style inspired by the architecture of medieval Venice (Ruskinian Italian Gothic). The exterior is of Roxbury puddingstone and the interior is of plaster with Italian cherry woodwork. The architects were Cummings and Sears of Boston. Notable among the interior features are Venetian mosaics, and stained-glass windows of 15th century English style. The sanctuary was completely renovated in 1985.


Old South Church today is a spiritual home to more than 650 people raised in many different faiths. Written in stone above the front porch arches are Christ’s words, “Behold, I Have Set Before Thee An Open Door” (Revelation 3:8). The purpose of Old South Church, expressed in its 2002 bylaws, is “to worship God, preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate the Sacraments; to realize Christian fellowship and unity within this Church and in the Church Universal; to render loving service towards humanity; and to strive for righteousness, justice and peace.” Every Sunday Bulletin states that we affirm “each individual as a child of God, and recognize that we are called to be like one reconciled body with many members, seeking with others of every
race, ethnicity, creed, class, age, gender, physical or mental ability, and sexual identity to journey together toward the promised realm of God,” relying upon “the healing, unconditional nature of Gods love and grace to be our help and guide.”

The church rests its existence on confidence in the great Latin affirmation chiseled into the stone of its Boylston Street portico: Qui transtulit sustinet.
(The God who has brought us thus far will continue to sustain us.) In this assurance Old South immerses itself in the stress and flux of changing times, eager to proclaim and serve the living God.

Ministers of Old South Church

Thomas Thacher 1670-1678
Samuel Willard 1678-1707
Ebenezer Pemberton 1700-1717
Joseph Sewall 1713-1769
Thomas Prince 1718-1758
Alexander Cumming 1761-1763
Samuel Blair 1766-1769
John Hunt/John Bacon 1771-1775
Joseph Eckley 1779-1811
Joshua Huntington 1808-1819
Benjamin B. Wisner 1821-1832
Samuel H. Stearns 1834-1836
George W. Blagden 1836-1872
Jacob M. Manning 1857-1872
George Angier Gordon 1884-1927
Russell Henry Stafford 1927-1945
Frederick M. Meek 1946-1973
James W. Crawford 1974-2002
Nancy S. Taylor 2005-

The Old South Church
in Boston
Gathered 1669
A Congregation of the United Church of Christ
645 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116

617-536-8061 (fax)

Nancy S. Taylor, Senior Minister
Quinn G. Caldwell, Associate Minister
You can E-mail us by clicking here: OSC
Copyright © 2008, Old South Church

You can E-mail us by clicking here:
OSC Communications

Copyright © 2008, Old South Church