What is today known at the Charles Street Meeting House was built by Asher Benjamin shortly after the turn of the 19th century, at the behest of the Third Baptist Church. Drawing from the popular Federal style introduced by Charles Bulfinch, the Meeting House was constructed over three years with a symmetrical brick façade and fan-shaped windows over the doors. Before the creation of the Back Bay neighborhood, the Charles River ran close to the church and was reportedly used for baptisms.
As was the norm in the early 1800s, the church was segregated, with space for black members of the congregation only in the balcony, a high “rent” on pews, and voting privileges exclusively for white parishioners. To protest these measures, Timothy Gilbert, a white member of the congregation, invited African Americans into his pew and was subsequently barred from the church. Gilbert was afterward instrumental in the foundation of the Tremont Temple as a place of worship and in the formation of the Free Church Baptists who practiced there.
Despite this unlikely start, the Third Baptist Church became an antislavery stronghold in the years leading up to the Civil War, inviting guests such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman to speak there.
Following the Civil War, attendance at the Charles Street Meeting House went into decline, and the building was sold to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which quickly became the largest black congregation in Boston. Under this leadership, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s National Association of Colored Women met on the site, with the motto “Lifting as We Climb.”
In 1921, under the threat of demolition, the Meeting House was moved ten feet toward the Charles. In the years following, the building changed hands several times, eventually falling into disrepair. In 1980, it was purchased by the Charles Street Meeting House Associates and major repairs were made. Today, it houses retail and office space.