When Boston’s Old South Meeting House was first built in 1669, it was a wooden building, and it was known as the “Third Church.” When the current brick structure was erected in 1729, it was the largest building in all of Boston. Even its architecture reflects Puritan values, emphasizing equality, a personal connection with God, and an unadorned space in which to worship and meet.
The Old South Meeting House is best known as the gathering point for dissidents shortly before the Boston Tea Party, when 5,000 colonists met there to discuss what was to be done with the 30 tons of tea sitting on British ships in the harbor. Samuel Adams famously said, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country,” which is today rumored to have been a secret signal for the Sons of Liberty to dump the tea into the harbor. The Old South Meeting House was also where Samuel Sewall, assistant magistrate in 1692, apologized for his involvement in the Salem witch trials. Between 1772 and 1775, it was notable for meetings held in the church to commemorate the Boston Massacre.
Notable patrons of the Meeting House have included Benjamin Franklin, who was baptized there; William Dawes, who joined Paul Revere on his midnight right; transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson; Julia Ward Howe, author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and the poet Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American woman. Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was inspired by her attendance of services at the Old South Meeting House as a child.
During the British occupation of Boston, the Old South Meeting House was turned into a stable and a riding school for British troops; it was not restored as a place of worship until 1783. The Meeting House was nearly burned down in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and in 1876, it was sold and slated for demolition before being rescued by activists in the first example of historical preservation in New England. The Old South Meeting House has been a museum since 1877.