It's always a pleasure to see a survival from the past hang on in the midst of the bustling present. Right in the heart of downtown Boston's shopping district is one such treasure from another age. Ringed by skyscrapers, the Old South Meetinghouse may no longer be what it once was-the largest building in the city-but it is a potent and poignant reminder of the long-ago days when turmoil rocked the colonies, the political earth shifted and a new country was born. It is also a great spot to add to your fun things to do in Boston on your next visit.
The red brick meetinghouse was built in 1729 as a house of worship. Religious fashions were changing, and while the longstanding Puritan preference for the plain and simple controlled the unadorned interior design of the building, the exterior was copied from the modern Anglican churches being built in the home country, England, with large arched windows and a tall steeple.
Because of its size, the religious purposes the building was used for were sometimes augmented by public gatherings; public meetings too big to fit into Faneuil Hall were held here instead. Still, it was first and foremost a house of worship in which families were assigned to box pews based on length of church membership, social class and contributions to the building fund. By paying the annual pew rent, some families retained the same pews for generations. The services were lengthy, and it was expected that a preacher would be able to sermonize to the congregation for hours-without benefit of modern-day sound systems, of course.
One of the most well-known members of the meetinghouse in its early incarnation was Phyllis Wheatley, a slave captured in Africa at age 7 and sold in Boston in 1761 to the Wheatley family. She learned to read and write Latin and English, wrote poetry and became the first published African-American author in America. She was baptized in the meetinghouse and at age 17 became a full member of the congregation, in 1771.
But to our generation, the defining moment in the history of the Old South Meetinghouse occurred two years later. It was the Boston Tea Party, a rowdy act of civil disobedience, and an important thread in the tapestry of revolution that was gradually being woven.
On December 16th in 1773, a group calling itself the Body of the People, made up of irate citizens and merchants, packed the hall (no women, African Americans or Native Americans were allowed to be part of this group). They had gathered to protest the new tax that the home government in England had imposed on the importation of items such as tea into the colonies. One after another incendiary speech inflamed the packed mob until finally, in a crescendo of outrage and passion, the crowd headed for the waterfront with cries of "On to Griffin's Wharf!" and "Boston Harbor a teapot tonight!"
While the crowd gathered on the pier, the bolder among them-some in Indian costume, although fooling nobody-boarded the brig Beaver and heaved approximately 340 chests of tea, valued at the then-huge sum of 10,000 pounds, into the frigid December water. The cargo was destroyed, and so no tax would be paid on it.
This act of insurrection drew a stern reaction from Parliament. In 1774 it passed the "Coercive Acts," under which Boston Harbor was ordered closed to trade, the capital of the Massachusetts colony was removed to Salem and most town meetings were indefinitely banned. British troops occupied the town, and many of Old South's members fled.
During the winter of 1775-1776, the Light Horse 17th Regiment of General John Burgoyne destroyed much of the interior of the building, smashing the pew stalls and covering the floor with a layer of dirt in order to convert the meetinghouse into a riding stable.
The British were later forced to evacuate Boston, but the meetinghouse wasn't reconstructed until 1782-83. The congregation trickled back, and things got back to normal. The size of the hall made it the most desirable venue for public speaking in Boston.
In 1872 the Great Boston Fire burned 65 acres of downtown but came to a stop right at Old South's doorstep. By now the congregation was ready to move. It purchased a new building in the Back Bay and sold the meetinghouse, which was scheduled to be demolished in 1875 to take advantage of the now extremely valuable land it was located on.
There was an outcry, and local notables set out to save the building from the wrecker. In the forefront was a group calling itself "The Twenty Women of Boston," led by Mary Hemenway, which raised $400,000-a remarkable sum in those days-to buy and preserve the building. It retained a role as a meetinghouse where any point of view could be spoken, and finally became a museum as well.
Today the interior remains as it looked during the pre-Revolutionary days when it became a landmark in the fledgling insurrection. An antique pew from the 1782 reconstruction is on display, as are a number of other artifacts, like a receipt for pew rent and a child's tea set fused together by the heat of the Great Fire. But the greatest appeal of the building is intangible; it's the ability to stand in the very spot where history was made, to sit in the same places were the "Body of the People" worked itself up into an act of rebellion that lit a fuse and had far-reaching consequences. It's no longer a story, a fable from history and schoolbooks. It's real, and this is where it happened.
The Old South Meetinghouse is located at 310 Washington Street in Boston. For information on hours and admission visit www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org/
Article provided by Homesteader
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