The Old North Church in Boston is among America’s most historic churches in the actual “historic” sense, as it played a direct and crucial role in one of the most important battles in American history. One of Boston’s tallest and most prominent colonial era churches, its steeple was chosen as the signal point to warn the nearby American militia units that the first British assault was imminent. The Old North Church is still an active congregation, but as part of Boston’s Freedom Trail it is one of that city’s most popular tourist attractions. Numerous colonial era artifacts are kept on display at the church, and several important revolutionary era figures are buried beneath it. The Old North Church is now a National Historic Landmark.
The Old North Church was actually one of the newer churches of the colonial era, having been built in 1723, more than a century after the Puritan settlers first arrived in Massachusetts. It was based on designs by Christopher Wren, the great English architect who had just spent his life rebuilding London after the great fire of the previous century.
The church found itself in the world spotlight on April 18, 1775, when it played a pivotal role in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the opening engagement of the American Revolution. That night, under the direction of Paul Revere, American patriots were put on watch for a British move on the local militia arsenals outside of Boston. There they signaled with two lanterns to scouts on the far side of the river in Charlestown that the British were attacking by boat. This triggered a number of riders, including Revere, to ride out with the warning that the “British are coming!”
The American militiamen, forewarned, routed the British in the subsequent battle, who were forced to withdraw to Boston, although the British did manage to secure the city a few weeks later at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The church fell into British hands for the duration of the war, and a number of their dead were buried beneath the church. After the war, honored American dead would join them.
The Old North Church is one of America’s great iconic churches, immortalized by history and by the poetry of Longfellow, who penned Paul Revere’s Ride. The church has been visited by many dignitaries, from American presidents to foreign heads of state. In 1776, Queen Elizabeth, who is also the head of all churches in the Anglican communion, visited in honor of the American Bicentenial. Thanks to its prominent position on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Old North Church is one of America’s most visited historic churches.
The Old North Church is architecturally one of the most important churches of the colonial era. Constructed along the lines of the Wren churches of London, it was state of the art in the 1720s. It has been renovated numerous times, including the construction of new bell towers as both of the previous towers had been destroyed by storms. The current tower dates to 1954, and its bells, which were cast in England, were restored as recently as the 1970s. A statue of Paul Revere stands before the church.
The church interior is a spacious two story-structure. Its soaring ceiling makes the sanctuary seem narrow by comparison, but it is actually quite large. On display in the church is a lantern, but this is not one of the originals. It is actually a replica presented to the church by President Gerald Ford in 1975. In the crypt beneath the church are a number of tombs containing over a thousand bodies. Among these are British Major John Picairn, who died at Bunker Hill; Samuel Nicholson, captain of the USS Constitution; and Timothy Cutler, the church’s first minister.
The Old North Church is located, not surprisingly, on the north side of the old city center of Boston, about a half-mile from Faneuil Hall. It is easily found thanks to its location on the well-marked freedom trail which winds its way through Boston. The church is open year round from 10:00am-4:00pm (closed on Mondays in Winter, open later hours in Summer). There is no charge for admission but donations are welcome. Web: http://oldnorth.com (official website).
Of related interest to the Old North Church is the Concord Museum, where one of the original lanterns is still on display. Boston’s official Episcopal cathedral is the Cathedral Church of St. Paul which is unusual for its Greek Revival style.
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