A few months ago, I chaperoned my daughter’s school field trip to the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End. I had previously visited this house several times over the course of five childhood summers, when our grandmother would visit New England and bring one of our cousins with her, each of whom would be shown the sights in turn. When Alice mentioned the field trip, I was eager to volunteer, as it had now been thirty years since I was last inside this historic home.
Since I was last there, the Paul Revere Memorial Association has turned a neighboring building into an education and visitor center. Our tour was interactive: the guides assigned each student a different historic role as the tour progressed. Several played members of the Revere family, and Alice was given the part of Paul Revere’s second wife, Rachel. Between his two marriages, Paul Revere had sixteen children, eleven of whom survived childhood.1
After touring the house, we walked over to the famed Old North Church, where we were told Revere had instructed the church’s sexton Robert Newman to light two lanterns to signal that the British troops (or “regulars” as they were called then) were traveling by water. The tour was finished at the nearby Paul Revere Mall, with Alice’s teacher and I being given the final roles of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, as the guide told how Paul Revere arrived in Lexington as the battle on the green unfolded on 19 April 1775, starting the American Revolution.
Needless to say, whenever I think of the Old North Church of Boston, I think of the church from Paul Revere’s midnight ride, and the building that still stands. However, while working on a Newbury Street Press project, I uncovered documentation which has brought that mental image into question.
I came across my discovery while writing a genealogical summary of Reverend Samuel Checkley, Jr. (1722-1768), who was also the brother-in-law of the previously mentioned patriot Samuel Adams. Rev. Checkley graduated from Harvard College in 1743, and his biography in our database Colonial Collegians referred to him as the Minister of the Old North Church of Boston, with subsequent footnotes referring to the church as the Second [Congregational] Church of Boston. An 1858 history of the congregation is titled “ A History of the Second Church, or Old North, in Boston ”—by the time of that publication, the Second Church had moved out of the North End and had merged with Church of Our Savior on Bedford Street near Boston’s downtown. The Old North Church I visited, officially Christ Church in the City of Boston, was an Anglican (now Episcopal) Church, constructed in 1723 as the second Anglican church in Boston after King’s Chapel. Were there two buildings known as the Old North Church of Boston?
It turns out that there were—sort of. I thought it was time to do another genealogy of churches for original Boston, with a differentiation between Congregational and Anglican faiths. While I intended to make such a chart below, it turns out that there were ELEVEN numbered churches in Boston founded between 1630 and 1748—so the chart only shows creations and mergers in relation to the Second Church and Christ Church.
The Second Church was established in 1649 in North Square, with a new building replacing the old in 1677. In 1714, some members split off from the Second Church and formed the Fifth Church of Boston, or the “New North Church.” Five years later, some members of this last church split off and established the Seventh Church of Boston, called the “New Brick Church,” in 1719. As such, the Second Church was called the “Old North Church” to distinguish itself from the New North (the site of the New North Church, replaced with a new structure in 1804, became a Catholic place of worship in 1862 and was renamed St. Stephen’s Church after the influx of Irish Catholics to the North End).
In 1776, with the British troops occupying Boston during the Revolutionary War, the Second Church meeting house was torn down by British troops and ostensibly used for firewood (more on that later). The Second Church then accepted an invitation from the New Brick Church to hold combined services, and in 1779 the two congregational churches merged with the New Brick Church’s meeting house on Hanover Street (built in 1719), becoming the Second Church’s third structure. That church was incorporated as the “Old North, the Second Church in Boston.”2 So, the building that was originally known as the “Old North Church” was built in 1677, and was known by that moniker from 1714 until its end in 1776. Paul Revere, in his own narrative, said that the lanterns were displayed from the “north church steeple.” Was the Anglican Christ Church ever known as the North or Old North Church, and from which church were lanterns sent as a signal?
This “lanterns controversy” is not new. As the Second Church’s Old North building was destroyed in 1776 and subsequently moved out of Boston’s North End by the time of the centennial, the Boston City Council set up an “impartial commission” to determine which church was the one from Revere’s ride. The commission concluded that it was Christ Church, and in 1878 a tablet marked the younger structure (the only one of the two remaining) as the “Old North Church of Paul Revere fame.”
One of the commission’s main arguments was that the steeple of the Second Church was too low to be seen from Charlestown. However, a 1959 work by John Nicholls Booth details a convincing argument in favor of the Second Church. Besides the fact that the Second Church was known as both the North Church and Old North Church in 1775, his illustration to the right shows that the elevation of Boston in 1775 would have allowed for the Second Church’s steeple to be seen from Charlestown. Additionally, the Christ Church was a Tory stronghold, while the Second Church, which was just diagonally across from Revere’s home, was more sympathetic to the patriot cause and would have made a less conspicuous choice. Booth argues that the British burning of the Second Church (the only church they burned during their occupation of Boston) may have occurred because of the role this church played leading up to the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
It is assumed that Robert Newman was the man instructed to light the lanterns because he was the sexton at Christ Church—Revere never identified the lantern-lighter by name. If the lanterns were lit from the Second Church, then we really have no idea who lit them! Christ Church became known as the “Old North Church” one hundred years after Revere’s ride, on the theory that it was the church made famous in Longfellow’s poem. By then, the Second Church had moved again to Boston’s Copley Square for its seventh structure. It moved once more in 1914, then merged with the First Church of Boston in 1970.3
Which “Old North Church” do you think was the one in Revere’s ride?
1 Our journal, the Register, published a detailed account of Revere’s ancestry, Andre J. and Pamela Labatut, “Paul Revere’s Paternal Ancestry: The Rivoires: A Huguenot Family of Some Account,” Register, 150 (1996):277-298, along with our manuscript, Herbert Eugene Revere, “A Record of Ancestors and Descendants of Paul Revere.”
2 Paul Revere was a member of the New Brick Church, and thus a member of the Second Church, or Old North Church, after the congregations merged in 1779.
3 The records of the Second Church of Boston from 1650-1970 are available at the Massachusetts Historical Society. For a guide to all Boston churches through 1846, go here.
26 thoughts on “Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride—Which Old North Church?”
Just love the genealogical tree of the churches of Boston. Very cool article! Great piece of reasearch. Really helpful.
Great article! Based on what you’ve written, I would vote for the Second Church.
Chris, fantastic chart, long needed.
Gotta be the Second Church. Which means I’ve been telling people a fib when I give them a tour of the North End! I hope they’ll forgive me. Thanks, very interesting.
Paul Revere and his contemporaries were pretty consistent about using “church” to refer to Anglican places of worship and “meeting” and “meetinghouse” to refer to Congregationalist, Baptist, Quaker, and other independent places of worship. Only later did Congregationalist congregations start referring to their buildings as churches, which is why in Boston we have an Old South Meeting House and an Old South Church, built in different centuries by the same congregation.
In 1798 Revere called the building where the lanterns hung the “North Church,” and documents from that decade show Bostonians using that term for Christ Church on Salem Street. His account never said “Old North”; Longfellow applied that phrase decades later, when the building was even older.
Christ Church’s steeple was taller than the spire of the Old North Meeting House. The Charlestown Patriot Richard Devens wrote that he was looking for a signal from “the upper window of the tower of the N. Ch.”; Christ Church had two tiers of windows in its tower and the Old North Meeting House did not.
While there has been some printed debate on this issue, the evidence strongly supports the usual identification of the signal coming from Christ Church.
Thank you for your comments. Regarding the terms of church versus meeting house, Booth discusses that argument and concludes on page 69, “This argument sounds plausible. But in actual fact, long before the 1770’s, Puritan nomenclature had been declining in usage. The term, ‘Meeting House,’ had become a minority usage, something an outsider like British General Howe might employ. The words, ‘Meeting House,’ for example, appear on none of the communion silver gifted to the Second Church during the eighteenth century because so many persons had dropped this term. Instead the word ‘Church’ is engraved on all the silver pieces presented to the Second Church during that time. The New England Weekly Journal dated February 18, 1728, in describing Cotton Mather’s death the previous Tuesday, called him the ‘Senior Pastor of the Old North Church in Boston.’ The terms ‘meeting house’ and ‘church’ were already being used interchangeably before Christ Church was organized.”
Regarding Devens’ description of the “upper window,” Booth writes on pages 74-76, “Richard Devens’ reference to the ‘upper window of the tower’ has been seized upon by several pro-Christ Church writers in an effort to discredit the Second Church’s case. Among them were the Episcopal clergyman Dr. John Lee Watson, who was reported in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for November, 1876, and Henry C. Kendall writing in the Boston Sunday Herald, April 4, 1921. They have claimed that Price’s 1743 painting of Boston shows that the Old North had only one set of windows or openings in the entire tower. They failed to add that Mr. Price’s excellent picture depicts only the top of the tower where, of course, only one set of windows is visible. The old sketch of the church reprinted earlier in this volume shows the full- steeple with its lower and upper openings. Richard Devens was right: the lanterns would be shown in an upper window of the tower.”
Thanks to you, Chris, and Jnolbell, for this wonderful article and exchange of historical/theological discussion. I LOVE this kind of detail, although I need to invest some time in trying to digest it!
I think it’s an exaggeration to say, “The term, ‘Meeting House,’ had become a minority usage” by the mid-eighteenth century. The 1769 map of Boston used the labels of “Meeting”/“M.” and “Church” systematically, reserving the latter for two Anglican places of worship.
In the case of the communion silver, that was a gift to the congregation, not the building. Like other Christians, the Puritans considered themselves as the church. The question is what they called their places of worship, and they preferred the term “meetinghouse.” That’s not to say they never used the word “church” to also mean a building, but there was still a difference in usage in the 1700s. When selectmen Timothy Newell recorded the British army converting what that 1769 map labeled “Old North M.” into firewood in January 1776, he wrote, “The Old North meeting house, pulled down…” A dispatch from Cambridge printed in the Philadelphia newspapers used the same phrase: “Old North Meeting House.”
So how should we interpret what Paul Revere wrote in his 1798 letter to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap? First, he referred several times to the “Lexington Meeting-House” as a landmark in the skirmish on that town’s common. He never called that building a church, though he could have saved a lot of letters by doing so.
Second, Revere wrote that his colleagues hung the lanterns “in the North Church Steeple.” Writing for posterity, he undoubtedly wanted to be clear. If we take “church” and “meetinghouse” to be synonymous for Revere, then the descriptor “North” alone wouldn’t have been enough. Boston’s North End had been home to what that 1769 map called the Old North Meeting, New North Meeting, New Brick Meeting, and Christ Church. Furthermore, since the Old North Meetinghouse was destroyed in 1776, for clarity Revere would have reminded his readers of its existence.
Instead, Revere wrote “the North Church Steeple,” expecting Belknap and others to understand exactly what that meant. The term “North Church” appears in Boston newspapers and letters from the 1790s referring to Christ Church. When Bostonians used that phrase in 1798, they understood it to mean Christ Church.
Thanks for your additional comments. For other readers, here is a link to the letter from Paul Revere to Joshua Belknap (with a transcription also available) – https://www.masshist.org/database/99 – Revere refers to the “north church steeple” once, and then the “Lexington Meeting-House twice,” and then to this last building two more times as the “Meeting-House.”
Also, here is a link to Revere’s first known account of the ride from a draft deposition to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress later in 1775 – https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=98 – and a corrected copy – https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=98 – with a transcription here – http://www.paul-revere-heritage.com/ride-account-original.html
Thanks for adding links. Here’s another item I referred to: the 1769 map of Boston.
(Now we’ll see if that comes out as a working link.)
Well presented. So, the nub of it is: Which PLACE of Worship had a STEEPLE in 1776-1776 into which one could have ascended to place lights (other than to ring bells)?
Regarding that, both Christ Church and Second Church had a steeple (with a lower and higher part) that could be seen from Charlestown in 1775. The Second Church’s steeple was reportedly about 73 feet high, while Christ Church (at 173 feet) was 100 feet higher.
Documented actions and calculated angles speak louder than mis-remembered words and cloudy judgements 100-years on: that which was destroyed in 1776. Slip a copy of this to The Globe.
Hopefully with the NEHGS focus in 2023 on Huguenots, Paul Reviere (original spelling) and his father Apollo, their French Huguenot roots will be highlighted.
Thanks Dan! Refer to the link in my first note regarding an article we published in 1996 on the French Huguenot origins of the Rivoire/Revere family of Boston.
I am delighted that you have found most of the sources I read to reach the same conclusion I did in my book, The Boston Religion, published in 2003. I will be happy to send you a copy if I have your P.O. mailing address. Peter T. Richardson.
Thanks so much Peter! I’ve sent you an email.
Thanks again Peter for sending me a copy of your very informative work. I’ll quote a few sentences from pages 19-20:
Tragically the Old North Church at the head of North Square, built by the congregation in 1676, was the only church building torn down by the British in 1775 who used its ancient timbers for firewood and called it “a nest of traitors.” It is likely the signal lanterns for Paul Revere’s ride were hung in this unpretentious tower. The only other ecclesiastical demolition by the British was the steeple of the West Church, also visible from Charlestown, for fear of signaling. The other three steeples in the North End, of the New North, New Brick, and Christ churches, were left untouched. Least likely as a steeple for signaling was Christ Church, well known for its Tory sympathies, which had a tall steeple where signals would be seen not only by American Patriots but by all, including the British soldiers stationed below to protect it. (Christ Church is called “Old North” on the Freedom Trail today.)
Great research, Chris, and a very interesting article. One of my all-time favorites! So which do YOU think was the lantern-containing structure? Inquiring minds want to know.