When Old North Was New
On April 15 the Reverend Samuel Myles laid the cornerstone of Christ Church (later known as Old North Church), Boston’s earliest surviving house of worship, whose belfry would one day hold the lanterns that sent Paul Revere on his famous ride in 1775. Although the architect of Old North has never been conclusively identified, its distinctive steeple—originally 191 feet high, and not added until 1744—is known to have been designed by William Price, a dealer in books and prints. The building bears a clear resemblance to the London churches of Christopher Wren, with which Price was familiar, though the same might be said of any church with a steeple. As befits a style transplanted from Merrie England to Puritan Boston, the design of Old North, while adopting the graceful proportions of Wren’s churches, did away with their richly textured stone and their ornament. The rather severe result, as one critic observed, looked as though it had been inspired by a print rather than the real thing.
Inside the Anglican (or Episcopal) church, center and side aisles separate the pews while a gallery wraps around the upper story amid soaring arches that draw the eyes upward. (A 1912 restoration returned Christ Church to its colonial-era appearance.) Wooden panels extending to the floor surround each pew to prevent cold drafts from inspiring profane thoughts in the worshipers. The interior arrangement closely resembles that found in St. Anne’s Church of Blackfriars, London, which was destroyed in World War II.
The church’s long association with Paul Revere exemplifies its mixture of influences. Although Revere, a Congregationalist, never joined Christ Church, he attended services there sporadically throughout his life. In 1808 his son bought a pew, which has remained in the family ever since. Revere first became involved with the church during his teenage years, when he and some other boys signed up to ring its eight sonorous bells. The articles of association of young Revere’s bell-ringing group have been preserved in the church’s archives.
While austere Congregationalists frowned on such frills, the bells and pageantry of the Anglican service attracted many youths like Revere (as did the celebration of Christmas, another Puritan no-no). Adults could be swayed as well. Old North’s first rector, Timothy Cutler, had caused a stir just before the church’s opening when he forsook his Congregational background (a degree from Harvard and later appointment as rector of Yale) and sailed to England with two colleagues to be ordained as Anglican priests. The Reverend Cotton Mather, a pillar of Congregationalism, called Cutler a “miserable apostate” and his parishioners “a little sorry, scandalous drove.”
With the central importance of religion in colonial life, Christ Church faced wrenching choices when the Revolution came. As adherents to the mother country’s established faith, most Anglicans in New England were Tories. Yet Ezra Stiles, the prominent patriot, scholar, and Congregational clergyman, described Christ Church as “Dr Biles little Flock which are more for liberty than any Episco. Congregation north of Maryland.” In fact the rector, Mather Byles, Jr., was a staunch Loyalist who eventually fled to Canada and was barred from re-entering the country on penalty of death. It was Old North’s sexton, Robert Newman, who sneaked in and lit the lanterns to signal Revere, thus keeping the rebellion from expiring in its cradle.
One of the British officers at Lexington and Concord that fateful April night was Maj. John Pitcairn, an Old North parishioner, who (according to the Dictionary of American Biography ) “was perhaps the only British officer in Boston who commanded the trust and liking of the inhabitants.” He was often called on to mediate disputes between citizens and soldiers. When Pitcairn was mortally wounded two months later at Bunker Hill while leading his men in an attack on the American redoubt, his remains were buried in the crypt beneath Christ Church. Today, just as a statue of Paul Revere holds a place of honor in a plaza adjoining Old North, so a plaque in the steeple recalls the heroic death of his old antagonist.