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The Old North Church

WELCOME to The Old North Church

The Old North Church - BEST Massachusetts Places to PicnicThe Old North Church (officially Christ Church), at 193 Salem Street, in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts, is the location from which the famous "One if by land, and two if by sea" signal is said to have been sent. 

This phrase is related to Paul Revere's midnight ride, of April 18, 1775, which preceded the Battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution.

The church is a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. The Old North Church is the oldest active church building in Boston and is a National Historic Landmark. Inside the church is a bust of George Washington, which the Marquis de Lafayette reportedly remarked was the best likeness of him he had ever seen.

The Old North Church was built in 1723, and was inspired by the works of Christopher Wren, a British architect who was responsible for rebuilding London after the Great Fire.

The lanterns

On April 18, 1775, probably a little after 10 P.M., the 191 ft steeple of the Church served a military purpose.

Paul Revere told three Boston Patriots to hang two lanterns in the steeple. These men were the church sexton Robert Newman and Captain John Pulling, the two of whom David Hackett Fischer suggests each carried one lantern up to the steeple, and Thomas Bernard, who stood watch for British troops outside the church. 

The lanterns were displayed to send a warning to Charlestown Patriots across the Charles River about the movements of the British Army. Revere and William Dawes would later deliver the same message to Lexington themselves, but this lantern method was faster, and it was a good back-up plan for communication in case they were captured.

The signal only lasted for a few brief moments to avoid catching the eyes of the British troops occupying Boston, but this was long enough for the message to be received in Charlestown. They had kept someone looking at the steeple all night.

The meaning of two lanterns has been memorized by countless American schoolchildren for generations.

One if by land, and two if by sea is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "Paul Revere's Ride". One lantern was to notify Charlestown that the British Army would march over Boston Neck and the Great Bridge, and two were to notify them that the troops were taking boats across the Charles to land near Phips farm. 

After receiving the signal, the Charlestown Patriots sent out a rider to Lexington, but this rider did not reach his destination and his identity has disappeared from history. He was the one who might have been captured by a British patrol.

But the warning was delivered miles away to dozens of towns, first by Revere and Dawes on horses, and then by other men on horses and men who rang church bells and town bells, beat drums, and shot off warning guns. 

Revere didn't really say "The British are coming!" because most of the people in Massachusetts still thought of themselves as British. But he did say "The Regulars are coming out!" (or something similar) to almost every house along the way to Lexington after he felt safe from that British patrol. 

(Current status of the lanterns is not entirely clear; one is said to be in the hands of a private collector, another broken during a tour, and yet another is on display at the Concord Museum.)

The Bells

Eight change ringing bells at Old North Church were cast in Gloucester in 1744 and hung in 1745. One bell has the inscription: We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America, A.R. 1744. The bells were restored in 1894 and in 1975. They are maintained and rung regularly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Guild of Bellringers.

Steeple Damage

The original steeple of the Old North Church was destroyed by the Storm of October 1804. A replacement steeple, designed by the architect of Faneuil Hall, Charles Bulfinch, was toppled by Hurricane Carol on August 31, 1954. The current steeple that was rebuilt after Hurricane Carol uses design elements from the original and the Bulfinch version. The church is now 175 feet tall. At its tip is the original weathervane.

The Other "Old North"

Before the construction of the 'Old North Church' (Christ Church, Boston), there was another church in Boston called the "Old North" (Meetinghouse). This Congregationalist meetinghouse was founded in North Square, across the street from what is now called Paul Revere's house

John Mayo was installed as the first minister in 1655 and continued until 1673, when, because of old age, he was replaced by Increase Mather, his close associate. This church was dismantled and burned for firewood by British soldiers during the occupation of 1775.

The fact that there have been two churches in Boston called Old North leads to considerable confusion about which physical church location is mentioned in historical and modern documents. There are two key differences:

  1. The Old North Meetinghouse's religious affiliation, Congregationalism, derived from Puritanism, was the dominant religion of the American Colonists in Boston at the time of the Revolution. Most of the early Patriots who rebelled against the Crown were likely to be Congregationalists. This affiliation, as well as the wooden construction of the meeting house, made it possible for British Soldiers to dismantle it for firewood.
  2. The Old North Church (Christ Church, Boston), of Paul Revere fame, on Salem Street, has always been a part of the Anglican or Episcopal Church since its establishment in 1723. Because the Anglican Church was the official church of the British Crown and the Old North is made of brick, British soldiers would not have been likely or able to burn down the church for firewood.

The two Old North have always been separate entities with different religious affiliations, locations, and physical construction.

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