Around New England

Woke Old North Church Concerned That Many People Planning To Visit Don’t Know Why It’s Famous

January 17, 2022

Forty percent of people who had decided or were close to deciding to visit Old North Church last year didn’t know why it’s famous, according to a survey of visitors the church took.

Even The Boston Globe stumbled on that point in a feature about the church published Monday, January 16, claiming that the two lanterns held in the steeple the night before the American Revolution began “launched [Paul] Revere on his 1775 ride toward Lexington and Concord …”

That’s the impression readers get from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s intentionally historically inaccurate 1860 poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” But the one-if-by-land-two-if-by-sea signal was actually from Paul Revere, to patriots across the Charles River in Charlestown, so they could spread the word in case Revere didn’t make it out of Boston that night.

The point of the signaling was to let Patriots know when the British regular troops were leaving Boston and which route they would take — the circuitous clockwise land route to the south and west or the more direct route crossing over the Charles River. Patriots expected the British Army to launch a strike to the west from Boston to confiscate gunpowder and several cannons Patriots took from Boston and to arrest Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

(For more on Longfellow’s poem, see David Hackett Fischer’s 1994 book Paul Revere’s Ride, pages 331-333; for the lanterns signal, see pages 98-103 of the same book; for the role of the missing cannons, see J.L. Bell’s 2016 book The Road To Concord.)

Revere famously did make it across the river that night, beginning his famous midnight ride to Lexington. (He never made it to Concord.)

The church’s formal title is Christ Church in the City of Boston. It began as a Church of England church in 1723; it’s now Episcopalian, the successor of the Anglican Church in America and in communion with the Church of England. The church’s steeple is the high point of buildings in the North End of Boston.

After struggling during the coronavirus shutdowns, the church is planning to present exhibits and commentary emphasizing slavery, according to the story in The Boston Globe.

Paul Revere did not own slaves. Neither, apparently, did the sexton of the church (Robert Newman) or the vestryman who helped in the signaling (John Pulling Jr.).

But in 2016, church officials discovered that one of the founders of the church 50 years before the famous event in the steeple was a slave trader (and chocolate maker). Several other church members of that time were also involved in slavery.

Church officials have decided to pay a full-time researcher for a year to delve into the church’s archives and research connections that 18th century church members may have had to slavery, according to the Boston Globe story. New exhibits will emphasize slavery, and visitors will be told about the church’s connection to slavery.

Emphasizing the church’s modern-day relevance, church officials hung two lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church on Wednesday, January 5, 2022, the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot.

A statement posted on the web site of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts says:


With others, we have witnessed with deep concern the questioning of our electoral system and in particular the impugning of those who work tirelessly to ensure that elections are conducted justly. As we approach the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the leadership of the Old North Church and the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts stand in solidarity with election officials in support of our democracy. They, alongside the millions of voters who cast ballots across the country, ensure that our nation continues to shine the lights of freedom and democracy.


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