Three years in the making, an exhaustive new book chronicles the story of Old South Church and how as one of the oldest religious communities in the U.S., it has helped shape the history of both Boston and the nation.
“As we approached our 350th anniversary, we were doing so much research and discovering so many stories, we asked: How can we preserve all we have learned and pass it down to the next generation,” said Elizabeth Morgan, chair of the church’s Tell the Story Task Force of the 350th Anniversary Committee and a South End resident. “We decided on an ‘open source’ encyclopedia. Our 106 unique authors range in age from 10 into their 80s.”
The illustrated, 696-page tome titled “Old South Church in Boston: 1669-2019, A Concise Theological, Historical, and Whimsical Encyclopedia by its Members, Ministers, and Friends” collects 400 essays on the noteworthy events and individuals that collectively tell the story of the church.
Captain William Kid, a notorious Scottish sailor who was executed for piracy in 1701, is among the individuals who played a role in this story, according to Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, the church’s senior minister and CEO, as well as a resident of Back Bay.
Several members of the church’s congregation helped apprehend Kidd after Richard Coote, the first Earle of Bellomont, lured him to Boston with false promises of leniency. After Kidd was captured, his booty was temporarily stored at the church until Kidd was deported to the UK to face questioning by the Parliament of England.
Old South Church welcomed many African Americans, some of whom were freed slaves, to its congregation in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Phillis Wheatley, said Larry Bowers, a member of the Tell the Story Task Force and the congregation since 1974, as well as a Back Bay resident.
Wheatley, a member of the church during the American Revolution and the first published African American author, was kidnapped from her African homeland at around the age of 7. She learned English and Latin on her own, as well as how to write from white children. Wheatley began writing poetry as a teen and went on to become a celebrated poet.
“She refuted the notion at the time that black people were intellectually inferior to whites, and that women were intellectually inferior to men,” Bowers said.
Today, Wheatley, along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, a prominent U.S. orator, abolitionist, and suffragist, is immortalized at the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
Moreover, historian Richard J. Boles determined that in the 1600s and 1700s, Old South Church welcomed more African Americans, many of whom were former slaves, than any other church in Boston, Taylor added.
Another one-time parishioner who graces the pages of the book is Joseph Hardy Neesima.
Born into the samurai class in feudal Japan in 1843, Neesima wanted to explore the world as a boy, Walker said, but he was unable to do so because Japan was a closed society at that time.
Neesima, at around the age of 20, stowed away to China before catching another boat to Boston commanded by Captain Horace Taylor (no relation to Rev. Taylor). Upon his arrival here, two members of Old South Church, Alpheus and Susan Hardy, took him in and paid Neesima’s way to attend Philips Academy in Andover, Mass., Amherst College and the Andover Theological Seminary (which was also based in Andover and merged with Newton Theological Institution in 1965 to become the Andover Newton Theological School).
Neesima went on to become the first ordained Japanese minister in the U.S. in 1875 before returning to his homeland, where he founded the Doshisha English School (later Doshisha University) – the first school in Japan to adopt Western teaching practices.
“He left Japan illegally, but went on to become an ambassador to help open Japan up,” Rev. Taylor said of Neesima.
Between 60 to 90 students from the Doshisha English School and its satellite schools travel to Boston from Japan each year to sing at Old South Church, with one memorable performance falling on the Sunday following Sept. 11, 2001.
“When everyone was pulling back and isolating, this group of kids from Japan came and sang, and we had an international experience,” Bowers recalled.
Another one-time parishioner was largely deprived of formal schooling and instead educated himself by drawing from the sermons he listened to at Old South Church.
Benjamin Franklin attended the church as boy, Bowers said, and while he attended the Boston Latin School for two years before being forced to drop out to work, he attended church every Sunday and listened to the sermons of Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton, who served as senior minister during this time.
“He was one of the first ministers of the time to preach from popular literature, not just the bible,” Bowers said of Rev. Pemberton.
Franklin eventually earned a printing apprenticeship and stopped attending church, but he educated himself by reading every book that Pemberton mentioned during his sermons.
“A critical part of [Franklin’s] education took place because he was a kid at this church,” Bowers said.
After a fight with his master, Franklin then fled to Philadelphia, Pa. But he never forgot Old South Church, and upon his death at age 84 in 1790, Franklin left some money behind to the church in his will.
More than 150 years later, Coretta Scott King, who was the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sang in the Old South Church choir while her husband studied systemic theology as part of a doctoral program at Boston University.
Dr. King apparently worshipped at Old South Church enough times, Rev. Taylor said, that two of his sermons included in the Mather Luther King, Jr., Papers Project were based on those of Frederick M. Meek, who served minister of Old South Church from 1946 to 1973.
Meek’s successor, James W. Crawford, stood 6 feet, 8 inches tall, but would “fold himself up,” as Bowers describes it, to ride with black children being bused to the city’s white neighborhoods in the 1970s to personally ensure their safety.
“I don’t know the impact I had on kids,” said Bowers, who taught Sunday School at Old South Church for 16 years, “but I see the impact that Nancy and James W. Crawford had on the kids, and they changed their lives for the better.”
While the positive influence Old South Church has had will be readily apparent to readers, the book also doesn’t shy away from less favorable accounts of some one-time members of the ministry and congregation.
“We know we’ve had church members, including ministers, who were slave owners,’ Rev. Taylor said. “It’s a sobering history…and we face historical complicity in being part of the problem, not always the solution.”
Meanwhile, Old South Church is located next to the finish line for the Boston Marathon, which Rev. Taylor said has earned it the special distinction as “The Ministry to the Marathon.”
The church holds two services for runners on the Sunday before the Marathon, which Rev. Taylor said are typically a bigger draw than its Easter Sunday services.
“We built up a ministry to the athletes right outside our door where the bombs went off,” Rev. Taylor said, adding that members and friends of the church were injured during the tragic events of April 15, 2013, when two bombs exploded near the finish lane during the Marathon
The “Marathon Scarf Project” was launched before the footrace the following year by two parishioners, Marilyn Adams and Diane Gaucher, who led an effort to knit scarves for runners in blue and yellow – the official colors of the Boston Athletic Association, the footrace’s official sponsor.
“Every one of the scarves was knit with love and courage,” Rev. Taylor said.
Volunteers from every state and several countries outside the U.S. knit the scarves, and on some days, full postal trucks arrived at the church that contained nothing but scarves.
The next year, runners who attended the Sunday services prior to the Marathon were “scarfed,” as Taylor puts it. Each runner was presented with a scarf, and the parishioner bestowing it on them would say, “This scarf was knit with love. Be safe and run well.”
Many runners returned to Old South Church for the pre-Marathon services the following year wearing their scarves, Morgan added.
What makes the story of Old South Church so unique, Rev. Taylor said, is that at 350 years old, it has already far surpassed the 75-year lifespan of most churches.
“We talk about the church’s 350-year history as a relay race where each generation picks up the baton, does the best it can and then passes it into the next generation,” she said. “Part of what we’re curious about is when there were moments when the church could have failed, what allowed it to navigate theses treacherous moments in history, and we’ve had many over 350 years.”
But perhaps more importantly, the new book is a testament to all the people and events that have brought Old South Church into the present moment.
“The church, from the beginning, has had an interest in history,” Rev. Taylor said. “We just keep doing this because I think our congregation honors those who came before us and know we didn’t come from nowhere, and that we’re indebted to them. We’re not the inventors; we’ve inherited so much, and we’re building on that.”
To purchase a copy of “Old South Church in Boston: 1669-2019, A Concise Theological, Historical, and Whimsical Encyclopedia by its Members, Ministers, and Friends,” visit https://tinyurl.com/OSC-Encyclopedia.