An illustrated timeline on display at Old South Church chronicles its 350-year history to date while shedding new light on the role the church and its congregation have played in shaping the annals of both Boston and the nation.
“Our hope is that it tells the story not only of the church, but also of Boston,” said Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, the church’s senior minister and CEO, as well as a resident of Back Bay, in describing the installation that adorns the church’s sanctuary. “ I think that it’s really surprising to a lot of people that the church and its congregation have had such a huge influence on American history.”
The timeline is broken down into 30-year increments, with a single panel dedicated to each of the church’s12 eras, beginning with “Born in a Storm (1669-1699)” and ending with “A New Millennium (1999-2019),” and it incorporates Ben Franklin, who worshipped and was educated there as a child, as well as Phillis Wheatley, who would become the first published African American author, among the historical figures who were at one time members of the congregation.
Elizabeth Morgan, chair of the church’s Tell the Story Task Force of the 350th Anniversary Committee and a South End resident, said the origins of the timeline date back about three years as part of a larger commemorative project, which also includes the recent publication of “Old South Church in Boston: 1669-2019, A Concise Theological, Historical, and Whimsical Encyclopedia by its Members, Ministers, and Friends” – an illustrated, 696-page book that culls 400 essays on the noteworthy events and individuals that collectively tell the church’s story. (The book is available for purchase at https://tinyurl.com/OSC-Encyclopedia.)
Assembling the timeline proved to be a particularly daunting task, however, Morgan said, because limited space meant that the story told in the exhaustive book needed to be drastically reduced in scope.
“It was challenge deciding which stories to tell and what ones would be of the most interest,” Morgan said. “Then we had to find a way to visually show the stories and condense [each one] into a couple of sentences. We sometimes spent hours debating [the language] – that was really challenging.”
A family tree inside the timeline also traces the myriad other churches and organizations that Old South Church has helped father, including the African American, the YMCA and City Mission, among others.
The Anniversary Committee settled on the timeline concept after rejecting an earlier proposal to tell the church’s story via larger-size murals in the upstairs meeting rooms.
“We didn’t want the church to end up looking like a museum,” Morgan said, “but we wanted to share some of this information with the public.”
The Anniversary Committee then commissioned Joshua Cleaver, a Connecticut-based graphic designer and artist, to develop the timeline, as well two other on-site installations – a mural in the alcove that weaves together images of significant figures and events from the church’s history in chronological order, as well as “wallpaper” in the lobby waiting-area that arbitrarily assembles some of the most striking images from the church’s collection against a background that simulates the appearance of stained glass.
Moreover, Cleaver deigned two decals emblazoned with quotes from Rev. George A. Gordon, a former minister at Old South Church, and Ola Elizabeth Winslow, the historian who penned the book commemorating the church’s 300th anniversary, that decorate the alcove near the entrance while a third quote above an ascending staircase near the front door from 19th century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier declares: “So long as Boston shall Boston be, And her bay-tides rise and fall, Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church, And plead for the rights of all.”