What is a Meeting House, Anyway?

The Old South Meeting House, the second oldest church still standing in Boston, and a treasured National Historic Landmark, has been an important gathering place for nearly three centuries.

Meeting houses were established by the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century. Unique to colonial America, they often served a dual purpose – the Puritan concept of church, and the New England tradition of Town Meeting government.

To Puritans, a “church” was a congregation of people who came together as a body to worship God. A “meeting house” was the building in which they met to hold services, not a consecrated place. Reflecting Puritan doctrine, meeting houses were architecturally stark buildings; simple, white-walled, rectangles, lacking in ornament and flourish. Still, these sometimes foreboding buildings were at the center of colonial communities: they were a spiritual home and the center of civic discussion.

How old is the Old South Meeting House?
The Old South Meeting House congregation, founded in 1669 as the Third (Puritan) Church of Boston, built a simple wooden meeting house that same year on the present-day site. In keeping with Puritan tradition, the early congregation opened its doors for civic use. The first town meeting held at the Old South Meeting House was in May 1712, and the Election Sermon, delivered at the gathering of the General Court that same year, was held there annually.

When the congregation outgrew the wooden structure, it was torn down and replaced in 1729 by a spacious brick meeting house – the one that stands today. The congregation continued its civic tradition of making the large hall available for public gatherings.

Why is this meeting house widely celebrated today?
In the mid to late 1700s, a time of escalated tensions with Britain, Boston had several meeting houses. There was also Faneuil Hall, a space specifically dedicated to town meetings, built over the public market in 1743 by the terms of Peter Faneuil’s gift.

Old South Meeting House, however, still housed the largest hall in Boston. It was also the heart of Boston – the meeting place of the Patriots; close to the centers of government; near the sites of confrontation and to the homes of the citizens. In the years leading to the American Revolution, it become much more than a traditional meeting house; it was a vital meeting place for Boston’s citizens, who gathered within its walls to wrestle with the complex issues each new conflict brought with it.

There was a heightened sense of urgency of the 1760s and 1770s, and, as the concerns of the people increased, attendance at meetings grew. At Old South Meeting House, town meetings convened to respond to each new crisis: the British seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty and impressment of sailors in 1768; the Boston Massacre in 1770; the arrival of the disputed tea in Boston Harbor in 1773; and the closing of the port in 1774. Torn between loyalty to Britain and a new sense of separate interests, they debated the ethics and calculated the risks of each potential course of action to take. Speech by speech, vote by vote, the American Revolution was born.

Why is Old South Meeting House still relevant?
As a museum central to the American experience, it is a touchstone of American democracy. Museum admission offers exhibits filled with interesting artifacts and facts highlighting the role of the Old South Meeting House in American history. Taking in the vastness and simplicity of the hall, the visitor is struck by something inherent and enduring: this is the place where ordinary people came to be heard – to lend their voices to the debate that led them down the unchartered path to independence. Today, its centuries-old tradition as an active center for civic dialogue and free expression continues. As a platform for free and unfettered speech, the Old South Meeting House embodies the American tradition of civic discourse.