Boston 1775 reader Bill Welsch, of the American Revolution Round Table–Richmond, has written:
have you considered discussing the controversy over in which steeple the signal lanterns were hung? I’ve read and have copies of material by Frothingham, Watson, Weldon, Booth, Zellner, Fitch, Babcock, and Fischer debating Christ Church versus the Second Church.Bill refers to a little historic controversy that boiled up in the late 1800s after Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” made the signal from the church steeple so famous. Longfellow took that detail from a letter Revere had written in 1798, which said he arranged for those two lanterns to be hung in the “North Church Steeple.” The poet believed that meant Christ Church in the North End, which he visited for research in 1860.
In his History of the Siege of Boston (first printed in 1849, reprinted in 1872), Richard P. Frothingham had echoed Revere’s phrase about the “North Church steeple” [p. 58]. However, later in that book it becomes clear that Frothingham considered “Old North Church” [p. 282] or “Old North Chapel” [p. 328] to be Boston’s Second Congregationalist Meeting-House, which the British army pulled down for firewood in December 1775.
In 1873, the rector of Christ Church announced that Frothingham was mistaken. The historian replied in 1876 with a pamphlet titled The Alarm on the Night of April 18, 1775, making a more explicit case that Revere’s “North Church” was the Second Meeting-House. John Lee Watson and Charles Deane answered the next year in Paul Revere’s Signal: The True Story of the Signal Lanterns in Christ Church, Boston. You can trace the rest of this debate in Bill Welsch’s list of authors above.
It’s true that the Second Meeting was known as “Old North” in Revere’s time, to distinguish it from the “New North” meeting under the Rev. Dr. Andrew Eliot (as well as the “New Brick Meeting” under Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton, which had broken away from the New North). The loss of the Old North building prompted its congregation to unite with the New Brick Meeting during the war.
However, the scholarly consensus is clear that hanging those lanterns in the Second Meeting-House was one of Frothingham’s rare mistakes. (His history of the siege is still the most thorough study of the first campaign of the Revolutionary War, more than a century and a half later.)
The key to Revere’s identification, I believe, is his word “Church.” In the 1700s, Bostonians were still fairly consistent about distinguishing between Congregationalist “meeting-houses” and Anglican “churches.” When Revere wrote “North Church,” he meant the one and only Episcopal church in the North End, formally Christ Church. Its steeple, helped by the terrain, soared above the neighborhood. As a teenager, Revere had signed up for a little society of bell-ringers for that church, even though his family weren’t Anglicans, so he knew the building well. In contrast, when Revere and his neighbors spoke of the Second Meeting, they usually called it “Old North Meeting” or “Mr. [John] Lathrop’s Meeting.”
By the time Frothingham was writing in the late 1800s, however, the meeting-house/church distinction had faded. (He himself was a Universalist.) The congregation of Old South Meeting-House officially became Old South Church when they moved to their new building, but in his book Frothingham had referred to that institution as both a church and a meeting-house. Similarly, he called Old North Meeting a “Church” and a “Chapel,” which no one had called it in the previous century. (The only “chapel” in pre-Revolutionary Boston was King’s Chapel.)
Meanwhile, the “North Church” Paul Revere knew continued to stand tall in the North End, eventually lasting long enough to inherit the nickname “Old North.” Which only added to the confusion.