One of the many false notes in The Patriot, the Mel Gibson movie about the Revolutionary War, was the scene of British soldiers burning a church with American civilians inside. No such atrocity took place in that war, though some American attacks on Native American towns in upstate New York became quite vicious.
However, the British army did burn one prominent house of worship in occupied Boston. On 16 Jan 1776, selectman Timothy Newell recorded the start of what he probably thought counted as an atrocity:
The Old North Meeting house, pulled down by order of Genl. [William] Howe for fuel for the Refuges and Tories.Yes, the army burned this church only after dismantling it, with no one killed or even injured.
Old North Meeting-house is on the left in this 1768 picture, marked B. The taller, grander steeple to the right is Christ Church, which inherited the “Old North” nickname after the war and is now commonly called Old North Church.
The Old North Meeting was the second oldest in Boston, preceded only by the “Old Brick” Meeting in the center of town. By the Revolution, there were two other Congregationalist meetings in the North End. The New North meeting had split from Old North in 1714, and then the New Brick had split from New North in 1719. In the years before the war, most Bostonians called Old North “Mr. Lathrop’s meeting,” after the Rev. John Lathrop (1740-1816), who became its minister in 1768.
Decades later, the congregation ascribed the destruction of their meeting-house to a particular enmity of a British general. An 1899 church history quoted the Rev. Thomas Van Ness this way:
I am not surprised to learn that as early as 1774 Lathrop, from this pulpit, said, “Americans, rather than submit to be hewers of wood or drawers of water for any nation in the world, would spill their best blood”; nor does it seem strange that the British general, in speaking of The Second Church, should call it “a nest of traitors.”Lathrop did indeed say in a Thanksgiving sermon in late 1774:
Americans, who have been used to war from their infancy, would spill their best blood, rather than “submit to be hewers of wood, or drawers of water, for any ministry or nation in the world.”The latter phrase was a direct quotation from the First Continental Congress’s address to the people of Great Britain, carefully cited in the printed edition of Lathrop’s sermon. The Congress in turn alluded to the Book of Joshua. So this sentiment wasn’t particular to Lathrop.
Lathrop definitely supported the Patriot cause. In 1771, he preached a sermon on the Boston Massacre subtly titled “Innocent Blood Crying to God from the Streets of Boston.” The 1842 History of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, by Zachariah G. Whitman, stated:
In June, 1774, the Ar. Co. held their election, when the late Dr. John Lathrop delivered an excellent and patriotic discourse. It is related, that while Dr. Lathrop preached, British troops were in the vicinity, and a sentry was placed on the pulpit stairs, lest any thing rebellious should be expressed. One fact the compiler remembers, viz: to have heard Dr. L. say, when he was accused of advancing sentiments inimical to his country [i.e., the U.S. of A.], that no one certainly could doubt his patriotic spirit, for he had preached republicanism with a British sentry, armed, on the pulpit stairs, to watch what he said; but he did not mention the occasion.As for the “nest of traitors” line, however, I haven’t found any source for that quotation earlier than the church’s 1899 history. Other writers in the same book use the phrase “nest of hornets” instead, and authors disagree about whether Gen. Howe or Gen. Thomas Gage uttered those words.
It’s possible that the British authorities really didn’t like Lathrop and the Old North Meeting. It’s also possible that those authorities pulled down the meeting-house simply because it was an old, deserted wooden building, and they needed firewood in the middle of winter. The 1 Jan 1776 Pennsylvania Packet printed a dispatch from Cambridge dated 21 December which said:
That on the 14th instant [i.e., this month] Gen. Howe issued orders for taking down the Old North Meeting House, and one hundred old wooden dwelling houses and other buildings, to make use of for fuel.Lathrop and many of his congregants had moved out of town and were no longer in a position to object.
In 1849, the Rev. Dr. John Pierce of Brookline wrote a letter about Lathrop that was later printed in the Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit:
In 1775, when Boston was in possession of the British army, he set out to find a refuge in his native place [Norwich, Connecticut]; but, as he was passing through Providence on his way to Norwich, proposals were made to him to supply a destitute congregation there, to which he consented.So a good thing came out of the destruction of the Old North Meeting-House: its minister and congregation doubled up with one of the nearby meetings, and eventually the two became one.
Upon the opening of Boston, in 1776, however, he returned; and, in the mean time, the ancient house in which he had been accustomed to preach had been demolished and used as fuel. It was ninety-eight years old; but was considered, “at its demolition, a model of the first architecture in New England.”
Mr. Lathrop accepted an invitation from the New Brick Church, to aid their Pastor, Dr. [Ebenezer] Pemberton, then in a declining state. And, after Dr. Pemberton’s death in the following year, the two Societies united; and, on the 27th of June, 1779, he became their joint Pastor. In this relation he continued during the remainder of his life.