The West Church was founded in 1737. For the next 150 years it was one of the most socially active congregations in Boston. When the demographics of a changing city scattered its congregation to the Back Bay and the suburbs, the 1806 building was deeded to the City of Boston in 1894 to serve as the West End Library. In 1962, when a new library was constructed, the congregations of the First Methodist Church and Copley Religious Society merged and acquired the building. The new congregation took the name of its new home, now known as Old West Church. Historically, churches were meeting houses that served their community in many capacities, not only for Sunday services. Our congregation has continued and strengthened this tradition. The doors of Old West Church are open to all who serve others, welcoming many religious, educational, and performing-arts organizations throughout the year.
In 1737, William Hooper became the first minister of the West Church, a post that he held for nine years. In March 1747, the West Church called Jonathan Mayhew to become the minister. Mayhew was a revolutionary – in theology and in politics. Mayhew was acknowledged as a great orator, not only in New England but also in Britain. He used his talent to promulgate his theology and his belief that the British colonies ought to be free. His closest associates were not other clergy – instead, he was an associate of, and inspiration for, such leaders and patriots as John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Otis, James Bowdoin, and Robert Treat Paine. Historians have referred to him as The Herald of Revolution, the Assertor of Civil and Religious Liberty, and the last of the great colonial preachers. In 1766, at the age of 45, he died after suffering a stroke. Had Mayhew lived, he no doubt would have been a leader in the Revolution and the formation of our nation.
Mayhew was succeeded by Simeon Howard. Although possessing a personality and oratory totally different from Mayhew’s, Howard continued Mayhew’s religious and civil philosophies. He preached civil and religious freedom guided by a strong sense of personal responsibility. When the Revolution began in Massachusetts, loyalties were sharply divided between Britain and independence. During this time, nearly three quarters of Boston’s civilians fled the city. Public buildings, including churches, were commandeered by the British as barracks for its troops. The West Church occupied one of the highest spots in the city, and the British destroyed the tower to prevent patriots from using it to signal across the Back Bay, the harbor in those days. This probably cost the West Church a share of Revolutionary fame because North Church, whose congregation was largely loyal to Britain, was spared similar treatment. The famous lanterns to signal Paul Revere were hung by that church’s custodian, a patriot who did not share the loyalty to Britain of the North Church congregation.
The war scattered the West Church congregation. Dr. Howard fled to Nova Scotia, returning only after the British had evacuated the city. Upon his return, he found the building severely damaged and essentially no congregation. Dr. Howard literally rebuilt the congregation from scratch. He pledged that, if three families would continue the faith, he would continue as their minister, taking whatever pay they could afford. The congregation grew rapidly, and Dr. Howard became very influential throughout Boston. He was a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard College, and delivered at least one commencement address. At the time of his death in 1804, the West Church was one of the most influential in Boston. Its next minister would build the congregation to even greater strength and continue the message of social activism and personal responsibility so powerfully delivered by Mayhew and Howard.
Charles Lowell was ordained as the fourth minister of the West Church on New Years Day, 1806. A graduate of Harvard College and the University of Edinburgh Divinity School, Lowell hailed from one of the most prominent families of Massachusetts. His family home in Cambridge serves to this day as the home of Harvard presidents. His son, James Russell Lowell, became one of America’s foremost writers.
In 1806, the congregation commissioned Asher Benjamin, an architect and builder, to design the new church building. This is the beautiful, simple Federal-style building that, nearly 200 years later, we proudly call home.
Lowell led the congregation through the great changes affecting Boston and the nation during the next half century. He took up the mantle of social activism. Lowell abhorred slavery and supported the abolitionist cause. With the encouragement of his associate minister, Cyrus Bartol, he ended the practice of segregated seating in the congregation. Lowell began the first Sunday school classes, providing serious lessons for the children of Boston – not only those of wealthy members but poor children from outside the congregation. Among the “graduates” of this Sunday school were Louisa May Alcott and Charles Eliot, in adult life a president of Harvard.
Charles Lowell’s ministry extended beyond the members of the West Church. Dr. Lowell traveled regularly to the most dangerous parts of Boston to minister to the needs of the poor, both white and black. His work was so appreciated by the people that he was never harmed.
For the last twenty years of his ministry, Lowell’s health deteriorated. Cyrus Bartol became the associate minister in 1837, with Dr. Lowell retaining his title until his death in 1861. Dr. Bartol served the West Church for over 50 years. Bartol was a staunch abolitionist. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the West Church was a safe house for people escaping slavery on the “Underground Railway”, the loose connection of safe houses that sheltered them from the border states to freedom in Canada.
After the Civil War, Boston underwent a demographic change as the result of the development of the Back Bay and the devastating fire of 1872. When completed, the Back Bay became home to many wealthy families who had formerly inhabited the West End. The West End, in turn, saw the old mansions converted into rental properties and rooming houses that provided homes to immigrants, who were arriving in ever greater numbers. The fire of 1872 destroyed most of Boston in what are now downtown crossing and the financial district, including many churches. The South Meeting House building survived, but the congregation moved to a new home in Copley Square. Old Trinity Church, located on the site of the current Filene’s store, burned. It was rebuilt near the new Old South Church at Copley Square. Trinity Church attracted many people from Beacon Hill and the Back Bay.
With Dr. Bartol nearing retirement age and many congregation members moving to other parts of Boston – primarily, the new Back Bay – the West Church congregation disbanded in 1887, and the building was closed until 1894. It troubled the former parishioners to see their beloved church standing silent and dark. The building sat empty and the voice of social activism and personal responsibility it had housed appeared to be gone forever.
A member, Andrew Wheelright, bought the building to save it from demolition. Many wanted the building replaced with a new district high school for the West End. Eventually, after deep political struggle, Father Field and a dedicated group from the Mission House of the Cowley Fathers on Bowdoin Street won their appeal to the City Council. The West Church was converted into a desperately-needed branch library in 1894. In February 1896, the building was structurally remodeled to serve one of the most heavily populated sections of Boston. For the next sixty-six years, the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library offered educational opportunity to all who entered. Its outstanding Librarian, Fanny Goldstein, made the West End Library a leading center for people in Boston, serving as many as 2,000 people each day.
During the First World War, when the poor were suffering from coal and food shortages, the library stayed open long hours to keep impoverished West End residents warm. This practice continued through the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Korean War. Many additional activities for the community grew out of West End Library ‘s central place in the hearts and minds of its neighbors.
The 1950s once again brought enormous change to the West End. Urban Renewal, 1950s style, pitted local residents against the Federal, Commonwealth, and City governments. The resulting “renewal” destroyed the traditional neighborhood. Those who could afford to live elsewhere moved away to escape the demolition teams. Small, economically viable businesses and stores closed. The neighborhood looked like it had been bombed to the ground. Residents who wanted to stay were evacuated and some 28 streets with marvelous, personal histories were completely destroyed. Few of the suggestions offered by the West End Planning Board, a group of local citizens familiar with the District’s needs and history, were followed. Originally, Old West and its next-door neighbor, the Harrison Gray Otis House, were also scheduled for demolition.
Plans for razing the structures were well under way by the time the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities learned of the menace. One of its members was the wife of Robert B. Choate, then publisher of the Herald-Traveler newspapers. He had the history of the buildings researched. Choate then notified BRA officials that they were about to destroy two landmarks that dated back to the post-Revolutionary War period. Once the BRA realized the significance of the buildings, it hastily retreated and the landmarks were preserved. In 1961, the building was purchased by the Methodist Church to provide a home for a new congregation, formed from two historic Methodist congregations, the Copley Methodist Church and the First Methodist Church on on Beacon Hill. The congregation named itself after the historic building it would occupy – Old West Church.
An extensive renovation program restored the sanctuary to its original Asher Benjamin design. The basement was expanded to provide space for church and community meetings. In May 1964, the Rev. John Lilly led Old West Church in its first service of worship. Rev. Lilly’s major contribution was merging two diverse congregations into an active city church with a commitment of mission to all the people of Boston. Dr. Wilbur C. Ziegler enlarged this mission, focusing on the social issues related to the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. At the same time, the church expanded its mission by reaching out to those in need, especially to the growing numbers of older citizens and the poor in the city.
The Rev. Dr. William E. Alberts succeeded Dr. Ziegler. Many new programs were established in the 1970s, including the West End Drop In Center, a program providing meals for the disadvantaged. This program has grown tremendously, and still flourishes in a nearby facility, actively supported by Old West Church. A second meals program was initiated for Thursday nights. Many other groups representing the disadvantaged were invited to meet at Old West Church. Special ministries to the elderly and the very young were begun. The Metropolitan Community Church of Boston began holding its worship services at Old West. The church became an urban training parish for students from Boston University School of Theology. Over 50 students have received training within Old West’s parish.
In 1971, Old West Church was designated an Historical Landmark. In this same year the internationally-acclaimed organ was completed by Charles B. Fisk and dedicated on Easter Sunday. This instrument is recognized as one of the finest contemporary organs in the world. Our Music Director, Yuko Hayashi, founded the Old West Organ Society during this time. Many concerts and recitals are now held Old West Church throughout the year, including a summer series that is free to the public. Ms. Hayashi is Chair of the Organ Department of the New England Conservatory. A resident theater company and jazz musical groups presented rich and varied cultural programs for the public. Today, over twenty different performing groups present classical, jazz, and popular music. The Stone Soup Poets present an exciting series of literary events throughout the year.
Dr. Richard Eslinger succeeded Dr. Alberts in 1973, leading the congregation until 1978. From 1978 to 1982, Dr. Richard E. Harding served as pastor of Old West Church. From 1982 until 1991, the Rev. F. Willard Moffat served as Pastor, building the congregation to represent a diverse cross-section of people and neighborhoods throughout the Greater Boston area. The Rev. Gary F. Nettleton, led our congregation into a period of substantial spiritual growth and heightened awareness of the needs in our City for increased Outreach, Mission, and Support while our pastor from 1991 to 2001.
During the last decade, Old West has participated actively in the founding and continuing operations of Safe Havens (formerly Boston Justice Ministries) Interfaith Partnership against domestic violence, which provides assistance to adults and children faced with domestic abuse. In 1996, we began an active ministry to children, a ministry that has all but disappeared from the mission of many churches during the last two decades. We have joined the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) which works to secure affordable housing for the citizens of Greater Boston. Pastor Laurel E. Scott and this congregation look forward to serving our people, our city, our nation, and our world through the United Methodist Connection in the twenty-first century.