WHERE GEORGE WHITEFIELD, THE GREAT EVANGELIST, IS BURIED
More than one hundred years after the organization of the First Church of Newburyport, Rev. George Whitefield, then a young man of twenty-six, preached in the community. ” The Great Awakening,” which followed, spread all over New England, and more than thirty thousand were converted. Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, the Tennents, and others led in the work that had such wonderful results.
Five years after Whitefield’s visit to Newburyport the Old South Church was organized, most of those who became members having been converted under Whitefield’s preaching. The new church was actually a Presbyterian church from the beginning, though it did not finally adopt the Presbyterian form of government until 1802.
The members of the new church were called ” a misguided band,” and ” new schemers.” Their first pastor was called a dissenting minister. Their protest against these aspersions took the form of a petition to ” The King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” which was a prayer for that ” equal liberty of conscience in worshipping God ” that had already been granted to others. The petition recited the desire of the people to be relieved of taxation ” for the support of ministers on whose ministry they cannot in conscience attend,” and, stated that, because of their refusal to pay what they felt were unjust taxes, ” honest and peaceable men have been hauled away to prison to their great hurt and damage.”
When the petition was presented to the king by Mr. Partridge, their agent, he declared that they were not ” a wild, friekish people,” and cited as an argument for relief from double taxation that, while they had some wealthy members, there were among them ” more poor widows than all the other congregations in town put together.” He said those who protested against double taxation had been ” dragged about upon the ground,” dressed up in bear skins and worried, and imprisoned.
The protest did not bring relief at once; it was 1773 before the General Court granted the plea of the members. For more than twenty years more the town tried to collect double taxes, but in 1795 the rights of the members of Old South were conceded.
The first building, erected in 1743, gave way in 1756 to the structure still in use. Alterations made since that time have not made any great change in its appearance, except in the tower, which was repaired in 1848, because it “was thought that the timber must be decaying. However, to the surprise of the carpenters who undertook the repairs, they were found as sound as ever. A half-hour was required to saw through one of them !
The bell in the new tower was cast by Paul Revere. Surmounting the spire is a cock which was perched on the original tower. When this tower, after the carpenters had done all they could with their saws, was pulled over by horses and oxen, the cock broke loose and fell at some distance. The man who picked up the figure was surprised to find that it was of solid copper, instead of wood, as had been thought, and that it weighed more than fifty pounds.
In the original pews there was a central chair, surrounded by seats hung on hinges. Over the pulpit was a sounding board. At the head of the pulpit stair a seat was provided for the sexton, that he might be on hand to trim the candles during the evening service.
The official history of the church, written by Dr. H. C. Hovey, gives interesting facts concerning the heating of the old building :
“For seventy years those who crowded this church depended on footstoves altogether for warmth in win-ter; while the minister preached in his ample cloak, and wore gloves with a finger and thumb cut off to enable him the better to turn the leaves. A law was made allowing the sexton twenty cents for each foot-stove that he had to fill before service and remove after-ward. A great sensation was made in 1819 by the introduction of wood stoves at an outlay of $100. The first day they were in place the people were so over-come that some of them fainted away and were carried out of the house; but they revived on learning that as yet no fire had been kindled in the new stoves. The doors of the stoves opened into the ample vestibule, where the custom continued of ranging the many foot-stoves in a wide circle to be filled with live coals from the stove.”
On the Sunday after the battle of Lexington Dr. Jonathan Parsons made an appeal in the name of liberty. After this Captain Ezra Lunt stepped into the aisle and formed a company of sixty men, which is said to have been the first company of volunteers to join the Continental Army.
Later Newburyport supplied a number of companies. But the call came for still another company. ” Day after day the recruiting officers toiled in vain,” Dr. Hovey writes, “Finally the regiment was invited to the Presbyterian church, where they were addressed in such spirited and stirring words that once again a number of this church stepped forth to take the covenant, and in two hours after the benediction had been spoken the entire company was raised.”
During the war twenty-two vessels and one thousand men, from the towns of Newbury and Newburyport, were lost at sea. The first American flag seen in British waters, after the cessation of hostilities, was displayed in the Thames by Nicholas Johnson of Newburyport, captain of the Compte de Grasse.
Among the treasures of the church is the Bible which Whitefield used. The evangelist, who died Sunday, September 30, 1770, is buried in the crypt under the pulpit where he had planned to preach on the very day of his death, as he had preached many times during the years since the building of the church. To this dark crypt thousands of reverent visitors have groped their way. One, less reverent, removed an arm of the skeleton and carried it to England as a relic. No one knew what had become of it until, after the death of the thief, it was returned to Newburyport, together with a bust of Whitefield. This bust is also one of the treasures of Old South.
Those who love this old church at Newburyport de-light in the lines of John Greenleaf Whittier :
Under the church of Federal Street, Under the tread of its Sabbath feet, Walled about by its basement stones, Lie the marvellous preacher’s bones. No saintly honors to them are shown, No sign nor miracle have they known ; But he who passes the ancient church Stops in the shade of its belfry-porch, And ponders the wonderful life of him Who lies at rest in that charnel dim. Long shall the traveller strain his eye From the railroad car, as it plunges by, And the vanishing town behind him search For the slender spire of the Whitefield Church; And feel for one moment the ghosts of trade And fashion and folly and pleasure laid, By the thought of that life of pure intent, That voice of warning, yet eloquent, Of one on the errands of angels sent. And if where he labored the flood of sin Like the tide from the harbor-bar sets in. And over a life of time and sense The church-spires lift their vain defence, As if to scatter the bolts of God With the points of Calvin’s thunder-rod, Still, as the gem of its civic crown, Precious beyond the world’s renown, His memory hallows the ancient town ! ”