By Rob Super
In 1975 as part of the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, President Gerald Ford lit the “Third Lantern,” a lantern that still hangs in Old North Church’s sanctuary, to commemorate the hanging of the signal lanterns on the night of April 18, 1775. President Ford remarked that
Two hundred years ago tonight, two lanterns hung in the belfry of this Old North Church. Those lanterns signaled patriots on the other side of the Charles River British troops were moving by water. As Longfellow said in his poem: “One if by land, and two if by sea” … The two lanterns of Old North Church have fired a torch of freedom that has been carried to the ends of the world … Finally, let us pray here in the Old North Church tonight that those who follow 100 years or 200 years from now may look back at us and say: We were a society which combined reason with liberty and hope with freedom.
Old North continues to occupy a unique place in American culture as the symbolic home of the flames of liberty. For many visitors, a trip to Old North is a patriotic act, a moment to reflect on how the United States began and on the values that have guided the nation since then. Indeed, when considering a candidate for birthplace of this nation, a compelling argument can be made for Old North Church. As the site of the famous signal lanterns, Old North sent the message throughout the land that a fateful decision had been made, that violence would greet the dawn, that rebellious colonists throughout New England had indeed been correct in their suspicions of their mother country, and that an irreconcilable conflict was beginning that would result in a new nation. Old North continues to occupy a role today in the national consciousness of the United States as one of the principal sites symbolizing rebellion against tyranny.
From its inception, Old North occupied a contentious space. As the house of worship for members of the Church of England, its congregants were surrounded by the very dissenters who sought to reform it. Long before anyone could have envisioned the War for Independence, Old North was founded as Christ Church in the City of Boston in 1723. Church records indicate that on September 2, 1722,
the Reverend Samuel Myles ordered his clerk to give Notice to his Congregation That all those who were willing to Contribute towards Erecting another Church at the North end of Boston were desired to meet at King’s Chappel the Wednesday following.
For some time, the increasing number of ships’ captains, shopkeepers, and colonial administrators moving to a growing Boston had clamored for another house of worship to supplement the oldest Church of England in the city, King’s Chapel. Many of these men and their families lived in the North End, and the journey to a crowded King’s Chapel was inconvenient. Church members decided that land should be purchased on which to construct another church for members of the Anglican faith. The chosen location was a plot of land at the end of Hull Street that was once Nathaniel Henchman’s pasture. Constructing an Anglican house of worship certainly irritated members of the Puritan faith living beside it.
Further enflaming these differences in beliefs, the members of the soon to exist Christ Church recruited the Reverend Timothy Cutler, then-Rector of Yale University, to sail to England and receive Holy Orders in the Anglican Church. For New England Puritans it was an incredible act of betrayal that one of their leading theologians would choose to be ordained as a member of the Church that they so fervently wanted to reform. In an ironic twist, this Anglican site of conflict between the Puritans and Anglicans of Boston would end up playing a pivotal role in the seminal acts of rebellion of what would become the United States, acts led largely by Puritans.
The former poet laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky, argues that as a young nation, the United States had to create its origin myths and legends from scratch. One of those critical legendary origins is the ride of Paul Revere and the hanging of signal lanterns in Old North Church:
Part of our peculiar claim to greatness as a nation rests on the fact that we have done without many elements that might be thought of as the marks of a great people, among them a myth of origin…. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passionately determined that the young American nation develop a distinct culture for its people, wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” in a conscious effort to supply such a myth—and with some success: I can testify that many Americans, including Senator Edward Kennedy, have much of the poem by heart.
Old North has become an important national symbol, a landmark that preserves the origins of the United States. Longfellow’s celebrated poem enshrined the church in the national pantheon of stories about the creation of the United States. Over time, Old North has become increasingly aware of the space it occupies in American culture. Five Presidents have attended services at Old North, four of them in the twentieth century. The Church further embraced its role as an American historical site following its incorporation in 1947, as evidenced in the writings of vicars Charles R. Peck, Howard P. Kellett, and Robert W. Golledge.  Old North remains dedicated to its role as a significant historical site, focusing on interpretation and preservation.
Visitors to Old North Church have come from the world over to explore the many ways in which it occupies history. Many Americans have come out of a palpable sense of patriotic duty, to celebrate the heroism of the men who lit the signal flames that led to revolution. Most importantly, the Church remains a powerful symbol for American values of duty, sacrifice, and liberty. These values are embodied in Old North Church as it continues to perform its critical function as part of the national mythos of the United States.
Ford, Gerald F.197 – Remarks in Boston at the Old North Church Bicentennial Lantern Service.
April 18, 1975. The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=4846. Accessed May 6, 2018.