The night of the18th of April 1775 was clear, windy and cold. A rider and horse stood on the south shore of the Charles River, keenly watching the town of Boston across the broad waters. The horse pawed impatiently as the rider rechecked his saddle girth, both anxious to be off. The night seemed interminable. Then, just before midnight, a lantern light was seen from the belfry tower of the Old North Church, quickly followed by a second. “One if by land, two if by sea…”
The rider leapt into his saddle and rode madly towards Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops, garrisoned in Boston, were coming. The rider, Paul Revere, warned other patriots as he rode through the countryside, rallying the militias.
He was not alone in his ride; two other express riders also carried the news throughout the Massachusetts colonies, but it was Revere’s ride and the Old North Church that would be forever immortalized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
in 1860. For decades “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” was required reading in schools throughout the country.
But why the Old North Church? Built in 1723 Christ Church (as it is officially known) was an Anglican church with a Tory minister. The King of England himself had donated the silver used during communion, and its liturgy included prayers for the crown. In fact, General Thomas Gage, Commander of British forces in North America, was a parishioner. But on that fateful night the church’s steeple was chosen by the patriots to transmit a signal that would touch off the American Revolution.
The answer is simple—at 191 feet tall the church’s steeple made it the tallest building in Boston. Fearful that he and the other riders might be intercepted, Revere had arranged for the sexton of
the church, Robert Newman, to climb
the 154 steps to the belfry and hang
signal lanterns to warn other patriots
in Charlestowne across the river about British troop movements.
The lamps were only lit for a few moments but by the time Newman reached the ground floor British troops were pounding on the church doors. He and his accomplices escaped out a back window. This was not the first time a church steeple had been used as a watch tower, nor would it be the last.
To understand the origin of church steeples, one needs look no further than a watch tower; man-made structures that are quite tall in proportion to its width and are generally built to take advantage of its height, as a stand-alone structure or as part of an adjacent superstructure.
Through the ages there have been references to several famous towers—
the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Tower of London, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower, to name a few. They served many functions— military watch towers, high profile prisons, clock towers, and man’s attempts to touch the heavens. Some are architectural wonders; others are cultural icons.
One can’t discuss the evolution of towers to steeples without a brief understanding on the origin of churches themselves. In the first three centuries of the early Christian Church the practice of Christianity was illegal, and most Christian communities worshipped secretly in private homes. When in 312AD the Roman emperor Constantine experienced his epiphany at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he later decriminalized the faith and then embraced it. Christianity quickly became a lawful and then privileged religion of the Roman Empire. The faithful were now permitted to gather in public to worship.
Towers, which had remained as stand-alone structures until around 600AD, were gradually incorporated as part of the church proper to advertise its presence from a distance. Beginning as modest structures, over time they were capped off with ever increasing elaborate roofs and tiers until the steeple as we know it today evolved.
While a few are sublime works of art, the majority developed along more modest lines, displaying great regional diversity and vernacular technology. One look at the myriad churches in communities throughout the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula illustrates that many of our steeples share a common thread, consisting of three or four primary features—the tower, belfry, lantern, and spire.
The tower, or base of the steeple, often serves as an entrance. It may contain a clock and/or stained glass windows and its height often adds symmetry and proportion to the overall look of the building.
Above the tower sits the belfry and, as its name implies, housed the church bell used to call worshippers to service or to alert communities in times of trouble. With the advent of electricity, many of the old church bells have been replaced by speakers and enclosed behind louvered shutters to protect the steeple from animals and the weather. Bats in the belfry were common complaints.
Above the belfry sits the lantern. Not all steeples have lanterns but if they do, this portion of the steeple tends to be the most elaborate, with broached spires, arches, openwork, intricate carvings, and is quite often multi-sided.
At the very top sits the spire and was intended to “inspire” distant viewers and advertise its connection to Heaven. Spires may be simple or complex and made from a variety of materials—masonry, copper, bronze, or iron. Some spires may be topped by a cross.
In the Middle Ages, steeples were built as high as possible, not only to reach towards Heaven but also to protect worshipers from the evil many early Christians felt stalked the land. Steep roofs, sharp spires, and gruesome gargoyles were intended to drive away malevolent forces.
By the 15th century, steeples were no longer mere watch towers. Belfries and bells were added that were rung on the hour to announce the time and to herald the beginning and end of religious ceremonies, celebrations, and holidays. Steeples had become magnificent architectural statements of grandeur.
During our Colonial period, the prevailing architecture was English Georgian, founded on the work of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and reinterpreted by subsequent English architects to suit the architecture of the times. For many churches, the translation of Palladio’s influence came from the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. One look at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, which Wren designed in the English Baroque style, one appreciates the architectural blueprint that would cross the Atlantic and influence early church construction for generations.
Even the most modest churches displayed sophisticated tastes in architecture, especially when it came to their steeples. Granted not all denominations desired them, but those that did often went to great expense creating elaborate steeples that survived well beyond the Colonial period.
Throughout our region we can see examples of Gothic, Victorian Gothic, Romanesque, Georgian, Neo-Classical, Greek Revival, and Victorian, often scaled down to match a church’s smaller footprint and budget, but visually pleasing
Sadly, church steeples have taken a beating in recent decades, and the bells that once tolled have been hard hit by economic, social, and religious change. Steeples have outlived their times as signposts and signal towers. Even in the heavily steepled Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, and on down into the Deep South, steepled churches aren’t as common as they once were. Just ask any steeple maker, or steeplejack, those itinerant and often fearless specialists that clamber up the sides of steeples to make repairs.
Today’s congregations often meet in renovated sports arenas, shopping malls, or modern steel clad buildings designed to appeal to contemporary worshippers. In recent years, churches have foregone the traditional row of pews in preference of stadium-style seating, sound systems, innovative lighting, and interactive media. As churches compete for attendees, the big question arises—where do you want to put your money to best use?
Steeples are expensive to build and maintain, even if constructed of new, weather-resistant materials. Labor, which was once relatively cheap and often donated by the membership, is often contracted out to professionals and many church budgets cannot bear a continuing maintenance project that many view as merely aesthetic.
Yet when one thinks of a church, the towering, graceful lines of a steeple come to mind most often. The steeple has been an important architectural design feature for centuries, a visual testimony to those who have gathered in its shadow to partake in worship and fellowship. Steeples point to Heaven and pull attention upward that for many signifies a spiritual journey.
Sadly, the famous steeple of the Old North Church was destroyed in the Great Gale of 1804 and again by Hurricane Carol in 1954, both times replaced with a replica of the original. One of its bells, cast in Gloucester, England in 1744, bears the inscription “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America”. It seems fitting that the Sons of Liberty would select this church steeple to signal the beginning of a new country.