left: The steeple of Old North Church.

On April 18, 1775, probably a little after 10 P.M., the 191 ft (58 m) steeple of the Church served a military purpose.

Paul Revere told three Boston Patriots to hang two lanterns in the steeple. These men were the church sexton Robert Newman and Captain John Pulling, the two of whom David Hackett Fischer suggests each carried one lantern up to the steeple, and Thomas Bernard, who stood watch for British troops outside the church. The lanterns were displayed to send a warning to Charlestown Patriots across the Charles River about the movements of the British Army. Revere and William Dawes would later deliver the same message to Lexington themselves, but this lantern method was faster, and it was a good back-up plan for communication in case they were captured.

The signal only lasted for a few brief moments to avoid catching the eyes of the British troops occupying Boston, but this was long enough for the message to be received in Charlestown. They had kept someone looking at the steeple all night.

The meaning of two lanterns has been memorized by countless American schoolchildren for generations.

One if by land, and two if by sea.
is from Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” One lantern was to notify Charlestown that the British Army would march over Boston Neck and the Great Bridge, and two were to notify them that the troops were taking boats across the Charles to land near Phips farm. After receiving the signal, the Charlestown Patriots sent out a rider to Lexington, but this rider did not reach his destination and his identity has disappeared from history. He was the one who might have been captured by a British patrol.

But the warning was delivered miles away to dozens of towns, first by Revere and Dawes on horses, and then by other men on horses and men who rang church bells and town bells, beat drums, and shot off warning guns. Revere didn’t really say “The British are coming!” because most of the people in Massachusetts still thought of themselves as British. But he did say “The Regulars are coming out!” (or something similar) to almost every house along the way to Lexington after he felt safe from that British patrol.

The original steeple of the Old North Church was destroyed by the Storm of October 1804. A replacement steeple, designed by the architect of Faneuil Hall, Charles Bulfinch, was toppled by Hurricane Carol on August 31, 1954. The current steeple that was rebuilt after Hurricane Carol uses design elements from the original and the Bulfinch version. The church is now 175 feet (53 m) tall. At its tip is the original weathervane.

But the warning was delivered miles away to dozens of towns, first by Revere and Dawes on horses, and then by other men on horses and men who rang church bells and town bells, beat drums, and shot off warning guns. Revere didn’t really say “The British are coming!” because most of the people in Massachusetts still thought of themselves as British. But he did say “The Regulars are coming out!” (or something similar) to almost every house along the way to Lexington after he felt safe from that British patrol.

The original steeple of the Old North Church was destroyed by the Storm of October 1804. A replacement steeple, designed by the architect of Faneuil Hall, Charles Bulfinch, was toppled by Hurricane Carol on August 31, 1954. The current steeple that was rebuilt after Hurricane Carol uses design elements from the original and the Bulfinch version. The church is now 175 feet (53 m) tall. At its tip is the original weathervane.

Right: A view of the interior of North End Church.

Note the sides of the stalls. They would have been higher still in Paul Revere’s time.
A young man, whom I presumed to be a student earning a bit of extra money during the summer vacation, was giving a talk about the history of the church from the pulpit when I visited it in the summer of 2004.

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“What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” John Adams

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