If America was born 237 years ago this week, the case can be made that she was conceived decades earlier. Long before men named Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and Franklin became notable and influential, there were a few clergymen—yes, preachers—who meteorically blazed across the colonial sky.
In September of 1775, five months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and while the shot heard ‘round the world later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson still echoed, some Continental Army volunteers gathered at a church in the small coastal Massachusetts town of Newburyport, located almost 30 miles northeast of Boston. They were about to go to battle—an initiative led by, of all people, Benedict Arnold. The men decided that a little prayer accompanied by an extemporaneous sermon might be a good idea.
The town’s Old South Church had found a bit of recent fame as people proudly pointed out that the bell in its clock tower had been cast by a fellow named Paul Revere, who had just months before made a name for himself on horseback. Revere, of course, is better known for his connection to a certain Old North Church. But some of the citizen-soldiers listening to Chaplain Samuel Spring’s challenge that day knew that they were also in the presence of another important bit of history—something they saw as very relevant to the emerging War of Independence.
As they listened to the sermon that day, many of them couldn’t help but be preoccupied with the pulpit itself. On the Sunday immediately following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the local minister, Dr. Jonathan Parsons, spoke fervently about liberty. His passion prompted a man named Ezra Hunt to step into the church’s aisle to form a company of 60 fighting men on the spot—said to be the first such group to attach itself to the fledgling Continental Army.
But as if those two connections to the greater cause weren’t enough, there was a third even more compelling reason many of the men found the venue so fascinating.
It was what was under the pulpit that inspired them.
Five years earlier, a famous preacher had been scheduled to speak at the Old South Church in Newburyport. He was America’s most famous clergyman, although his preferred appellation was—“revivalist.” His name was George Whitefield. He died that morning in 1770. A few days later, with much grief and ceremony, he was buried in a crypt directly beneath the church’s pulpit –where his crypt remains to this day.