The Tremont Temple Baptist Church
The Tremont Temple Baptist Church, formerly the Tremont Theater, has been a well known site in Boston for hundreds of years. It claims to be the first integrated church in the United States. Before becoming a church, it was originally founded as a theater that prided itself on being a free space where performers could speak and hold events without having to pay commercial fees for the space (Boston Literary District). It was also open to everyone regardless of race or financial status. Many famous people gave speeches there, including Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, and Frederick Douglass. It burned down three separate times, once in 1852, once in 1879, and once again in 1893. The current version of the church opened in 1896 (Atlas Obscura). Today, it remains open to the public for weekly sermons.
Backstory and Context
The Tremont Temple Baptist Church wasn't always a place of worship. It was originally created in 1827 as the Tremont Theater, but after failing to make a profit, it was bought by the Free Church Baptists and renamed the Tremont Temple Baptist Church (Boston Literary District). The Free Church Baptists created the church on the idea that it was “a church with free seats where everyone, rich or poor, black or white, should be on the same religious level" (The Pluralism Project). Accordingly, the church did not charge rent for the use of pews and allowed anyone to attend service in the church. The founders of the church held this idea of a free congregation to a very high standard, and on its purchase in 1944, they declared that "the property, when paid in full, is to be entirely under the control of the church, and the seats are to be always free on the Sabbath" (The Christian Reflector). It was a free church "supported wholly by voluntary contributions" (Haynes 1). The church claims that due to the ability of anyone to participate in worship regardless of skin color or financial standing, it was the "first integrated congregation in the country" (Boston Literary District). The church was well known for its acceptance of all peoples, with some 10,000 plus people claiming the church as their own (Haynes).
The church didn’t leave behind its theatrical origins. It continued to function as a theater and promoted plays, movies, speeches, and other public events (Atlas Obscura). It invited some of the most prolific speakers of the 1800s to speak on the property. Frederick Douglass gave a speech on the abolition of slavery, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time in Boston at the church (Boston Literary District). Charles Dickens even gave a reading during his time in the United States at the Tremont Temple (The Pluralism Project). Henry S. Wilson, the Vice President of the United States under Ulysses S. Grant, gave a speech promoting the repeal of prohibition at the church in 1867 (Wilson). After the property became a church, it hosted a number of "preachers and evangelists such as Dwight Moody, Evangeline Booth, Billy Sunday, Gypsy Smith, and Billy Graham" who conducted services there (The Pluralism Project). Speakers of such well known status in conjunction with the freedom of who came to worship and speak at the church enhanced the reputation of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church.
The church suffered unfortunate losses. In 1852, a fire struck the church and burnt the building to the ground (Atlas Obscura). At the time it happened, it was "one of the most serious and destructive fires… in Boston for many years," and people lost their lives to the fire and "art lost some of its finest trophies" (Ballou & Gleason 256). For days afterwards, thousands of people mourned the destruction of the church. The church was rebuilt, however, and remained in tact for another 20 or so years. However, tragedy struck again when the church burnt down for the second time in 1879, and then for a third time in 1893 (Atlas Obscura). As unfortunate as the fires were, the church was reconstructed and never burnt down again. After those three fires, the church built their property more cautiously as to avoid a similar tragedy from taking place in the future. The church was restored in 1896, and that version of the church continues to stand at 88 Tremont Street today (Atlas Obscura).
Today, the Tremont Temple Baptist Church is still a well-visited site of worship in Boston. Still in its same location near the Boston Common, it stands as "a massive, golden stone edifice that is still actively used as a church and, like its predecessors, seats a couple thousand" (Atlas Obscura). It has continued its history of being a diverse, free space for people of all different backgrounds to join together in their religious practice. The church is "multi-ethnic and multi-cultural," "attracts a diverse congregation, and Bible teaching, missions, fellowship, and service are all vital parts of church life" (The Pluralism Project). Given its rich history and roots in the integration of religious practice in the United States, the church is under review by the Boston Landmarks Commission for its designation as a Boston landmark (City of Boston).
- Ballou, Martin Murray. Gleason, Frederick. Gleason's Pictorial. Volume 2. Boston, Massachusetts. F. Gleason Collection , 1852.
- Haynes, Emory J. Tremont Temple. Zion's Herald. June 27th 1888. 1.
- Boston Landmarks Commission. Status of Petitions to the Boston Landmarks Commission for Designation as Landmarks and Districts, City of Boston. June 1st 2016. Accessed October 25th 2019. https://www.cityofboston.gov/images_documents/PETSTATS_June2016_tcm3-53570.pdf.
- Tremont Temple, Boston Literary District. January 1st 2019. Accessed October 9th 2019. bostonlitdistrict.org/venue/tremont-temple/.
- Ocker, J. W.. Tremont Temple, Atlas Obscura. January 1st 2019. Accessed October 15th 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/tremont-temple-dickens.
- Tremont Temple. Christian Reflector. May 23rd 1844. 82.
- Tremont Temple Baptist Church, The Pluralism Project. Accessed October 20th 2019. pluralism.org/profile/tremont-temple-baptist-church/.
- Wilson, Henry. Senator Wilson's speech on prohibition, in Tremont Temple, April 15, 1867.. Boston, Mass. State Temperance Alliance, 1867.
Ballou, Maturin Murray, and Frederick Gleason. Gleason's Pictorial. Vol. 2, F. Gleason, 1852.