A sidewalk plaque above marks the Freedom Trail, along which can be found the State House and the Park Street Church.

(Evan Richman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Every year, at least 3 million visitors to the capital of Massachusetts walk the Freedom Trail, a two-and-a-half-mile red-brick pathway that winds through the streets of Boston. The trail passes historic churches, houses of government, and cemeteries where revolutionary-era heroes like Samuel Adams and John Hancock are interred. On April 24, 2012—the day that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won five primaries to become the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee—I ambled along the Freedom Trail. I walked through the section that passes through the Boston Common, up the steps of the Massachusetts State House, and then down the hill to the doors of Park Street Church, a conservative evangelical church in the heart of one of America’s most liberal cities.  

As a long-time Boston-area resident, I’ve traveled this route many times before. Yet on this particular spring afternoon during the 2012 election cycle, I found myself reflecting on how this corner of the city has served as a focal point of Massachusetts’s religious and political culture for almost four centuries. The triangular segment of the Freedom Trail, which connects the Common, the State House, and Park Street Church, illuminates aspects of our state’s history that might surprise some visitors to the “Commonwealth of Massachusetts”—in particular how this famously liberal (and secular) state has also been the site of some of America’s most important battles over the proper place of religion in civil society.

From the garrulous guides dressed in period costume who make their living telling its tales, Freedom Trail tourists learn that the Boston Common, established in 1634, is America’s oldest public park. Over the years, Puritan ministers and magistrates, revivalist preachers, religious reformers, and even a Roman Catholic pontiff, have claimed these fifty acres as a sacred space. On America’s first town green, these religious leaders meted out spiritual discipline, evangelized the unconverted, and celebrated the liturgy. Since the State House was completed in 1798, the Boston Common has also served as the home of the state legislature’s front yard and the location of countless political speeches, rallies, and protests. When members of the newly formed Park Street Church chose a site for their meetinghouse in 1809, they elected to erect their sanctuary just steps from the seat of Massachusetts’s government; and they intentionally built the steeple ten feet higher than the nearby State House dome so that, as Garth Rosell observed, the soaring spire could serve as “a constant reminder of the presence of God in the midst of a great city.” 

That people need to be reminded of God’s presence in the function of government has been a long-standing theme among religious leaders since the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in the early seventeenth century. Many visitors to the Freedom Trail are familiar with John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity.”  The first governor of Massachusetts Bay declared that Boston would “be as a city upon a hill”—a beacon of a peaceful, pious and just civil society for all the people of the world to see—if, that is, the colonists remained faithful to the covenant they had entered into with both God and their fellow Puritans. Many among the crowds of sightseers who make their way from the Common up to the State House assume that the “commission” Winthrop referred to included a commitment to freedom of religion, a hallmark of American democracy. The statues of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, which stand on the State House lawn, remind visitors that the story is not so simple. Massachusetts Bay offered religious freedom from the Church of England, but only tolerated colonists who conformed to Puritan beliefs and practices. Many of those found guilty of holding heretical views—like Hutchinson and Dyer—were exiled or executed. The Boston Common, throughout much of the seventeenth-century, was a place for enforcing religious orthodoxy, not a site for celebrating diversity.

After England passed the Toleration Act of 1689, Puritans in Massachusetts Bay could no longer persecute or punish religious dissenters. Legalized religious tolerance, combined with the growth of a market economy and a perceived decline in piety among the population, made the region’s ministers anxious. They feared that New England had failed to fulfill its divine mission to create a godly society. Pleas for repentance proliferated until revival broke out in the late 1730s. In September of 1740, English evangelist George Whitefield, whose tour of the North American colonies helped spark what would be called the Great Awakening, preached on the Boston Common to a crowd of some 23,000. While debates about whether the revivals represented a “glorious Work of God” or a “grand delusion” continued to divide the Massachusetts clergy, most ministers agreed with Boston First Church’s Reverend Charles Chauncy, that “true religion” was necessary for maintaining a peaceful society and stable political system.

Visitors to the State House today might be astonished to learn that this view of the proper, and intimate, relationship between religion and politics held sway in Massachusetts well into the nineteenth century. Ratified in 1780, the Commonwealth’s Constitution empowered local municipalities to collect taxes for the “institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.” This practice remained in effect until 1833, when Massachusetts became the last state in the nation to formally disestablish religion.

When I take my Tufts University students on walking tours of the Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House, most are shocked to learn this history. How could the most liberal state in the nation have ever supported anything but the absolute separation of church and state? Yet, when we walk down the hill from the State House to enter the lobby of Park Street Church, they become even more disoriented.

Staff members of Park Street Church, which is an official stop on the Freedom Trail, explain to visitors that, from its founding in 1809, the church has always sought to influence the religious and political culture of Boston and the rest of the world. Like the framers of Massachusetts’ constitution, Park Street’s founders believed that “piety, religion, and morality”—and particularly, Protestant Christianity—were essential for social harmony and the success of the democratic experiment. And church members have always been active in the religious and social welfare of the city, advocating for such causes as abolition and temperance, prison reform and animal welfare. Since its first mission to the Sandwich Islands in 1819, Park Street has also sought to bring its brand of the Christian gospel and social reform to peoples around the world. 

Demonstrating allegiance to the fledgling United States was also a priority for early church members. During the War of 1812, the congregation stored brimstone, used to make gunpowder, in a basement crypt. On July 4, 1831, nearly twenty-five hundred children, parents, and Sunday school teachers crowded into Park Street’s sanctuary to celebrate the anniversary of American Independence and participate in the first singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Organizers of the Park Street celebration designed the service to highlight the disparity between the unruly hordes gathered on the adjacent Boston Common, who used the Fourth of July as an occasion to engage in raucous behavior, and the orderly congregants whose harmonious singing demonstrated their status as responsible citizens.

What befuddles many of my Tufts students about Park Street Church is not that nineteenth-century congregants sought to “Christianize” American civic and political culture (this seems a relatively familiar concept for a generation that has been exposed to the rhetoric of what they call the “Christian right”). Rather, these students are surprised to discover that this “evangelical landmark” actually succeeded in making what Rosell calls “an enduring impact” on both the moral life of the city and the country. Certainly Park Street’s influence over city and state politics has fluctuated over its two hundred year history, as revivalist evangelicalism lost ground to more liberal forms of Protestantism, and also to the Roman Catholicism that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants brought to Massachusetts. Yet, in the twentieth century Park Street retained its place as Boston’s preeminent evangelical institution, even as Catholics increasingly dominated city and state politics, and as the Commonwealth developed its reputation as a liberal stronghold. Park Street’s staff members proudly boast that when Billy Graham first came to Boston in December of 1949, he held his opening revival meeting in the church’s sanctuary. Graham preached his final sermon of the crusade—“Shall God Reign in New England?”—from the exact spot on the Boston Common where George Whitefield had proclaimed his evangelistic message more than two centuries earlier. Echoing Puritan and revivalist jeremiads, Graham declared that the “destiny of America” was at stake, and insisted that only widespread repentance of sin could ensure “Peace in Our Time.”

In the years since, Park Street’s evangelicals have continued to bring Christian faith to bear on issues of social, economic and political concern—though not always in the ways that Billy Graham imagined. As the congregation has grown increasingly younger (70 percent of the approximately 2,000 weekly attendees are in their 20s and 30s) and international (with 59 nations represented on a given Sunday), modes of political and social engagement—not to mention party affiliation—have become more diverse, reflecting a national trend toward “more liberal” views among “young evangelicals.” In fact, church leaders describe Park Street’s current mission as one of “human rights and social justice.” These were the qualities for which Boston mayor Thomas Menino praised Park Street on its bicentennial in 2009. Menino celebrated the church as “an active promoter of social justice and contributor to the needs of Bostonians” whose “early and current ministers and members  . . .  engage in extensive educational, medical and humanitarian mission and outreach all over the world.”

That such a prominent Roman Catholic official publicly endorsed the ongoing influence of Park Street Church in and beyond the city would probably have astonished evangelicals of Graham’s generation, for whom the tension between Protestants and Catholics remained so palpable. That the mayor of Boston proclaimed February 27, 2009 “Park Street Church Bicentennial Day,” and encouraged citizens of the city to “participate fittingly in its observances,” scandalizes many of my Tufts students for whom the separation of church and state remains so central to the myth of “liberal Massachusetts” (not to mention the separation of church and state in the United States).

When we emerge out of Park Street’s lobby and stroll back onto the Boston Common, I encourage these budding historians to take a last look at the short strip of red brick walkway that links the State House steps and the church’s doors. From this vantage point, the connections among religion, politics, and public life in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, both past and present, aren’t so different than those that manifest in town centers—with their own triangle of a town hall, a church and public green—in the nation spanning west of Boston.

Heather D. Curtis is an assistant professor of religion at Tufts University.