Building Evangelicalism

  • Religion
  • 1804

As Unitarianism started to become fashionable in New England, a group of Boston Congregationalist parishioners joined together in 1804 to form a “Religious Improvement Society” that would reinforce traditional Christian understandings of the Bible, prayer, and the trinitarian God. This grew into an energetic and fast-growing congregation, whose members soon contributed $100,000 to build a meetinghouse: the Park Street Church. Over the next two centuries the church would pioneer many new elements of Christian outreach, and build and then keep alive an evangelical spirit in the oldest part of America.

Park Street became a hub of the abolitionist movement. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother Edward was pastor there in the 1820s, and William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery address in the sanctuary in 1829. He rejected the idea of African colonization, and urged emancipation instead, saying, “I call upon the churches of the living God to lead in this great enterprise.”

Park Street Church was also a hub for the religious arts. Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society (America’s second-oldest musical organization) was formed there in 1815. The church’s organist Lowell Mason composed the standard settings of hymns like “Joy to the World” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Many of today’s congregational singing patterns began at this church.

Park Street also became a leader in Christian foreign missions. It sponsored the first American missionaries to the Hawaiian islands and several other overseas locations. It continues to send out missionaries today, concentrating on locations where Christianity is unknown. It funds its own Bible translation and church-planting efforts, and provides health, schooling, and economic services in poor lands.

In the mid-twentieth century Park Street Church was influential in the formation of the modern evangelical movement. It took part in Billy Graham’s crusades, helped create the National Association of Evangelicals, and contributed to the formation of Gordon-Conwell and Fuller seminaries.

Park Street currently has a thriving congregation of about 2,000. Its present charitable outreach activities include the City Mission Society that it co-founded, America’s first prison ministry, an inner-city school for minority children called Boston Trinity Academy, homeless ministries, a crisis pregnancy center, an Animal Rescue League, and language training for immigrants. Park Street Congregational Church may have had a greater impact on American history than any other single U.S. congregation.

  • Garth Rosell, Boston’s Historic Park Street Church: The Story of an Evangelical Landmark (Kregel Publishing, 2009)
  • Park Street Church today, parkstreet.org