King's Chapel mixes of history and religion in downtown Boston

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

BOSTON (AP) -- King's Chapel has survived both war and religious dispute in its three centuries of existence and still manages to thrive in modern, downtown Boston.

A stop on the Freedom Trail, Boston's popular pathway of historic sites, the chapel is one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in New England.

It also has a burying ground next door where visitors can see the gravestones of history book figures like John Winthrop, Massachusetts' first governor, and Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower.

But the chapel is more than a tourist attraction -- it also has an active congregation of some 400 members. And if visitors stop in for a service, they'll hear an unusual -- indeed unique -- mix of Unitarian theology and Anglican liturgy, a product of the chapel's strange history.

In 1686, England's King James wanted an official Church of England presence in the Puritan-leaning Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had to seize the land for King's Chapel by eminent domain because no one in Boston would donate land for an Anglican Church.

There was more awkwardness following the colonies' revolution against the monarchy a century later.

King's Chapel found a spiritual home by combining the Anglican liturgy of the church's founders with the theology of the Unitarians -- then an emerging, breakaway wing of Massachusetts' Puritan settlers.

The instigator was James Freeman, a young Harvard divinity graduate whom the congregation invited to read the Anglican morning prayers and give occasional sermons.

Freeman became uncomfortable with the prayers, and expressed his objections in a series of sermons in 1785.

''He preached these sermons on the full expectation that he would be fired,'' says the Rev. Earl Holt, the minister at King's Chapel. Instead, the congregation voted to adopt some of his changes and keep a more liberal prayer book, which is essentially still in use there today.

''It wasn't anything radical, but it does basically reflect the Unitarian concept of one God rather than the Trinitarian concept of three in one,'' Holt says. ''That's the basis for King's Chapel's claim to be the oldest Unitarian church.''

The worship is conservative by Unitarian standards; it is one of only a handful of Unitarian churches that use a prayer book at all.

Holt, who spent 27 years at a Unitarian church in St. Louis before coming here last May, says the style is growing on him.

''This is a place that combines those (Unitarian and Anglican) traditions,'' he said. ''At first, I took it on faith. But the more I participate in it the more meaningful it becomes.''

Given the delicate politics and the mostly wooden structure, Holt says, it's remarkable the church survived, both as an institution and a building.

Originally, there was just a small, wooden structure on this now busy street corner in Boston's financial district, a few steps from Government Center.

But in 1749, Peter Harrison of Newport, R.I., considered by some to be America's first professional architect, designed a more splendid Georgian building around the old one.

Many members were loyalists who opposed the Revolution, and the story is they fled with the wood from the original church to Nova Scotia during the Revolution.

Among those who have worshipped here are Oliver Wendell Holmes, both father and son. The chapel bell and communion silver came from silversmith Paul Revere, who claimed the bell was his largest ever. The pulpit, Holt says, is the oldest one in continual service in the country.

There is also a rich musical tradition at King's Chapel. The original organ -- the chapel is now on its fifth -- was the first in New England (the Puritans were then opposed to instrumental music). The chapel was the site of the first New World performance of a number of noted choral works, including Handel's ''Messiah.'' Now, there are monthly Tuesday concerts.

Hundreds of Freedom Trail visitors pass through King's Chapel and the burying ground next door each day during the summer tourist season.

To the modern churchgoer, the chapel has an unusual arrangement of pews that are more like boxes. Each family had its own box, and often brought small heaters with them to place in the center.

''Apparently the families tried to outdo each other in terms of fabric quality and that sort of thing,'' Holt says.

The burying ground, the first public one in Boston, also gets its share of visitors. Among those buried there are Hezekiah Usher, Boston's first bookseller; John Proctor, a ''writing master'' at once-next-door Boston Latin School; and a pair of fiery Puritan ministers, John Cotton and John Davenport.

Fiona Schuette and John Young, from nearby Brookline, found a recent, brief visit rewarding.

''You read about all these people in school, and it's fun to find they're just right here,'' he said.

''And watch them come to life,'' she added. She hesitated, then said, ''Well, maybe not come to life...''

End Advance

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