In downtown Boston, at the corner of School and Tremont streets, stands a historic treasure called King’s Chapel. Founded in 1686, it was the first Anglican Church in New England and in 1785 it became the first Unitarian Church in America. Today the church has a Unitarian theology and an Anglican form of liturgy. It was originally housed in a wooden building dedicated on June 30, 1689. A growing congregation found this building in disrepair by the mid 18th century, so they acquired additional land, and hired architect Peter Harrison of Newport, Rhode Island to design a new and larger structure. The first block of Quincy granite for the new church was laid in 1749 and the building opened in 1754. A bell cast in England was hung in the church tower in 1772 and lasted for 42 years until it cracked in 1814 while being rung for evening services. It was melted down, re-cast and re-hung by Paul Revere & Son on February 23, 1816. The Revere bell at 2,437 pounds is the largest ever cast at the Revere foundry and Paul Revere himself called it “the sweetest bell we ever made.” The bell, nearly 200 years old, is still rung today by hand for all church services. King’s Chapel was a Loyalist or Tory church at the time of the American Revolution. It closed for a few months in 1776 after the British soldiers and Bostonians loyal to the king evacuated the town but did reopen that year for the funeral of patriot leader General Joseph Warren who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The interior of King’s Chapel is elegant and it is certainly one of the most beautiful churches in New England. The double Corinthian columns are made of wood and elements of them were hand-carved by Boston craftsmen in the 1750s. The wineglass pulpit was built in 1717 and used in the earlier wooden church. It is the oldest pulpit in the United States in continuous use on the same site. The box pews are original — families would pay a yearly rental fee for them and could decorate the pews to their liking. Their high walls kept out the drafts and helped retain the heat from the small foot-stoves that families would bring to church with them. Although the fabric in today’s pews has been replaced over the years, the cushions you can sit on when you visit may still contain some of the original horsehair stuffing! The most famous pew in the church is the Governor’s Pew — once reserved for the Royal Governor and his family. President George Washington sat here on October 27, 1789 while attending an oratorio — a musical composition with orchestra, choir, and soloists. At the time, King’s Chapel was generally called the “Stone Chapel.” President Washington’s visit to Boston lasted from October 24-29. Money raised from the oratorio (which was likely performed multiple times) was used to fund the addition of a colonnade or portico to the Chapel. This was added in 1790. A steeple was also in the architect’s original plans for the church but it was never built due to lack of funds.
Visitors to King’s Chapel today can follow in the footsteps of President Washington by attending one of the many concerts and recitals held throughout the year. The King’s Chapel musical tradition dates back to 1713 when the church became the first in New England to acquire an organ! The current organ built in 1964 is the sixth in the church’s long history. The carved panels, ornamentation over the pipes, and the gold crown and miters on the present organ once decorated an earlier organ built in London for King’s Chapel in 1756. Beneath the organ, on the first floor near the doorway, is a memorial to members of the church who lost their lives in the Civil War. The list includes two of Paul Revere’s grandsons: First Lieutenant and Assistant Surgeon Edward H. R. Revere (killed at Antietam) and Colonel Paul Joseph Revere (killed at Gettysburg). Besides George Washington, attendees at King’s Chapel have included other famous names like Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louisa May Alcott.
Visitors can elect to go on a self-guided tour or participate in one of the special tours that are available. These include the popular Bells and Bones Tour where knowledgeable guides take you to visit the crypt beneath the church and climb with you into the church tower where you have the very rare opportunity to view and photograph the largest bell ever made by Paul Revere! The cost for this tour is $10 per person (or $7 per person for the crypt or bell tower only). The Bells and Bones Tour is offered by request, every hour on the hour, with the last tour given an hour before closing (3 pm). Advance reservations are not required. Tickets can be purchased in the vestibule of the Chapel. King’s Chapel also offers a number of group tours that you can book in advance. For more information about King’s Chapel visit http://www.kings-chapel.org