By Faye Charpentier, History Program Director
On June 11, King’s Chapel History Program staff, King’s Chapel clergy, and congregants engaged in an important conversation about the importance of confronting difficult history. This event was part of a larger conversation about the role and relevance of history to our present moment.
As we look towards current events these past few weeks, the difficult histories of both our nation and this church have weighed on many of our minds. The systemic racism, police brutality, and white supremacy in the world are all historically rooted. The study of these histories not only helps us understand how we got here, but can empower us to confront these issues head-on, and shape our anti-racism work today.
A James Baldwin quotation from “Unnamable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes,” has been frequently shared on social media lately:
The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.
This sentiment is especially true of “difficult,” or “hard,” history: history that is difficult to process, may challenge our understanding of past and present, or as put by Magdalena Gross and Luke Terra, “surface fundamental disagreements over who we are and what values we hold.” Examples include war, genocide, colonialism, mass violence, slavery, and racial injustice.
The visceral emotional responses and cognitive dissonance people have when exposed to hard history are some of the reasons why we need to confront them. Difficult history is like mold or termite damage -- if you continue to ignore the roots of the issue or continue to cover it up, it will continue to eat away or grow more toxic until the structure is beyond repair. But there is another approach: looking at it in the eye and confronting it head on, whether that means working to dismantle and rebuild, or to mediate the concern.
Looking at difficult history in this light - towards confronting it, seeking to understand and address its roots, working to rebuild and mediate, and teaching others along the way - is part of the power of studying history. Studying difficult histories in particular empowers us to reconcile with the wrongs of history and evaluate our place in the present as we move forward, informed by this history, to work towards a just and equitable future.
Over the past three years, King’s Chapel has been skimming the surface of its difficult history through research conducted by the History Program, and work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Slavery and King’s Chapel. An example of this difficult history that particularly resonates today, for example, is historically the church’s institutional silence and attempts at neutrality on the day’s political issues in the 1840s and 1850s, particularly in the context of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. There are uncanny similarities today with the brutality and protests around the country and in Boston surrounding the imprisonment of formerly enslaved men like Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns. Yet at that time, the church strived to maintain neutrality, not question the status quo or speak out against unlawful laws. In another buzzy quotation of the moment, from Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of oppression, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” And, at that time, and in the current historical interpretations of that era in history, Tutu’s view is how the minister and church members were viewed both by their contemporaries at the time and by historians today.
But looking critically at moments like these in our history -- and these are not at all histories unique to King’s Chapel -- the intention is not to produce guilt or shame, but to bring light to the consequences of such actions and learn from them moving forward. Part of learning from difficult history is learning about and acknowledging shortcomings in the pursuit of progress. Past is present, and understanding how systems that exist today were created and institutionalized teaches us about how these systems of oppression can be addressed and even dismantled. For instance, we are seeing this recently in conversations about police and prison abolition through learning about the problematic histories of these institutions in America.
Confronting difficult history, though challenging, is crucial to approaching the current and future world. While there are different approaches to undertaking the task of dismantling our understanding of history and getting at the roots, there are many organizations dedicated towards this work, ranging from historic sites to resources for primary and secondary educators. While this organization is just embarking on this journey, we can seek inspiration and guidance from the excellent work being done around the world relating to the question of history’s relevance today and the importance of facing the difficult past.
The following are just a few of many organizations confronting past and present head on. Please consider learning about these organizations and considering what inspiration can be drawn from their work as we look towards examining our own history:
International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
By Lily Nunno, Historic Site Educator
From 1915 and into the early 1920s the interior of King’s Chapel went through a series of changes: the walls were repainted, new floors were put in, the pews were reupholstered, and the stained glass windows were removed. Like many other buildings in Boston and around the United States, the King’s Chapel interior was reimagined to reflect the Colonial Revival aesthetic. This often involved stripping away any Victorian decoration — like floral motifs— and replacing it with a cleaner and simpler look. This renewed interest in the aesthetics of the 18th century initially began with the Centennial celebration in 1876, similar to the fervor during the Bicentennial. This led to an increased desire to preserve colonial buildings and the homes of historical figures. The idea of historic preservation we are familiar with today was fairly new in the late 18th century. In previous decades, historical buildings — like the home of John Hancock in Boston — were torn down. However, these efforts were not necessarily historically accurate. Pale colors were used when reimagining interiors in the Colonial Revival style, though colonial interiors were often colorful. For example, the pilasters at King’s Chapel were faux pink marble and galley fronts were peach during the 18th century, but during the Colonial Revival redesign the interior of the church was whitewashed. This inaccurate view of the Colonial period extended beyond architecture and interior design. As the United States underwent changes, many white, upper-class, and Protestant Americans yearned for a past they saw as superior to their present.
By Mitchell Bryan, Historic Site Educator
As a society, we are drawn to the ancient, the historic, and the antique. Places and objects from long ago help us connect with and understand our past, but they also shape the present and inform our future. Although new construction constantly changes the face of our country, people are still driven to preserve history rather than abandon or destroy it. In the United States, historic preservation is conducted at the grassroots level. As a response to urban renewal and the destruction of historic buildings and sites nationwide, people now make the conscious decision every day to preserve places that are important to them, their families, and the broader communities in which they live. They are aided by laws and programs that ensure historic places are maintained for future generations. This is known as the Historic Preservation Movement.
By Christina Rewinski, Historic Site Educator
Fire is high on the list of threats to historic sites. All too frequently, horror stories of centuries-old buildings succumbing to flames make the news, and the public reacts with sadness at lost architectural treasures, as was the case when Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire in 2019. In November of 1872, Boston experienced tragedy as the largest fire in city history destroyed over 700 buildings. The fire was finally contained at the intersection of Washington and Milk Streets, mere blocks away from King’s Chapel. While this church remained unscathed, many neighboring historic sites burned, including Trinity Church, one of King’s Chapel’s daughter congregations. (The congregation of Trinity Church later moved from their Downtown Crossing location to a new building in Copley Square.) So it is extremely important for places like King’s Chapel to take every precaution available to protect their physical structures as well as all the people who visit.
By Jennifer Roesch, History Program Assistant
In a church that’s over 260 years old, restoration and preservation efforts are seemingly on-going. The most recent project happened earlier this year, luckily before the pandemic hit Boston in full-force. Starting in early January, John Canning & Co spent weeks giving the King’s Chapel ceiling a face-lift with new plaster and a fresh coat of paint. Thanks to the newly restored-ceiling, the chandelier that hangs in the center stands out.
It may be surprising to some that the brass chandelier has adorned the chapel for less than one hundred years. This is quite unusual, especially since our daughter Anglican church, Old North Church, has had a candle-lit chandelier hanging in the center since the 1720s. While some partial gas lighting was installed at King's Chapel in the 1870s to the tops of the columns, the electrified chandelier was installed in the 1930s and became the chapel’s first centralized light source. The chandelier was designed by Smith & Walker, the architecture firm helping to restore the chapel at the time, and was built by Bigelow and Kennard, a local jewelry and clock making firm.
Records have yet to be found of major restoration efforts to the chandelier since it was hung. However, routine maintenance is required- such as polishing and dusting- which is no small feat. Large chandeliers hanging in high ceilings are impossible to light or clean with just a stool or ladder and often need a pulley system with a crank to lift and lower the entire light fixture. For the King’s Chapel chandelier, the crank is found in the attic.
When the King’s Chapel Sexton (or caretaker) Clark Aikins dusted and polished the chandelier last fall, the History Program was able to record the process. This included a timelapse showing the chandelier being put back in place by Clark, who was up in the attic using the crank. The pictures of the lowered chandelier in between the center box pews also provide a unique, up-close view of the electrified light fixture.
How does the up-close view change your perspective of the King’s Chapel chandelier? Or does it? Do you think the 1930s chandelier seems like it belongs in a chapel designed and built in the 18th century?
As we continue our social media series for #PreservationMonth, our Educators will expose the many other layers of King’s Chapel’s building history, like Lily’s post today about the chandelier. Follow us on social media to learn more and test your knowledge by answering the trivia question in our Facebook and Instagram stories related to our post each day!
Clancy, Goody. Historic Structures Report for King’s Chapel in Boston. June 2006.
In the first video of our new "Did You Know?" series, featuring lesser-known stories from King's Chapel's past, History Program Director Faye Charpentier discusses several aspects of the church's history and activities during World War II.
By Jennifer Roesch,
King's Chapel History Program
Dive deeper into King's Chapel's 334 year history on the History Program blog.
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