Early Sunday morning at King’s Chapel, the Verger, or overseer of the church service, goes through the checklist of duties in preparation for the weekly Morning Prayer service. One feels a bit of nostalgia, pondering the fact that centuries of Vergers before today had similar tasks on their list of Sunday service preparations. One of these historic duties includes winding the clock that sits on the face of the west gallery wall, below the majestic organ that tends to focus one’s attention on that side of the sanctuary. The task is fairly simple, as seen in the video of King's Chapel's current Sunday service Verger and Sexton, Clark Aitkins, demonstrating how the time is regularly kept. However, the clock itself has some fascinating history to explore...
Traditionally, decorative wall clocks in 18th-century churches were often located opposite of the pulpit to remind the minister of the length of his sermons. The date of the first timepiece that was installed inside King’s Chapel is unknown, but records indicate that a clock case was put up in 1756. An invoice from 1799 for “cleaning and repair of their clock” indicates that a mechanical timepiece was clearly in place by that time. Apparently, that clock was beyond repair by the 1820s.
Portrait of Ebenezer Oliver
In the mid-1820s, a series of renovations of the chapel was done, including the start of whitewashing the interior. It was learned that this work required the temporary removal of the decorative wall clock through a letter found in the archives, dated July 1825. The writer is Ebenezer Oliver, who was the Warden, or church lay leader, from 1798 until his death in 1826. Oliver addressed the Proprietors of King’s Chapel, informing them of a new clock that would soon be installed:
"At the time of Painting the inside of the Church, it was Necessary to remove the Clock, after it was taken down I sent for Mr Simon Willard to examine it, who said it was nearly worn out & unsafe to put up again on account of the extreme heft of the weight. I employed him to make a new one, when finished he informed me by Letter that he thought it one of the best time pieces he had ever made. I had it put up in place of the old one & beg the proprietors acceptance of it as a small Token of Respect from their Friend & humbled servant Ebenezer Oliver"
Letter to King's Chapel Proprietors, July 1825, Massachusetts Historical Society
A Simon Willard Banjo Clock at the Museum of Fine Arts (click image to visit the MFA page about this clock)
Simon Willard, the clockmaker referred to by Ebenezer Oliver, was the most celebrated in his family of clock makers in the United States from the late 18th through the 19th centuries. Born in Grafton, Massachusetts, Simon Willard moved to Roxbury, near Boston, to set up a workshop there. From this workshop, Willard made clocks for distinguished clients, such as Thomas Jefferson, Harvard College, and the United States Senate. Congregants at the Old South Meeting House also commissioned Willard to build a gallery clock, which accompanied the congregation, know called Old South Church, when they moved into a new building in Boston's Back Bay. Willard is credited for inventing the “banjo” wall clock, including one that is part of the Americas Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Clark Aitkins winding the King's Chapel clock
According to the King’s Chapel Historic Structures Report, created by the Goody Clancy, the clock’s internal parts were updated in the early 20th century, although it is believed that the clock face from Simon Willard remains much the same. The face of the clock still displays the message “Presented by Ebenezer Oliver, Esq.,” as a daily reminder of the generosity and commitment of congregants past and present, as well as the dedication of the current and former Vergers and Sextons.
About Ebenezer Oliver: Ebenezer Oliver, a Selectman for Boston, married Susanna Johonnot on October 8, 1776 at Trinity Church. Three of their children were baptized there. Around 1782, the Oliver family joined King’s Chapel where they also purchased tomb number thirteen in the crypt below. Several of their other children were later baptized and buried at King’s Chapel. Ebenezer Oliver served as the Warden for King’s Chapel for over thirty years and is interred at the Oliver family tomb below the sanctuary that houses his clock.
References: Foote, Henry Wilder. Annals of King’s Chapel: From the Puritan Age of New England to the Present Day, Volume 2.Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896.
Goody Clancy. Historic Structures Report for King’s Chapel in Boston. 2006.
Dive deeper into King's Chapel's 334 year history on the History Program blog.
Currently welcoming over 260,000 visitors to the historic sanctuary annually, The King's Chapel History Program is excited to share the site's history more in depth and to a wider audience through this outlet.
The blog name is derived from longtime King's Chapel member Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s 1884 poem "At the Saturday Club," where he describes King's Chapel as "that towered and pillared building."