More Light than Lantern

It is difficult enough to imagine how hard it would have been to heat a building the size of the Old North Church in 1723. It may be even harder to fathom the difficulties of keeping the building well lit.

The Old North had its first service on December 29th of 1723. The floor was mainly empty except for a few box pews – seating that early parishioners hastily built to worship for the first time in their new building. Much of the building was still under construction and the walls were mostly bare. One can picture these 18th Century gentlemen and women huddled together in their pews in a very dark building that cold December day. No known lighting source existed in the church for the first year of its existence. Congregants likely read their Books of Common Prayer and hymnals by sunlight entering through the windows or by the faint glow of individual candles.

All of this changed in December of 1724. By this time, the construction of the church was mostly complete and the congregation had grown beyond the church’s early benefactors. One such member was Captain William Maxwell. Maxwell owned pew # 29 which was one of the most prestigious pews in the church – trumped only by that of the Governor. Maxwell’s pew location tells us less about his piety than his wealth. The Old North had an extremely affluent congregation and Maxwell was surely one of the wealthiest. He was an English merchant who had likely seen many corners of the world and acquired voluminous quantities of antiques that he could sell for a profit.

Maxwell had in his possession a pair of brass chandeliers that he had obtained in England during his many travels. As a parishioner at this new and mostly unadorned church, Maxwell decided to give them as a gift to the Old North. It was not uncommon for churches to accept gifts from congregants and in return would give them a free pew or a discounted space in the church crypt but it is unknown if Maxwell received any of these benefits. What is known is that the half million people who visit the Old North Church every year are struck by Maxwell’s splendid chandeliers that still hang on iron rods from the ceiling above the center aisle.

The Old North Church was an Anglican Church in 1724 and was thus more ornate than all of the other Puritan meeting houses in Boston. Many local Puritans were aghast that their city was being defiled by gaudy Anglican churches. Anglican Christmas celebrations, burning incense, and decorative crucifixes all culminated in a deep resentment among Puritans toward their Anglican brethren. Maxwell’s donation of these extravagant chandeliers certainly did not help bridge this gap. With most of Boston’s religious intolerance in the past now though, these chandeliers are a splendid sight for the eyes of people of all beliefs. From 1724 through the present day, these brass chandeliers continue to light the building during weddings and evening services. They make its magnificence truly visible.

Keeping old and valuable antiques such as Maxwell’s brass chandeliers looking shiny and clean is no easy task! Every year before Thanksgiving, the Old North congregation has their annual “Brass Polishing Party”. The chandeliers are carefully dismounted and meticulously taken apart. As a group, the congregation then polishes these remarkable treasures. Though polishing the chandeliers is a lot of hard work, the end result is worth it. When they are hung once again over the center aisle, their true and original beauty is apparent for parishioner and visitor alike to see.

Maxwell Chandelier inside the Old North Church Photo Credit: Courtesy Old North Foundation