Material History of American Religion Project

A Palace for the Hive

In response to massive urbanization and increased wealth in the decades after the Civil War, American denominations began systematic campaigns to found new congregations and build structures in the country's growing cities. Most major Protestant denominations founded church extension societies to support these building campaigns, among them the Church-Extension Society of the United Brethren Church (which became part of the United Methodist Church in 1968). In the United Brethren Review in 1894, several leaders sought greater support for the Society. In his contribution, included here in full, Randolf Rock argues that building church structures was an essential part of evangelism, as important as the choice of a preacher, if not more so. Note his acknowledgment that a building gives a new church start prestige and positions it well in the competitive religious market of America's cities.

I am not to consider the question whether rural or city districts with a population ranging from one to sixty thousand and without a church house should have one, but whether with the organization of a Christian society a church should be erected very soon, or whether the Church-Erection Society should cooperate at once with the Missionary Society. Heartily affirming this proposition, I wish to first say that no Christian denomination should organize a society or build a church in a community already sufficiently supplied with spiritual opportunities and ministries. They should observe the law of Christian and business economics and plant their standard where they are needed, and then go to work in earnest and as if they meant to stay and lose nothing while they stay. Of course it is always understood that a society of Christians will sooner or later have a church; but that the Church-Erection Society should sometimes even precede, and always immediately attend or follow, the Missionary Society, scarcely needs urging in these times to richly instructed by experience. It may be said that this is saying that the Church-Erection Society is as important as the Missionary Society. Well, if it is not in the foreign, it certainly is in the home field.

In the first place, the economics of the Missionary Society require it. Much money and people have been lost to our own Church, and much will be lost, by not having churches. The Presbyterians, Congregationalist, and Methodists have seen this long ago, and so their church-extension societies build churches when the purpose is settled to save souls and organize a society in any community. A good church house in a community is a great promoter of evangelistic success. We can never enter and hold the fort in our American cities unless the Missionary and Church-Erection Societies enter them together and cooperate to the day of completed victory. Indeed, we now see that church-erection is only another arm of missionary endeavor.

Then, it is the most potent way of making a permanent impression that a church, and not a club or the Salvation Army, is in town. A congregation meeting regularly and for considerable length of time elsewhere, like that of Prof. Swing's, in Music Hall, Chicago, scarcely impresses any but themselves that they are a church. A good church will also go very far toward giving what able leaders and numbers give-prestige. A church, to make its way in a land populous with churches, must have prestige to succeed the best. A house is necessary to foster the confidence of success in the projectors of the work and to inspire confidence of purpose, ability, and perpetuity in the community where a church enterprise is undertaken. While many have turned away for want of confidence, much has been and will be gained by having a homelike church. Church-erection is absolutely essential to permanent church-extension, and most people know it. A church is one of the chief corner-stones of success. There can be no permanency without it. Without it the centrifugal influences will be mightier than the centripetal, and the law of coherency will operate with unsatisfactory results. It would be just as easy to complete the ideal home without a house. As a cage is necessary to hold the canary, and a palace to keep the thrifty hive from flying away, so a church-house is necessary to keep the most thrifty congregation together. A hall will not answer the purpose. It will not beget and foster the essential home feeling, nor the idea of permanent organization; nor will Christian affection locate itself there. The most desirable accessions to a church will be influenced by at least three things when looking for a church with which to cast their religious fortunes: (1) The spiritual atmosphere of the church; (2) the quantity and quality of the pulpit ministrations; (3) the present ability of the church to perpetually project itself into the future. This is another way of saying that the most thoughtful and thrifty Christians are influenced by material, as well as spiritual, considerations. Right or wrong for them, it will not be wrong for us to act according to the fact. If the Missionary and Church-Erection Societies do not take cognizance of the fact, the missionary they send will be obliged to do so, and he will soon feel the need of a church to keep alive his own hope and win the confidence of the people he would gather into a thrifty organization.

Again, where the erection of the church follows the organization of a society, it will bring the membership into that unified fellowship which will give them coherency and strength, will give the very helpful thing of Christian work to do, educate their love for the cause, give them the advantage of acquaintance in evangelistic effort in the future, multiply their tact, and their interest will be gained and made permanent by their investment. It also focalizes, through the Missionary and Church-Erection Societies, the interest of the whole Church and secures to the one the help of all.

Besides all this, the building of a church often gives a congregation a righteous monopoly of the territory, and prevents another from organizing and building and thereby dividing the numbers and the support. It operates like the law of "squatter sovereignty." In heathen lands a church will have a civilizing influence on the heathen, and especially in countries where little or not attention is paid to architecture. It will be a great gain those countries populous with heathen temples and houses of the gods.

The building of churches has figured, and will figure, in making not only the integral church, but Christianity itself, an abiding and growing institution. Church building is one of the noblest of philanthropies. Blessed are the men who, like our generous John Dodds, are devoting so much money to building churches for the poor and unsaved. When gone to heaven, it will be more honorable to them than monuments of gold adorned with blazing sapphires.

A church is the symbol of the Divine presence, a prophecy of a better future for this crazy world, and a proclamation of pardon and life for all. Its presence is a perpetual sermon, its steeple a finger pointing earth's weary and heavy laden ones to the heavenly rest, and its ringing bell is a sweet gospel call to worship, to a feast, to a fountain, to highest fellowship on earth, to rest, to comfort, and to the Cross.

"Our Church-Erection Interests," United Brethren Review 5:2 (April 1894), 179-180.

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