Material History of American Religion Project

The Built Environment of American Religion:
The State of the Art

Peter W. Williams

Until recently, the study of America's religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe. The main problem is that such a study requires interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) competencies and interests that not many people have heretofore possessed. (I discuss this further in an autobiographical context in "Interpreting America's Religious Landscape and Architecture" in Chronicle of Higher Education 43:46 (7/25/97), B8-B9). The scholarly slot where such investigations might best be expected to flourish is American Studies, which unfortunately, as the ASA's annual programs demonstrate, has not exactly been a hotbed of ferment in religious studies. This may be changing, however, as will be evident in passing in what follows, as doctoral students at a variety of institutions are pursuing themes of religious building.

For a quick survey of available literature, we might divide it up as follows:

  1. Theoretical Issues
  2. Surveys
  3. Journals, Newsletters and Bibliographies
  4. Period/Genre Studies
  5. Studies of Individual Traditions
  6. Studies of Individual Architects
  7. Guides to Specific Cities, States or Regions
  8. Cognate Areas
  9. Research Possibilities

1. Theoretical Issues. Brief articles on "sacred space" can be found in Mircea Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1987) and in Jonathan Z. Smith and William Scott Green's HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). The most provocative book-length discussion of the issue in Western historical context is Harold W. Turner, From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship (The Hague: Mouton, 1979). James F. White's Protestant Worship and Church Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), is still a valuable study in the context of American Protestant worship. Thomas Barrie's Spiritual Path, Scared Place: Myth, Ritual and Meaning in Architecture (Boston: Shambala, 1996), has some useful ideas for developing a vocabulary and comparative method. David Chidester and Edward Tabor Linenthal have assembled a provocative collection of essays in American Sacred Space (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). Leigh Schmidt, Robert Benson and I are currently assembling a collection of essays growing out of conferences at Miami (1993) and Princeton (1996) that deal with American topics in theoretical perspective.

2. Surveys. There has never been very much useful here, at least until recently. My own Houses of God: Region, Religion and Architecture in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) is to my knowledge the first booklength attempt at such a synthesis; it is arranged regionally and combines social history and cultural geography with architectural history. The bibliographies that follow each chapter are also quite comprehensive. An earlier, briefer piece that takes a more chronological approach is my article, "Religious Architecture and Landscape," in Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (New York: Scribners, 1988), 1325-1340. Frankly, there isn't much else to recommend. Coffee-table books such as Roger Kennedy's American Churches (New York: Crossroad, 1982) are interesting for their stunning photography, but are not of much help when it comes to interpretation. For an extremely useful survey of American architecture prior to the Civil War, including much on religion, see William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects (2 vols.) (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970 and 1978).

3. Journals, etc. Students of vernacular architecture have seldom been interested in religious structures; we now know considerably more abut barns, bridges and bungalows than we do about churches of "the folk." However, Vernacular Architecture Newsletter, published by the Vernacular Architecture Forum, contains a very useful bibliographical section, as does the Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians. (The latter organization also publishes the Journal of the SAH, which occasionally contains relevant articles and reviews. It also sponsors extremely useful study tours annually.) Still other periodicals of interest are Winterthur Portfolio, a journal of material culture studies, and Faith and Form, published by the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture.

4. Period/Genre Studies. An older but still useful enumeration of the churches of the colonial era is Harold Wickliffe Rose, The Colonial Houses of Worship in America (New York: Hastings House, 1963). For New England Puritans, see Edward W. Sinnott, Meetinghouse and Church in Early New England (New York: McGraw Hill, 1963); Marian Card Donnelly, The New England Meeting Houses of the Seventeenth Century (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968); and Peter Benes, ed., New England Meeting House and Church (Boston: Boston University, 1979). For colonial Anglicans, the classic work is Dell Upton, Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia (New York: Architectural History Foundation and MIT Press, 1986). On the Spanish borderlands, the best book is Marc Treib, Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993).

For the Federal period, Gretchen Carol Townsend's 1995 Yale dissertation, "Protestant Material Christianity and Community in Connecticut, 1785-1840," is illustrative of the best work by emergent scholars in American Studies. On nineteenth century communitarian groups, see Dolores Hayden, Seven American Utopias (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976). For the "frontier," which here includes colonial America as well as the trans-Mississippi West in the U.S. and Canada, see John De Visser and Harold Kalman, Pioneer Churches (New York: Norton, 1976). The standard treatment of the early Gothic revival is Phoebe Stanton's The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968). For the Victorian/Progressive era, see Richey below as well as an American Studies dissertation of great interest, Jeanne Halgren Kilde's "Spiritual Armories: A Social and Architectural History of Neo-Medieval Auditorium Churches in the U.S., 1869-1910" (University of Minnesota, 1991). On modern (1940s and after) church design, see John Knox Shear, ed., Architectural Record. Religious Buildings for Today (New York: F. W. Dodge, 1957); Albert Christ-Janer and Mary Mix Foley, Modern Church Architecture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962); and Bartlett H. Hayes, Tradition Becomes Innovation (New York: Pilgrim, 1983).

5. Individual Traditions. On Catholicism, see the special issue of U.S. Catholic Historian (15, 1) for Winter 1997, and Paula Kane's Separatism and Subculture (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). For Judaism, the standard work in Rachael Wischnitzer's Synagogue Architecture in the United States (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955). (See also Renee Fine and Gerald R. Wolfe, The Synagogues of New York's Lower East Side [New York: New York University Press, 1978.]) On Mormons, see Laurel B. Andrew, The Early Temples of the Mormons (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978), supplemented by Richard V. Francaviglia, The Mormon Landscape (New York: AMS Press, 1978), and Charles Mark Hamilton, Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Paul Eli Ivey's Prayers in Stone, on the architecture of the early Christian Science movement, is in press with the University of Illinois. Episcopalians are dealt with in Upjohn and Stanton, cited (4.) above, and in works on Upjohn, Vaughan, Cram, and Goodhue cited in (6.) below. Kenneth Rowe deals with Methodism in his chapter "Redesigning Methodist Churches; Auditorium-Style Sanctuaries and Akron Plan Sunday Schools in Romanesque Costume 1875-1925," in Russell Richey, ed., Connectionalism, forthcoming with Abingdon (November 1997). On Native Americans, Peter Nabokov devotes some space to religious building in Native American Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). On African Americans, see Tom Rankin, Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), and, for religious material culture more broadly conceived, Edward D. Smith, Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877 (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988).

6. Individual Architects. Many important architects -- Peter Harrison, Charles Bulfinch, Louis Sullivan, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson -- designed a few churches, but did not specialize in them. Frank Lloyd Wright is in this category; the literature on him and his work is abundant, but Joseph Siry's study, Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), deserves special mention. Architects associated with the various phases of the Medieval revivals are the best documented. On the Romanesque, see Henry Russell Hitchcock, The Architecture of H.H. Richardson and His Times (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970). Douglass Shand-Tucci's Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), is quirky but intriguing. Robert Muccigrosso's American Gothic: The Mind and Art of Ralph Adams Cram (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980) is a useful if less flamboyant guide to Cram's eccentric ideology. Other monographs of value include Everard Miller Upjohn, Richard Upjohn: Architect and Churchman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939); William Morgan, The Almighty Wall: The Architecture of Henry Vaughan (New York and Cambridge, Mass.: Architectural History Foundation and MIT Press, 1983); and Richard Oliver's Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (same, 1983). Christine Smith's study, Saint Bartholomew's Church in the City of New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), of one of Goodhue's masterpieces is also worthy of note.

7. Cities, States & Regions. The series of guidebooks to all of the then forty-eight states and a selection of cities published by the Federal Writers Project in the late 1930s and early 1940s is still an invaluable source of information about architecture of all sorts; a number of these have been reprinted recently in paperback editions. The most comprehensive newer effort in this area is the Buildings of America series, sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians and published by Oxford University Press. So far, volumes on Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Iowa, and Michigan have appeared. Though about architecture in general, each deals with numerous religious buildings and provides a broader cultural and geographical context for their interpretation.

Various local chapters of the American Institute of Architects have also sponsored guides to particular cities; notable among them are Isabelle Gournay, AIA Guide to the Architecture of Atlanta (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1993); Susan and Michael Southworth, The Boston Society of Architects' AIA Guide to Boston (2nd ed.) (Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1992); Alice Sinkevitch, ed., AIA Guide to Chicago (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993); and Elliot Willensky and Norval White, eds., AIA Guide to New York City (3rd ed.) (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988). A considerable number of other excellent guides exist; check the NA735 Library of Congress section of your local library.

In a few cases, useful guides exist for the specifically religious architecture of a city or region. Notable among these are: George A. Lane, Chicago Churches and Synagogues (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1981); Foster Armstrong, et al., A Guide to Cleveland's Sacred Landmarks (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992); Ruth Hendricks Willard, Sacred Places of San Francisco (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1985); and G.E. Kidder Smith, The Beacon Guide to New England Houses of Worship (Boston: Beacon, 1989).

8. Cognate Areas. For want of space, I will only suggest here that the study of the built environment of American religion might well extend beyond houses of worship. Some possibilities for extending the definition of "sacred space" beyond churches, temples and mosques are indicated in titles by Kenneth E. Foote, Hallowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997); Blanche Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989); Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); and John F. Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

9. Research Possibilities. Clearly, this is an area where much remains to be done; however, carrying out research here requires some expertise both in religious and architectural history. In the colonial period, California missions lack definitive treatment, as do Quakers. Vernacular studies, as indicated above, are wide open; the study of the migration of types of building with the movements of populations could be very revealing, especially in the neglected area of the Prairie, Plains and Mountain regions. (The literature on Lutheran architecture, which flourished in this area, is also almost non-existent). Native American and African American building is also very much open to this kind of treatment. Similarly, there is a dearth of work on what one might call "middle style" churches of the suburban era—i.e., those put up by commercial builders, local designers, and/or denominational bureaus, and not designed by prominent "high style" architects. Studies of the churches of what I like to call "middle Protestantism"—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, northern Baptists—are sparse for the whole period past the Civil War, as is that on the Evangelical resurgence of building as well as church growth in the past two decades. Hindu temples and Islamic centers and mosques similarly invite attention in the context of the new religious and cultural geography of which interstate beltways rather than downtowns now serve as nodes. This is, in short, a rich area of which only the surface has so far been touched.

Peter Williams is the Distinguished Professor of Religion and American Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Popular Religion in America (1980), America’s Religions: Traditions and Cultures (1989); and Houses of God (1997); and editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (1988) and the Encyclopedia of American Social History (1993). His research interests focus on the built environment and landscape of religion in America. He is the president-elect of the American Society of Church History, and a member of the Project’s advisory committee.

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