Material History of American Religion Project

Reading church signs

In response to a recent object of the month, Heather Hartel of the University of Iowa sent us this short paper based on her research into church signs. She finds meaning in the signs by examining them within the context of commercial architecture.

A comparison can be made between the Guild House sign that Robert Venturi comments on in Learning from Las Vegas and the signs of small community churches in the rural South. Venturi states: We have borrowed the simple literary distinctions between "denotative" and "connotative" meanings and applied them to the heraldic and physiognomic element in architecture. To clarify further, the sign saying GUILD HOUSE denotes meaning through its words; as such, it is the heraldic element par excellence. The character of the graphics, however, connotes institutional dignity, while, contradictorily, the size of the graphics connotes commercialism. (101).

Bethel signCommunity sign 1When the Bethel Church in Cherry, Tennessee puts "Dusty bibles lead to dirty lives" on its sign, it is not only a denotative testimonial to the rest of the community to keep the dust off of their bibles, but an adaptation of commercial advertising techniques for evangelical purposes. The large black letters on a lit white background connote a commercial strip, an announcement, something that is being sold, yet what is being sold is a piece of religious advice in the form of saying that could be easily memorized like a commercial. When it says "If evolution were true, women would have 3 arms" on the Community Baptist Church sign on the Austin Peay Highway in Raleigh, Tennessee, a conservative religious cultural commentary is being denoted with the connotations of an advertisement. The detonation of the words can be read as testimonial for the product of religion on a kind of sign that could just as easily read in another context "2 for 99 Egg McMuffins" or "Alan King, Ben Vereen."

Placing religious sayings in a commercial context makes these signs "the familiar that is a little off," something that has a "strange and revealing power." Unusual meanings are produced by "adjusting of the scale or context of familiar and conventional elements" (Venturi 130). The connotation of a commercial sign works both to defamiliarize the content of the sign and to enhance its evangelical purpose in the community. The fact that these churches are not always located in a distracting setting where they would have to use these methods to attract attention only further reinforces their evangelism. In addition, the changeable nature of these kinds of signs allows the message displayed to the community to change in accordance with each week’s sermon or with the congregation’s current concerns. What evangelical idea do we want to sell this week? What is this week’s testimony?

I would like to point out, however, that these signs are probably much more "strange and revealing" to myself and Venturi than they are to the congregations that produce them. For the congregations of these churches they are practical, affordable ways to spread the word of God. The interactions between connotations and denotations in these roadside churches and their signs reflect the elements of the existing cities around them and do so without realizing it, and this is a technique that perhaps cannot be learned from analyzing them.

Heather Hartel
314 Gilmore Hall
University of Iowa
Iowa City IA 52245

Return to the electronic journal page

Return to the project home page