Material History of American Religion Project

The Upper Room

The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee

The headquarters of the United Methodist General Board for Discipleship in Nashville, Tennessee (two blocks from Vanderbilt University), is also the editorial office for The Upper Room, a bimonthly devotional magazine published since 1935. Consisting of daily meditations and prayers, written in simple and personal language, the magazine reaches as many as eight million people around the world. The public part of the building includes the "Upper Room", a recreation of the room where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the first Communion, complete with an audio-visual presentation. Nearby is the Agape Garden, featuring a fountain, symbolic plantings, and biblical quotations. The popularity of the magazine and the the prominence of the Upper Room have made the building a tourist attraction in Nashville and a place of pilgrimage for dedicated readers of the magazine.

A building like the General Board of Discipleship is rich evidence for the study of the material history of American religion. As a denominational headquarters, it represents the administrative structure that undergirds much of mainline church life in America. As the editorial office for a hugely popular devotional magazine, it reflects how the search for spiritual growth can become a big business. And as a place of pilgrimage, it shows how American Protestantism, which prides itself on being non-materialistic, can develop a popular piety centered on places and material objects.

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