‘Houses of Worship: The architectural expression of religious beliefs in early America’.

On 4 December 2020, the Lived Religion study group organized a study day on Lived Religion and the Visual Arts, in collaboration with our institutional partner, the Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English.

One of our speakers was Dr Carl Lounsbury, who is emeritus senior architectural historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and an adjunct associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary. His research focuses on the architecture of early modern Britain and British America.  On that occasion, Dr Lounsbury presented a paper entitled ‘Houses of Worship: The architectural expression of religious beliefs in early America’.

The material culture of religion in British America had its origins in the Reformation. Reformers rejected the subdivision of the medieval church with its long aisles for processional ceremonies and its many altars, which emphasized the sacrificial nature of the Catholic Mass. For New World Protestants, the centerpiece of communal worship was hearing a minister expound the word of God. Preaching became the principal focus for the service and the auditory experience of reformed worship required seating around a centrally placed pulpit. This talk examines how religious beliefs shaped the form and ornamentation of ecclesiastical buildings in early America. Their design responded to this reconceptualization of public worship, yet the diverse origins of the Reformation provided no uniformity of outlook among its many adherents. Some believed in the sanctity of spaces and chose to glorify God in the “beauty of holiness” with gilded ornaments and expensive textiles that draped pulpits and communion tables. Others had a profound aversion to ascribing numinous attributes to material objects or places. They believed in God’s omnipresence, which meant that a place of worship was no more holy than a grove, barn, or dwelling. Since God was disassociated with a particular place, they called their gathering places meetinghouses in an effort to divert attention from the physical place to the spiritual activities that they considered the true core of church worship. With such contrasting perspectives, the houses of worship in early America can be read as a series of incremental gradations of embellishment between austerity at one end of the scale and ostentation at the other. Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Quakers worked within a sliding scale of elaboration to create structures consonant with the beliefs of those who filled their benches and pews.

You can now read the full talk here. It goes hand in hand with a slide show which illustrates each moment of the talk, and which you can view here.


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