When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America

When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America

When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America

When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

For nearly eighteen centuries, two fundamental spatial plans dominated Christian architecture: the basilica and the central plan. In the 1880s, however, profound socio-economic and technological changes in the United States contributed to the rejection of these traditions and the development of a radically new worship building, the auditorium church. When Church Became Theatre focuses on this radical shift in evangelical Protestant architecture and links it to changes in worship style and religious mission. The auditorium style, featuring a prominent stage from which rows of pews radiated up a sloping floor, was derived directly from the theatre, an unusual source for religious architecture but one with a similar goal-to gather large groups within range of a speaker's voice. Theatrical elements were prominent; many featured proscenium arches, marquee lighting, theatre seats, and even opera boxes. Examining these churches and the discussions surrounding their development, Jeanne Halgren Kilde focuses on how these buildings helped congregations negotiate supernatural, social, and personal power. These worship spaces underscored performative and entertainment aspects of the service and in so doing transformed relationships between clergy and audiences. In auditorium churches, the congregants' personal and social power derived as much from consumerism as from piety, and clerical power lay in dramatic expertise rather than connections to social institutions. By erecting these buildings, argues Kilde, middle class religious audiences demonstrated the move toward a consumer-oriented model of religious participation that gave them unprecedented influence over the worship experience and church mission.

Excerpt

At the heart of any fundamental alteration in ritual space lies iconoclasm. Though the term conjures images of violent destruction—shattered stained glass, defaced statuary— the physical elimination of the old and its replacement with the new accomplished by less-violent means is certainly no less momentous. Born of transformations in religious creed and cultus, iconoclasm instantiates conceptual theological changes in the physical world. in the case of the development of the auditorium church, this process began with a series of radical revisions in ritual practices made by evangelical preachers during the height of the revivals known as the Second Great Awakening, which swept the northern and central United States during the 1820s and 1830s. To engage ever-larger audiences in the spiritual message of salvation and to encourage their participation in revival meetings, revivalists like Charles Grandison Finney initially adopted spellbinding oratory and dramatic delivery techniques. Soon these revivalists broadened their strategies to transform Protestant services through ritual practices called “New Measures.” These included the public confession of faith, the altar call, and the individual struggle with the soul, which proceeded publicly upon an “anxious bench” facing the congregation. a similar experimentation with ritual space—that is, with the Protestant church building itself—was a natural outgrowth of the desire to increase audience participation and to extend the revival as widely as possible, yet it led to consequences that the revivalists could not have anticipated.

Religious revivalism does not usually inspire architecture. Revivals are spontaneous and transitory, architecture is deliberate and permanent. the revival is launched with the arrival of a preacher, conversions are witnessed and souls saved, and the preacher then moves on to the next location. the architectural icon of the revival is the tabernacle. Its heritage stretching back to the biblical “tent of meeting” erected by Moses, the tabernacle is temporary, portable, and inexpensive. It is designed to be erected quickly and broken down and transported to the next site with equal rapidity. For Protestant revivalists, a tabernacle might consist of nothing more than a large canvas tent or a hastily constructed wooden shelter covering crude benches. in early nineteenth-century America, many revivalists did not bother to erect a tabernacle at all, opting instead to stage their performances on a cleared field or commons or in an existing building rented for the occasion.

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