Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Romanesque and Gothic Revival among American Mennonites in the Early Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Romanesque and Gothic Revival among American Mennonites in the Early Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Abstract: In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries renewed interest in the Middle Ages was a powerful force in church architecture. Historic medieval churches provided models and led to the Romanesque (round arch) and Gothic (pointed arch) architectural revivals. Catholics and Protestants favored churches with towers, bells, stained glass windows, and strong verticality. At first, American Mennonites, with their tradition of "architectural humility," seemed immune to these assertive styles, but not for long. This article looks at early twentieth-century Mennonite interest in the neo-medieval movements by focusing on the "Swiss-Mennonite" communities at Bluffton and Pandora, Ohio, and Berne, Indiana. Here Mennonite congregations broke with tradition and built new churches (1905, 1906, and 1912) using the Romanesque and Gothic styles. Although traditionalists voiced reservations, these churches were the opening wedge of Mennonite innovation.

Mennonites do not attract much attention in the history of church architecture except, at times, for their habits of simplicity. In times of repression during the first decades of the Reformation, Anabaptists of Europe--forerunners of the Mennonites--met in caves, barns, houses, or even in the open air. Later, having achieved a status of toleration, the Mennonite place of worship was often a simple "meetinghouse" (Bethaus or Vermaning). This was not a sacred sanctuary, but a place for gathering the congregation. In America, the tradition took two directions: the conservative Amish rejected all special houses of worship in favor of meeting in homes, while the larger group of Mennonites built simple houses of worship. The mark of colonial American Mennonite worship was an austere, functional meetinghouse, described by John L. Ruth as "architectural humility."(1) The oldest functioning Mennonite meetinghouse in America is the Germantown Mennonite meetinghouse of 1770 at Philadelphia. This sturdily built house of worship well illustrates traditional Mennonite church architecture.

As changing currents of architectural style came and went, American Mennonite communities were largely unfazed, content to remain steadfast in the traditions of the forefathers. Exceptions, however, appeared as certain congregations became "Americanized" and blended into mainline Protestant ways. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Romanesque and Gothic revival styles gained much favor in Catholic and Protestant church building. A historian of material culture, Ryan K. Smith, has noted that Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists enthusiastically adopted the neo-Gothic revival.(2) To this listing should also be added Mennonites, at least in certain communities.

Although the unadorned style of the traditional Mennonite meetinghouse--"severely plain, low, towerless"--stood as the symbol of Mennonite humility, (3) change was on the way, as some early twentieth-century Mennonites joined the enthusiasm for high style architecture. The new Mennonite architecture found expression especially among Swiss-American Mennonites of Ohio and Indiana.


The nineteenth century saw the cultural pendulum swing toward romanticism and a renewed interest in the Middle Ages.4 Americans in the nineteenth century applied medieval themes to novels, poetry, painting, and, preeminently, architecture. Neo-medieval architecture used the Romanesque and Gothic styles for secular and religious structures, hoping to revive a mystical sense of faith along with the physical revival of great architecture. Picturesque country churches of Europe and even the famous cathedrals became models of exemplary architecture for the local community. Ecclesiological societies in England and America promoted the medieval models as the true "architecture of Christianity."(5)

Church builders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries borrowed widely from both Romanesque (round-arch style) and Gothic (pointed-arch style) architecture, making these styles the predominant inspiration for church architecture in the United States. …

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