Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Houses of God: Religion, and Architecture in the United States

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Houses of God: Religion, and Architecture in the United States

Article excerpt

Houses of God Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. By Peter W.Williams. [Public Expressions of Religion in America.] (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1997. Pp. xix, 321. $34.95.) Construction, modification, closure, and demolition of Roman Catholic churches are topics of heated debate among and between the nation's clergy,

laity, design professionals, and preservationists. The inherent value of Catholic churches, in regard to either Catholic theology and liturgical practices or American urbanism, is unresolved within these controversies. Soundly reasoned judgments regarding these buildings' status that are capable of superseding the vicissitudes of liturgical revisionism, personalities, or aesthetic trends are required. Identifying a building's worth, i.e., the role it plays within society, is one of architectural history's traditional tasks. This generally requires synthesizing pertinent information that scholars in various fields have compiled, in conjunction with analyzing buildings' physical and aesthetic attributes. To identify the inherent value of America's Catholic churches, background scholarship would include histories of the American Catholic experience, of Catholic ecclesiological concerns, and of the broader pattern of American church building. This book by Peter W Williams, a professor of religion and American studies, is of the third category and as such is a welcome addition to the scholarly discourse.

Williams' study addresses the places of worship built by America's major Christian and non-Christian denominations, and is divided into seven chapters based on geographic regions. He identifies "cultural hearths" within regions, through which specific religious values and aesthetics became normative. These include the Puritans, Evangelical Protestants, Quakers, Mormons, and Spanish Colonial Catholics. Williams' methodology illuminates the relationship between religious values and architectural form most effectively when dealing with the Puritans, Quakers, and Mormons, but this review focuses on his observations regarding Roman Catholic churches.

Williams falters in recognizing Roman Catholic "hearths" and in his judgment of which architectural forms achieved prototypical status. …

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