One of the things in life that sets my heart aflutter is good architecture. When all the elements of good design come together in a structure, the effect is so satisfying. What makes one structure more aesthetically pleasing than another is hard to define. Yet, I know it when I see it. It’s simple beauty that pleases me most. Perhaps that is why I am especially fond of New England architecture. Simple, classic, lovely.
Regional architecture is an interesting thing. As is true for other human endeavors, architecture exposes the thinking of the people doing the creating. What is it about New Englanders that caused them to create such quiet, unpretentious beauty? What core beliefs drove their design principles? To answer these questions, we must first consider who these builders were.
New England. The region’s name gives us a giant leg up. Not all the settlers were English, of course. Scots-Irish and settlers from other nations also came to the region. But, we can safely say that the majority of them were of British descent. When these settlers came, they brought their culture with them. The word culture is another interesting thing. It comes from the Latin word “colere” which means, among other things, “to cultivate, to worship, to adorn.” So, we can think of a “culture” as an expression of what the people decide to cultivate and worship. The things they choose to worship give birth to cultural adornments, in this particular case, the buildings they construct.
So, back to the earlier question: What core beliefs drove their design principles? In studying the belief systems which best defined the people of England, Ireland, and Scotland, it doesn’t take long before one runs headlong into the Westminster Confession of Faith along with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Written in an attempt to unify the worship and doctrine of the three countries, the Westminster Confession casts a long shadow—so long that it traverses the Atlantic and defines not only early American colonial life, but also government, law, education, and yes—expressions of art—including architecture.
How on earth can a creedal statement possibly affect building? Granted, there are many other factors in determining why people would build in a certain way, but as a man believes, so he creates. This is most closely linked how he designs houses of worship. So, let’s take a look.
Quick. What comes to mind when you think about a quintessential New England Village? What is the centerpiece? Do you picture a giant, stone cathedral with dizzying height, bejeweled with stunning stained glass windows? Or, do you picture a village green surrounded by simple, white frame structures, the largest of which is the meeting house with its clock-faced tower presiding over the rest? My guess is that what you pictured is the latter. The iconic New England church blends in harmoniously with its neighbors and marks the center of village life.
For these believers, the worship of God was to occupy the center of all of life. The answer to Westminster Catechism number 1 (What is man’s chief end?) explains a lot: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And here is how our New England brothers and sisters sought to demonstrate this truth and remind their community of it continually, by literally putting God at the center.
Just as worship was to be the center of life, so the preaching of the Word was to be the center of worship. Author Paul Tillich makes an interesting observation in “Theology in Architecture” in Architectural Forum regarding the development of clear glass panes in ecclesiastical architecture:
“The development of light in churches is very interesting. Slowly the daylight replaced the light that is broken through stained-glass windows. The daylight is not the outburst of Divine light but light by which one can read and the congregation can see one another.”
The centrality of the Word, read, sung, and preached requires light. Pure light to illuminate the Word. Equally important is for the community of believers to see one another; for the body to be able to behold—and know— all those who are members of it. To see one another in the light of the Lord’s Day as they encourage and exhort one another through singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. To see one another in the light of the Lord’s Day as they read the Words of life corporately, signifying their unity of belief. To see one another as they hear the Word proclaimed together and are reminded of what God requires of His covenant people.
These churches had very little in the way of adornment, relying instead on the beauty of God’s saving Word, voices blended in corporate singing, and the beauty of believers worshiping in unity of spirit to adorn the space with a splendor no thing made by human hands could rival. They did not seek to create houses of worship that looked significantly different from any of the other buildings where human activities took place. For them, all of life was an act of worship, whether one was making candles, selling dry goods, or feeding lunch to hungry children. The only nod to religious ornamentation was the spire drawing all villagers to a heaven-ward gaze as they worshiped God through their daily callings.
I wonder: What does our building say about us? How has our culture influenced the way we build? Our homes? Our churches? If someone three hundred years from now were to evaluate what we cherished based on what we’ve built, what would they deduce?