“Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise,” declares the Psalmist. “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” The joy of worship has been a passion of the human heart since time immemorial. And while church buildings have come a long way since the tabernacle erected by the Israelites in the desert, the design of today’s churches, like that of the original tabernacle, is replete with meaning. From the architecture to the imagery on the walls, from the musical choices to the incense, churches contain significance in each of their parts.
Yet, as William Whyte explains in Unlocking the Church: The Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space, starting with the Reformation, church design in much of Great Britain downplayed symbolism and decoration in favor of plainness—and not only in newly built churches: Some long-established churches were changed in ways that made them plainer. The point of attending church services was at least as much to hear and learn about God’s word as it was to perform rituals symbolic and sacramental, so the general idea behind the plainness movement was to create an environment suitable for preaching and attentive listening. There was little to nothing to look at: Explicit symbolism was removed from interior walls, which were often whitewashed.
Many churches during this era contained private pew boxes from which worshipers were treated to hour-plus-long sermons. Families would gather semi-privately inside the boxes rather than on benches in the open. It was hardly all severity, though: Along with the movement toward plainness was a movement toward comfort—so pillows came to the pews and mats came to the floors.
These visual changes had an acoustical effect as well. The plaster and whitewash, cushions and padding muffled echoes, contributing to an “auditory church” that was “perfectly designed for preaching,” Whyte writes.
The plainness push petered out early in the 19th century. Whyte details how the Victorians—led by the Tractarians of Oxford and the Ecclesiologists of Cambridge—sought to reintroduce symbolism in churches and to teach churchgoers to “read” a church building like a book. Sacred space could instruct by engaging all the human senses.
Consider the Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas at Littlemore, England, constructed in 1835-36 by Henry Underwood under the authority of vicar John Henry Newman, who would later go on to convert to Catholicism, become a cardinal, and rank among the “Blessed”—that is, one step away from becoming a saint. Newman made the experience of the symbolism contained in the new church a theme for his parishioners, dedicating his first sermon in the building to the symbols contained therein. He believed that the symbolism of St. Mary and St. Nicholas rendered the church a kind of “holy book, which [his parishioners] may look at and read, and which will suggest to [them] many good thoughts of God and heaven.”
The symbols at Littlemore included three windows above the altar, which Newman “took to typify the Trinity,” Whyte says. Additionally, the three windows “also typified the three sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion; and the three virtues of faith, hope, and charity.” The seven arches over the windows suggested the seven days of creation, and the one door into the church symbolized “Christ, the only door to salvation.” Indeed, Newman suggested that for those who had eyes to see, “every aspect of the building was designed to communicate a message.”
The scale of the “Victorian restoration” and its transformation of British churches is staggering: “Tens of thousands of churches were built and still more altered in England alone” during the 19th century, Whyte writes. By helping us to better understand this change to sacred spaces—not only the fact of the move away from plainness but the motivations for it—Whyte has given us valuable insight into the shaping of our Victorian forebears who did so much to shape the world.
Ian Lindquist is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.