For generations, churches have served as a second home for many Americans and were the cornerstones of many rural communities. The Puritans in New England planned their communities around their meetinghouses, or churches, to the degree they had laws dictating that no man could build a house more than a certain distance away from the local church. Decades further along, in the settlement of the American South, the courthouse and the local churches normally grew up around a courthouse square which was the Southern analog of the New Englander’s town green. A core difference between the courthouse square and the town green, aside from the square developing later in time, was that the town green was also a place for grazing livestock in early New England, whereas in the South, the town square was not. This was due to the fact that Southerners had more land and often lived further from town, coming to town for church or court business, perhaps shopping. In smaller communities, the church itself and perhaps a one-room schoolhouse were the centers of a cluster of homes. Later a post office may have been added, possibly a general store. These communities never grew into what we consider a proper town with a main street and dedicated commercial district but provided all their residents needed on a daily basis. The church or churches, always, were the centerpiece of such rural communities—their “parlor,” as historian and writer J.B. Jackson has said of them.
As Bill Izard’s recent series of articles on grand churches of the South makes clear, we have some churches of superb architecture and stature that can stand next to any of the world. But what of smaller, more typical churches, especially in rural areas? These churches were not only parlors of their small communities but devout expressions of faith. Some were quite humble, built in vernacular styles by congregations with little formal expertise, while others display ornate use of the Carpenter Gothic style by local craftsmen, and still others benefitted from architectural expertise and carry on trends in church design seen across America. Honestly, we can find a shorthand history of communities and economies in the architecture of many Southern churches.
The differences of a “town church” and a “country church” are a good place to start. Of course such differences vary across regions and states, but in the South there are some constant themes to be found. Country churches are often isolated to some degree in the landscape. While normally easy to access, they may be surrounded by farming fields or forests. Their material construction prior to the twentieth century was often timber-frame, and many were painted white, regardless of their denomination. There were practical considerations for these churches, which often had graveyards attached and, before indoor plumbing and electricity, were heated by wood or coal stoves. Like their forefathers’ churches in the British Isles, those of Appalachia especially required extensive care. If the church lacked a paid sexton, some men of the church plus the minister had to cut wood for the stove and ensure the building remained painted and free of pests and wild animals. These churches were rarely large or grand, not only because their congregations were small but due to the expense of construction and continued expense of providing heat in the winter. Rural English churches normally had the offices of sextons and virgers in addition to the minister in order to tend the church and graveyard, but these offices in the South were far less common due to congregational composition and denominational outlook. So while a small, wooden, country church may seem quaint and romantic today, its origins were highly pragmatic.
“Town” churches at times took the same general aesthetic approach as their rural counterparts but were often built of brick or stone, a move that was, prior to the Civil War, as much about fire-proofing as any show of wealth or sophistication. Old Stone Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia, is a classic—if early—example of a “town” church. Built of sturdy limestone and sporting a cupola belfry, it openly displayed influence of native churches that would be found in communities of similar size in England and Scotland. The attached churchyard, expectedly, served as an early and primary burial ground for Lewisburg. The sound construction of this church and its constant occupation as a house of worship have resulted in its use to this day. Much later churches in towns, such as the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Covington, Virginia, demonstrate the evolution of modern building techniques, the primacy of brick in urban building design, and the desire to, as a Catholic church-house, reflect the grand cathedrals of Europe in even a smaller-scale regional place of worship. This church is dignified yet not showy and of appropriate scale to its immediate neighbors.
Carpenter Gothic, a style that took core ideas from classic European Gothic architecture but relied on timber-frame construction and often a high degree of decorative carpentry, as well as the widespread and straight-forward Gothic Revival style, were found very frequently in examples of churches in the South. The Trinity United Methodist Church in Pickaway, West Virginia, is a good example of Carpenter Gothic/Gothic Revival types in rural applications. Painted white, this church showcases the type of trim details, stained-glass windows, and other accents typical to Gothic Revival in the Appalachian and mid-South regions. Somewhat exceptional for this church was the presence of two towers instead of a single one—a feature rare on American Gothic Revival churches. Another example of Gothic Revival with a greater emphasis on Carpenter Gothic aesthetics can be found in Wolf Creek Methodist Church, a small rural church in Wolf Creek, West Virginia. This church sadly is no longer in use and sits apparently abandoned. Simple, with a single tower and located on a small site tucked into a hillside, this church still illustrates the adaptation of Gothic principles so long cherished in sacred architecture to a humble scale and material approach. Near Williston, Florida, we can locate another superb example of rural Carpenter Gothic in a small church: the Wacahoota Methodist Church. Quite small—tiny, even—this church sits out of the way at the rear of its ample churchyard but is still in use. The original construction included a small tower which has been removed as of 2014 but was extant in 2009 when I first visited this church.
Carpenter Gothic also works on a grander scale in some rural settings: a classic example of this would be the First Baptist Church in Citra, Florida. This church boasts the intricate scroll-work commonly associated with Carpenter Gothic, the tower of an open, square design and ornate stained-glass windows. Citra is and always has been a small rural community, based on citrus agriculture and cattle ranching. The church is on a major highway, but like many rural churches, is not part of a defined “downtown” area—even a small one. While I am uncertain of its exact date of construction, I place it per its design somewhere between the 1890’s and the 1910’s. Many buildings in Florida were built later than buildings elsewhere in their same architectural style, as parts of the state had not evolved as swiftly as in the rest of the South, meaning a building type one may find in Virginia in the 1880’s will surface in Florida dating from the 1910’s. That said, many small towns—and many churches such as the aforementioned Wacahoota Methodist Church—date from prior to the Civil War (the Wacahoota church was built at an early 1857). Florida is not lacking for Carpenter Gothic churches, either, with good examples to be found in Palatka, Enterprise, Titusville, and Green Cove Springs as well as the Citra and Wacahoota ones mentioned.
Gothic influence went beyond the timber-frame construction of the Carpenter Gothic, though, with some “town” churches such as First Methodist of Hinton, West Virginia, displaying a strong Gothic Revival basis. Brick, in this case, or stone in others, tracks directly back to the architectural concepts at the origins of actual Gothic architecture in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The emphasis on ornament and on a central tower, often with the inclusion of actual bells, places these rural churches in a legacy of authority and authenticity of the divine. For non-Catholic denominations, it was a mechanism to say “hey, we are legitimate churches, too,” and, to a degree, to compete with other local churches for members. If, say, the local Methodist church were stately, the local Baptist church needed to be of a similar stature. We can witness some of this “competitive” effort in churches in downtown Beckley, West Virginia, where both the local Methodist and Church of God churches display a strong effort at Gothic Revivalism. Prior to the twentieth century, wood was the most economical building material, and construction still required carpentry skills, so adding ornamentation with great care did not always add excessive cost. With the advent of economical materials and pre-fab approaches in the twentieth century however, we find in rural areas—especially outside of actual towns—examples of very simply-built, plain, small churches—often of cinder-block construction. Within the more urban settings of towns and cities, we see a related trend in “store-front” churches where a church goes into a commercial building, or store-front, instead of commissioning a purpose-built church building of typical typology to religious structures.
Interiors of rural churches are also interesting. Some are very ornate while others quite plain, and at times churches with unassuming exteriors sport impressive interiors. Older structures, expectedly, often show the effect of renovations over the years, whether large or small. Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church, built at an early 1852 in Sinks Grove, West Virginia, in example has a prim though welcoming sanctuary with sturdy pews and ample light from large windows. This church also retains a period reed organ from the 1880’s which has been lovingly restored, and while a modern electric organ and a piano provide most of the music, the reed organ helps carry on the tradition of such organs in worship. Prior to electric organs, reed organs—also known as parlor organs or pump organs—were commonplace in small churches as well as homes from around the 1860’s to the 1920’s. Their sound was meant to mimic that of grand pipe organs of European cathedrals—just as is the intention of electric church organs today—but it was an eerie sound, both comforting and forlorn. Along with pianos, until the 1930’s or ’40s, it was the main instrument of Southern churches and common in many Victorian-era Southern homes.
The churches featured as examples in this article from Florida and West Virginia do not begin to cover all the church types found throughout the rural South, but they help showcase the diversity and also the pragmatism of rural and small-town churches. There were understandable goals of economical use of both funds and space, the choice of materials both affordable and lasting, but also the desire to project via architecture the purpose of the church in worship and the glory of God. While we think of churches as eternal and certainly traditional, many illustrate changes in architectural technologies over time and, overall, the unbeatable spirit of the devout to have—no matter how small a community—a splendid place of worship that was also the community’s parlor.