CRM Journal

Book Review

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

By Peter W. Williams. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000; xv + 321 pp., photographs, bibliographies, indices; cloth $34.95; paper $24.95.


By Thomas Roma. With an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002; xii + 96 pp., 52 photographs, map; cloth $29.95.


The writing of American religious architectural history is complicated by the many components of religious space that one must understand in order to give proper credit to these important structures. Peter W. Williams' Houses of God and Thomas Roma's Sanctuary employ an interdisciplinary approach to consider sacred space through the lenses of geography, ethnicity, religion, social issues, preservation, material culture, archeology, and architecture, enabling a solid understanding of sacred environments in the United States.

Williams, a professor of Comparative Religion and American Studies at Miami University in Ohio, began this work as a series of essays for a 1994 photographic exhibition at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis on the public expression of religion in American art. Williams cites the book's purpose as an examination of "the built environment of religion in the United States—its architecture, landscape, and other dimensions of its public physical aspect—with special attention to the importance of geographical and cultural region in shaping that religious expression." He centers on regionalism, religious tradition or denomination, architectural style, and social class. Williams studies each region chronologically and according to topics such as theological innovation, ethnicity, religious denominations, urbanism, modernism, and architectural style.

Williams does not, however, utilize the same themes in each chapter but instead carefully selects those most important to each region's history. In the chapter on New England, for example, he focuses on the Puritan meetinghouse and its significance as a new American building type, suitable for both sacred and secular purposes. In the chapter on the Mid-Atlantic region, Anglicanism is emphasized in its various stylistic forms, whereas colonial Anglican churches, largely completed in a neoclassical style, are the main topic of the South's religious spaces. The chapter on the Spanish Borderlands centers on the Spanish Catholic settlement of the American Southwest.

While these regions provide a focal point of "cultural hearths"—described by Williams as "the entrance of various strains of European culture into the Northern American social environment through distinctive geographical nodes"—the remaining regions, the Old Northwest, the Great Plains and Mountains, and the Pacific Rim, lose this concentration due to later settlement by a multitude of cultural groups. For example, in the Great Plains and Mountains chapter, after an introductory discussion on settlement patterns and ethnicity, Williams discusses the entire history of the churches in this region under a general heading of "Building Patterns," moving back and forth among States and themes.

Although many buildings are included in his survey, Williams' text lacks the discussion of post-World War II religious space, particularly that influenced by modernism and liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Williams devotes only one paragraph to the Vatican reforms and fails to mention the importance of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, as an international leader in liturgical reform. Many of the St. John's brethren were advisors to the council and were also closely involved in the design of St. John's Abbey church (1953-1961) by Marcel Breuer, a modern building espousing modern liturgical ideals.

The ecumenical nature of worship promoted by the Council also impacted the design of non-Catholic spaces, and Williams' work could be expanded to include these changes. Additionally, an analysis of churches now approaching their 50th anniversary would aid preservationists as they consider potential nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. A revision might also improve the quality of several of the images, and update the indices to include a topical index rather than just the name and location indices provided in the current edition.

Williams, however, has completed a daunting task and has added greatly to the historiography of the built religious environment. Most religious architectural studies are monographs and Williams' work is one of two recent books to tackle the United States in a survey format. The other, Marilyn J. Chiat's America's Religious Architecture, is a series of one-page entries on many lesser-known vernacular buildings, appealing to the traveler and preservationist as she encourages congregations to protect and record their heritage.(1) Both books use region as an organizing idiom but given the diversity and mobility of people in the United States, will region remain an appropriate tool for future inquires? Even Williams is doubtful. Yet through his efforts we see the promise of completing successful religious architectural histories through a combination of ideas taken from geography, religion, architecture, cultural studies, and material studies.

Sanctuary cover

Another important element of architectural history is the visual documentation of structures. Thomas Roma's photographs of his Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood in Sanctuary fulfill this vital task. Roma, whose photographs appear in museum collections as well as in many solo exhibitions, sought imagery "that dealt with the way people express their spirituality" and how sacred places fit into the lives of the immigrants who built them as well as those who now use them. These interests produce unexpected juxtapositions. In one photograph Roma fills the foreground with abandoned cars on a vacant gravel lot, the middle ground with three-story apartment buildings, and the background with a church steeple prominently centered within the image.

For Roma, life and faith are intertwined and the term "sanctuary" moves beyond its traditional description as the most sacred part of a Christian church. It becomes a "state of mind" as noted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., in the introduction. Roma's photographs are captivating and force the viewer to reconsider the sacred nature of their own environment.

Roma and Williams encourage researchers to take a multifaceted approach when documenting the sacred built environment. With thousands of the best religious spaces yet to be explored, work on sacred space will continue to come from collaboration among scholars and researchers in various fields.

Victoria M. Young
University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN



1. Marilyn J. Chiat, America's Religious Architecture: Sacred Places for Every Community (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1997).