With few exceptions, the history of religious architecture in North America falls in two broad categories: 1) the liturgical type, longitudinal and aligned on a ceremonial axis of circulation (i.e., procession) from entry to altar, and 2) the New England “meeting house” type with the congregation in a compact block for proximity to the spoken word. Until the blurring of such distinctions in recent years, one was for performance — the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Mass — and the other for preaching.¹
In the years following the U.S. Civil War, Christianity underwent tremendous pressure from massive European immigration and a parallel depopulation of the American countryside for wage labor in urban areas. The institutional church responded in several ways, organizationally and through the invention of new architectural types. It’s my contention that the foremost of these architectural responses was something called the Akron-Auditorium plan — not simply a melding of the two earlier types, but a genuine American innovation, a third category of religious buildings.
There are reasons the A-A or Combination Plan has been largely overlooked: the scholarly explanation and the less polite one that requires a bit of finger pointing. What is more important to note here is the Akron-Auditorium plan’s coincidence with the Social Gospel, a phenomenon among mainstream Protestants aligning humankind with Jesus horizontally as our brother, rather than vertically as part of the Trinitarian conception of the Supreme Being. Hindsight tells me that my fascination with the A-A plan derives from this almost humanist understanding of religion. There was a time when religion in the United States was broad, inclusive and concerned with improving the human condition. That was the religion of my youth; the religion that helped shape the agnostic I’ve become.
Browse the internet for summaries of the Social Gospel, its origins, evolution and major tenets, and you will find multiple critiques by theologues [spell-checking programs don’t like that word but I find in it a defensible parallel with connotations of “ideologue”] from several religious traditions. I take from them that the Social Gospel has no basis in Jesus’ teachings—arguments unconvincing to the unchurched, like myself, who detect more cherry-picking from the Bible than actual sowing of the seeds of salvation. I respond to this new gospel as someone who witnessed the social unrest of the 1960s, and who finds disquieting parallels with both the 1890s when the gospel was born and conditions today. I will cast my theological lot with the likes of Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Charles Monroe Sheldon, the first to query “What would Jesus do?”
The Social Gospel
In very general terms:
The Social Gospel Movement was a religious movement that arose during the second half of the nineteenth century. Ministers, especially ones belonging to the Protestant branch of Christianity, began to tie salvation and good works together. They argued that people must emulate the life of Jesus Christ. To honor God, people must put aside their own earthly desires and help other people, especially the needy. The purpose of wealth was not to hoard it but to share it with other, less fortunate people. The ideas that originated from the Social Gospel would heavily influence the Progressive Movement. The Social Gospel Movement also attacked the concept of Social Darwinism.²
A bulleted list of S.G. tenets would be welcome at this point. Lacking one, I’ll suggest some of the movement’s architectural response:
- The sanctuary was reshaped as a genuine auditorium to maximize the gospel’s delivery. Happily, it coincided with the new science of acoustics.
- Religious education —Sunday School — was reinvented by Rev John Heyl Vincent and philanthropist and Sunday School superintendent Lewis Miller, applying the efficiencies of American business practice. This new delivery system required an architectural setting without precedent. Vincent and Miller worked with architects Jacob Synder and G. W. Kramer to create the first Akron Plan Sunday School.
- Popularity of the American Sunday School Union’s methods spread beyond the Methodist denomination, finding acceptance in most mainstream Protestant groups and spreading to nearly every state.
- By the mid-1880s someone had placed an Akron Sunday School adjacent to an auditorium sanctuary, made the wall between them movable, and created the first Combination Plan or Akron-Auditorium church.
- Churches of this new type multiplied in every U.S. state and many Canadian provinces. Architects specialized in this new typology and speed it from cost to coast in practices that were both regional and national.
- The institutional church expanded its social services to include recreational programs (to get young people off the streets and out f the pool halls), food pantries and soup kitchens (for the less fortunate), emergency housing (for those out of work or whose homes were lost to fire, floor or repossession), and educational programs and lending libraries (for recent immigrants and those intent on improving their opportunities). The complexity of these 24/7 facilities rival today’s mega-churches — except that their theology was one of inclusion, rather than isolation from “competing” beliefs.
- Independent institutions such as Temple University and the YMCA spun off from churches that had initiated them.
Do you see why I become so excited about the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon? Because it concerns an architecture of civic responsibility and social support and has remarkably little to do with gratuitous theorizing and philosophical bullshit. Was that too snarky?
¹ To someone raised in the Christian tradition as I was (a Protestant), that summary description may seem overly brief. But I now stand outside the beliefs of my youth and have a different, if no more objective view. For the time being, however, you should know that, though I am happily among the un-churched, I remain intensely interested in religion and its architectural consequences.