Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The practice of religion in the Great Plains has been diverse, and the historical evidence of worship displays a rich variety of physical expression. Among the Native inhabitants of the Great Plains, religion was intertwined with nature. Prominent landscape features such as mountains and buttes were venerated as sites possessing spiritual significance. An e.cient form of mobile architecture was devised by the Omahas, who created a special tent for housing their Sacred Pole. Permanent structures for the practice of religious ceremonies were also erected by Plains Indians such as the willow sweat lodge of the Lakotas. Indian settlements attracted Christian missions as European immigrants pushed into the Great Plains. For the most part, the rude structures associated with these religious activities were short-lived. Notable exceptions were the Spanish Colonial missions, which continue to grace the southern fringes of the Great Plains in Texas and New Mexico.

The influx of immigrants into the Great Plains of Canada and the United States during the nineteenth century resulted in the creation of numerous local church organizations, and buildings to accommodate worship soon followed. The character of many of these early churches, regardless of denomination, was similar–a rectangular, one-room wooden building capped with a gable roof. A slightly more elaborate version included a central bell tower, the lower portion of which served as an entrance vestibule. Modesty of means and the use of pattern books contributed to a significant degree of homogeneity in the general appearance of the building type during this period. The style preferred for these structures was Gothic Revival, an imagery associated with European Christianity, but most attempts to acknowledge this precedent were pale imitations of the style as practiced in the older metropolitan areas of North America. Scarce resources limited use of the Gothic design vocabulary; for example, the pointed arch above door and window openings might appear only on the front elevation. The interiors of these early churches were generally lacking in spatial development and ornamentation. Furthermore, the functional anonymity of the room and the mobility of the sparse furnishings allowed some fledgling frontier communities to temporarily utilize the building for the secular activities associated with a municipal hall, courtroom, or school until resources allowed for the construction of these special-use facilities.

By the end of the nineteenth century many former frontier communities had grown in both population and financial resources. Consequently, attention was directed toward the design and construction of more sophisticated houses of worship. Congregations erected churches that reflected both their wealth and the history of their beliefs. Guided by the romantic influences of the era, the more conformist denominations such as Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Canadian Anglican favored the Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, and occasionally the neoclassical Revival styles that were associated with the rituals and rich historical traditions of the European Christian church. Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and some of the newer denominations frequently took liberties with their interpretations of the traditional Gothic, Romanesque, and Classical styles as well as employing more original nineteenth-century styles such as the High Victorian, Gothic, and Queen Anne. In the process they generated diverse and less historically accurate versions of the precedents, the latter modified to express more contemporary values.

Noteworthy deviations from the popular revival styles of the period were to be found in the interpretations of the Byzantine style employed in Jewish synagogues and the churches built by both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox congregations. Predominantly located in the Northern Great Plains and Prairie Provinces, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches in particular were characterized by impressively crafted wood construction, complex massing, and picturesque domes crowning the roofs above the nave and chancel.

More specific distinctions in the architecture of the various denominations resulted from their differing beliefs and rituals of worship. These differences were especially evident in the design of church interiors, the two basic concerns being a recognition of those emotive factors that influenced the worshipers' feelings such as illumination, color, and proportions, especially height, and liturgical factors related to the actions, symbols, and furnishings that defined and facilitated the process of worship.

Prior to the 1960s the plan and spatial configuration of conformist churches placed emphasis upon a celebration of the sacraments in an environment designed to enhance the sense of mystery accompanying rituals and the hierarchical separation between the clergy and laity. Two traditional configurations were most commonly employed. The basilican plan consisted of a rectangular nave, which accommodated seating for the congregation, and a chancel, which was separated from the nave by an arched opening and raised floor. Approached by steps, the chancel was reserved for the clergy and contained the high altar against the rear wall. In the cruciform plan the longer portion contained the nave, the short projection at the top of the cross contained the chancel, and the projections to the left and right, the transepts, held secondary altars.

The spatial complexity and opulence of these interiors could be enhanced by the addition of side aisles, a tall nave illuminated by clerestory windows, stained glass, liberal use of three-dimensional detailing, elegant furnishings, and decorative ceiling and wall surfaces. A characterizing feature of Episcopal and Canadian Anglican churches was the extended length of the chancel. This space accommodated a choir, the seating of which was split into two segments facing one another across an aisle that terminated at the altar. The interiors of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches were distinguished by domes that spatially defined the nave and chancel. Typically, the chancel was separated from the nave by an elaborately decorated icon screen that obscured the congregation's view of the altar.

The layout and spatial design of nonconformist churches such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist placed emphasis upon the spoken word. This led to the abandonment of traditional elongated plans in favor of a square auditorium configuration that greatly enhanced acoustics and sight lines. Other features borrowed from auditorium design included a gently sloping floor and a fan-shaped seating arrangement that focused attention upon a raised platform containing the pulpit and choir. All these features were ideally suited to a room created for preaching.

During the last half of the nineteenth century a design scheme called the Akron plan was widely used by many Protestant congregations. It typically consisted of the auditorium arrangement of seating and platform plus a large adjacent room separated from the main meeting hall by a moveable partition. This multipurpose room served several functions. When the dividing partition was opened the room could accommodate overflow seating for the auditorium. When closed the partition defined a space used for Sunday school classes. The appearance of a church utilizing the Akron plan was distinctive and usually asymmetrical. The main entrance to the auditorium was typically through a tall corner tower. This arrangement was particularly appropriate for a corner lot and invited direct access from both streets. A secondary entrance was marked by a shorter tower positioned between the auditorium and the Sunday school.

In the years following World War II the superiority of historical precedents influencing both style and hierarchical organization in the design of conformist churches was questioned. Modernization of Roman Catholic churches was accelerated following the Vatican Council II in the early 1960s. The latter resulted in a massive program of remodeling existing churches and rethinking the design of new churches. Interior design changes included reducing the dominance of the high altar in favor of a more communal altar or table situated at the front of the chancel or in the midst of the seating area. Further diminishing of the hierarchical separation of clergy and laity was reinforced by utilization of the auditorium seating plan. This has produced a blurring of the historical distinctions between conformist and nonconformist church interior layout and exterior massing.

Recent trends in the design of religious architecture in the Great Plains reveal a movement away from the conservatism of the past and toward a search for spatial and liturgical compositions compatible with the evolving views of contemporary religious worship. Meanwhile, significant shifts in population linked to social and economic changes resulted in the abandonment of many older churches throughout the Great Plains during the last half of the twentieth century. Finding new uses for these redundant but culturally significant buildings presents a challenge to the communities in which they are located.

See also RELIGION: Distribution of Religions.

Keith Sawyers University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Kalman, Harold D. A History of Canadian Architecture. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Maddex, Diane, ed. Built in the U.S.A.: American Buildings from Airports to Zoos. Washington DC: Preservation Press, 1985.

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