The lofty spires and pointed arches of the great gothic cathedrals compel us to lift our eyes toward the heavens and contemplate the mysteries of God. From an LDS perspective this kind of architecture might seem a little problematic. In LDS theology, God is a physical being of flesh and bone, not a force, presence or transcendent reality. God is also someone with whom we can have a close and personal relationship, our literal Father in Heaven. Gothic architecture, which was influenced by neoplatonic Christian mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, might simply be too vast and impersonal to reflect this kind of divine intimacy. Yet, LDS theology also contains dimensions of transcendence. Consider these enigmatic lyrics from the hymn If You Could Hie to Kolob:
“Methinks the Spirit whispers no man has found ‘pure space’W. W. Phelps
Nor seen the outside curtains where nothing has a place.
There is no end to glory, there is no end to love;
There is no end to being, there is no death above.
LDS architecture is generally built on a very human scale, seldom overwhelming the senses the way an enormous gothic cathedral does. But when an LDS church is expanded and enhanced with gothic motifs, a special kind of sacredness emerges that invites deeper worship and contemplation.
The Picturesque Gothic
LDS architects began using gothic motifs in the late 19th century. It was a popular European style of gothic called the picturesque. For centuries, churches had been dominated by the rigid symmetry of classical architecture. The picturesque was a romantic-era revolt against this orderly classicism in favor of what was termed the sublime. Unlike mediaeval gothic, picturesque gothic was less about inspiring transcendent contemplation and more about evoking a forgotten past filled with faith, mystery, and beauty. A church built in the picturesque style was a sacred space standing outside of mortal time, a place that could have been built centuries before. For example, when one steps into the Salt Lake 27th Ward Chapel on a Sunday morning, one is immediately transported out of the mundane world into a timeless space. Light filtered through stained glass windows bathes the chapel in golden hues. A sense of sacred stillness keeps the congregation quiet before the meeting starts.
The pioneers who built these chapels may not have been versed in the philosophy of the 19th century picturesque movement, but clearly they had absorbed its ethos. They made great sacrifices to create uniquely picturesque chapels and tabernacles in their communities. There is nothing perfunctory about these churches. Care and craftsmanship are built into every detail. Below are photos I’ve taken of early LDS gothic meetinghouses and tabernacles throughout Utah. Clicking on the photos will reveal their location.
The Transcendent Gothic
The picturesque gothic style gradually went out of fashion in LDS architecture and was replaced by more utilitarian styles. Today’s prosaic meetinghouses sometimes give the impression that LDS worship is focused solely on discussing down-to-earth, practical ways of living the gospel. This pragmatism is indeed an important facet of LDS culture. Yet, there is also a special form of worship practiced, not in meetinghouses, but in temples. Within the temple, worshipers are invited to participate in special rituals that illustrate a cosmic vision about mankind’s ultimate purpose in life. LDS architects have attempted to give these temples a more transcendent quality featuring other-worldly designs and soaring spires. The Washington DC and San Diego temples are notably gothic in style. And even when temples are not specifically adorned with pointed arches or vaulted ceilings, they share the gothic sense of verticality and an orientation towards the heavens.
The 1950s-1970s saw a gothic revival in LDS meetinghouse architecture. Like other mainstream denominations in the post-war period, the LDS church also built many A-frame churches with steeply pitched roofs evoking a sense of gothic verticality. Inside these A-frame churches, the congregation is enfolded within the two walls like hands cupped together in prayer. The two walls meet together high above, enhancing the sense of heavenly spaciousness.
A Gothic Future?
For the last few decades LDS meetinghouse architecture has been dominated by standard models decorated with understated classical or colonial motifs. A few years ago, a new model was introduced that utilizes gothic motifs to beautiful effect. It even includes a flying buttress in its ornamental brickwork. I’ve seen a similar type of buttress bricked into the walls of medieval churches in England. Like its ancient predecessors, this new meetinghouse model evokes a worshipful transcendence that is welcome not just in temple worship, but in weekly services as well.