Preservacation: Religious and Secular Symbols in Early Colonial Churches

Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels.  This is #4 in the series.

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By Brad Hatch

I have a fascination with early colonial architecture. This likely stems from my work in archaeology since so much of the earliest colonial architecture only exists in archaeological contexts. In Virginia, there are only a handful of standing structures that date before 1700, however I can think of numerous archaeological sites pre-dating the eighteenth century. This lack of seventeenth century buildings can be explained by the fact that most structures of that period were somewhat impermanent, i.e. they were wood and often of post-in-ground construction.

This should not be taken to mean that most Virginians were unable to afford masonry buildings, actually many planters were quite wealthy through the 1600s. Brick or stone construction simply was not in vogue at the time. There could have been several reasons for this, often the most cited is that Virginia planters wanted a quickly and cheaply constructed house so that they could get right to growing tobacco, and thus, making more money. These post-in-ground buildings, dubbed Virginia houses, remained popular up until the nineteenth century. However, by the mid eighteenth century, many large plantation holders began moving toward masonry construction for their houses in keeping with the new Georgian movement. Examples of these buildings include Stratford Hall, Kenmore, Salubria, and Mt. Airy.

If you want to see buildings earlier than these you have to look at places other than private residences. Government buildings fit this bill, but there are few of those that are original. Churches are what I am talking about. These were often the first and only buildings in a given area that were made of either stone or brick, mainly because the church was the only entity with enough money (that they didn’t want to invest in agriculture) and time to build in these materials.  Churches in colonial America not only fulfilled the spiritual needs of their parishioners, but acted as places for important business dealings, political meetings, and social interactions. They are deeply symbolic structures that carried many meanings for the people who used them in the colonial period. Over the past year I have had the opportunity to visit a few of these early colonial churches in Virginia and North Carolina and have been impressed by their degree of preservation and assorted layers of meaning.

Yeocomico Church in Westmoreland County, VA. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Yeocomico Church in Westmoreland County, VA. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

While Lauren and I were at Stratford Hall a few weeks ago I suggested we go see Yeocomico Church, the oldest in Westmoreland County. Yeocomico is located near Hague, which is actually quite a haul from Stratford through acres of farmland. The brick building that stands now was constructed in 1706, but it took the place of a wooden structure that, according to folklore, stood on the same spot and was built in 1655. Interestingly, a piece of this original church survives in the wicket door (a door within a door) at the entrance of the church, which is the only functioning original wicket door in North America.

Lauren in front of the wicket door at Yeocomico Church. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren in front of the wicket door at Yeocomico Church. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

There are several interesting architectural details on this church, but to address them all would take up way more space than anybody is willing to read. (You should definitely visit if you get the chance. Oh, and did I mention that Mary Ball, the mother of George Washington, attended this church in her youth?) The thing that struck me about this church, however, was the design on the brick porch above the entrance. The shape of a diamond, set off by glazed headers, stands out as you approach the entrance. I had seen this a few months before at St. Thomas Church in Bath, NC, built in 1734, and began to wonder about what it meant since it was seemingly not coincidental.

Yeocomico Church showing the boundary wall for the original churchyard.  Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Yeocomico Church showing the boundary wall for the original churchyard. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance to Yeocomico Church showing the diamond design over the porch and a triple arch in the bricks, possibly representative of the Holy Trinity.  Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance to Yeocomico Church showing the diamond design over the porch and a triple arch in the bricks, possibly representative of the Holy Trinity. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

St. Thomas Church in Bath, NC. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

St. Thomas Church in Bath, NC. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance of St. Thomas Church showing the diamond design over the door, which bears a strong resemblance to a crucifix.  Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance of St. Thomas Church showing the diamond design over the door, which bears a strong resemblance to a crucifix. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

I did a little research into Anglican and Episcopal symbols and came up with a few ideas. The first thing that came to me without even researching was the symbol of a cross; even though it’s a diamond it bears a resemblance. With a little research I then came to the possibility of it representing the star of Bethlehem, which is similar in shape to the diamond and sits above the entry as the star shone above the manger, calling the faithful. The final meaning I could pull out of this symbol was its similarity to a vesica piscis, or fish bladder. This is a common symbol in the Episcopal faith and represents a fish, which is associated with Jesus. This one design that confronts you as you enter the church has many layered meanings and as I thought about it I tried to find meaning in the rest of the architecture and was astounded by what I saw (which is too much to list here), illustrating the thought that went in to constructing a church in the colonial period and the nuances of early American architecture.

As I mentioned above, churches also served as important places for social interaction. Part of this interaction comes from displaying power amongst peer groups. This was done in many ways, including wearing certain clothes to display wealth as well as having assigned seating. Often the more powerful members of the community had reserved pews that were closer to the pulpit, and symbolically closer to God, than the poorer members. Even though the Anglican Church did not participate in the practice of granting or selling indulgences many of the planter elite still sought to buy their way into heaven. Perhaps the best example of this is Christ Church Lancaster County, VA, which I had the opportunity to visit last summer.

Robert “King” Carter financed and oversaw the construction of this Georgian brick church in 1730. The symbolism in this building is very clear. While it does have a good deal of religious meaning, the aspects that display the power and wealth of Carter are overwhelming. First of all, it took an insane amount of money to build a brick structure in 1730. The fact that Carter built a church for the community showed that he had money to burn. The interior arrangement also speaks to his power and quest for control. His family’s personal pew is the closest to the pulpit and has a raised back. Not only does this represent his attempt to be closer to God (and possibly on a similar plane of power), but also shows how he wished to separate himself from people below his status. The history of this building and its design stands as a perfect example of how the social behaviors and relationships of colonial parishioners can be expressed in religious architecture and displayed by the people who use the buildings.

These are but two brief examples of the importance of churches in colonial Virginia. They interest me so much because they are such public places, and as such carry so many symbols and meanings, both religious and secular, that can still be interpreted by paying close attention. It is especially fun for me as an archaeologist to look at these structures because I am able to view large symbols on the landscape rather than small symbols in the earth like bits of broken pots. The age and unique architecture at these sites draws me in with promises of a glimpse at rare North American architectural styles, but the rich meaning behind all of the brick, glass, and wood keeps me coming back for more.

Post Script:

If anybody has any ideas or input on Anglican symbolism, particularly the meaning of the diamond design, please feel free to let me know. Especially if you have a different perspective on the meaning of the symbol I’m interested, since this has fascinated me for the past couple weeks.