A Sense of Sacrality: From Meetinghouse to Megachurch

From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History

by Anne C. Loveland and Otis B. Wheeler
2003 University of Missouri Press, 307 pages

Do the increasingly ubiquitous evangelical megachurches that dot the national landscape represent something new in either Protestant architecture or American culture? In their book, From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History, authors Anne C. Loveland and Otis B. Wheeler respond to this question with an emphatic “No.” Rather than representing something new, Loveland and Wheeler contend that evangelical megachurches are part of an ongoing evolution whose antecedents include Puritan meetinghouses, revival tents, tabernacles, and mainline Protestant churches. A sense of continuity that persists even as American church architecture changes is the book’s major theme.

In examining this continuity, the authors reject the ahistorical way that the popular media often treats megachurches and seek to fill a historiographical gap. Specifically, along with other scholars such as Colleen McDannell, they correct the lingering misconception that Protestants do not have a well-developed material culture. Despite the work of scholars such as Dell Upton, Louis Nelson, and Peter Williams, among others, American Protestant architecture remains understudied, but works such as From Meetinghouse to Megachurch help rectify the problem. Portions of the book will remind readers of Jeanne Halgren Kilde’s When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America (2002), which was published after Loveland and Wheeler sent their manuscript to publishers. Loveland and Wheeler were still able to use Kilde’s dissertation, however, and her interpretations are evident. Since Loveland and Wheeler take a longer chronological view, though, their work complements Kilde’s book well.

Photo of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis by the author


In fact, many of the book’s strengths and weaknesses stem from this broad chronological scope. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch begins in the seventeenth century and extends through the late twentieth century. In covering such an impressive length of time, Loveland and Wheeler’s survey provides a much-needed introduction to changes in Protestant architecture throughout American history. Of course, as with any book of this breadth, it necessarily sacrifices some depth. Additionally, as a material and cultural history, it leaves both religious historians and architectural historians longing for more detailed attention to their specific concerns. Such is the nature of scholarship.

In the end, the authors do tackle a difficult question: What is the relationship between megachurches (that often seem to be little more than glorified shopping malls) and sacred space? For Loveland and Wheeler, it seems clear that most megachurches intentionally tear down barriers between the sacred and profane. Rather than creating sacred space, the authors claim that megachurch pastors simply infuse their buildings with a sense of “sacrality.” Unfortunately, the exact distinction between “sacred” and “sacrality” is never made clear. Loveland and Wheeler’s final interpretations are somewhat ambiguous, and further scholarship is undoubtedly needed.

Yet, overall From Meetinghouse to Megachurch represents an important step forward in the scholarship on megachurches and Protestant architecture more generally. In particular, the authors provide readers with a good introduction to the “church growth movement” of the late twentieth century. In addition, both the exterior and interior spaces of church buildings are considered. Visually, the book also has much to offer. It includes historical drawings, woodcuts, lithographs, floor plans, and photographs, along with an impressive collection of interior and exterior photographs from modern megachurches. The book is well written and would be useful for scholars in multiple disciplines. By placing megachurches in their historic context, Loveland and Wheeler have made a significant contribution to scholarly understanding of this diffuse and remarkably significant phenomenon.

Lauren Beaupre is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame.  She is currently researching the relationship between religion and urban development in Memphis, Tennessee.