Friday, June 29, 2018

The Writing On The Wall

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Old photos of church sanctuaries are the best. They give us hints as to who worshipped there, and what the parishioners considered paramount. They also remind us who WE are.

The kind of photos to which I am referring come from the heartland of the U.S., during a time when photography was still accomplished by big box cameras. It was also a time when wars hadn’t yet affected the use of Old World languages in this new land of opportunity; when Lutheran church services were frequently in German or Swedish.

While I love to see Gothic Revival altarpieces alongside oil lamps or newfangled electric candles, what most intrigues me is the writing on the wall.

Eons before insipid words like “Live, Laugh, Love” were littering American homes, better words of greater substance often adorned church sanctuaries. That was when painters knew a bit more about their craft than roller covers. Often painters were skilled artisans, creating masterful borders and powerful calligraphy with relatively humble materials. It’s a wonder how anyone in their right mind could paint over such ornate work when sprucing-up was deemed necessary.

I’ve found a few old photos that are real gems. Each one tells us what Lutherans held dear, and some of the photos give an added perspective of worship that is worth seeing. ...

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

The chancel wall of First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota , used portions of three New Testament texts. “Behold the Lamb of God!,” John 1:29b; “...Whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross, Colossians 1:20b; and “He is our our peace,” Ephesians 2:14a. The setting of these passages is a cross with radiating lines, which points to the Resurrection.

One notable feature is the somewhat odd position of the pulpit – behind and above the altar. This arrangement came about as a visual protest against Rome, and gave preeminence to the [preached] Word, which, in Roman Catholicism, had become overshadowed by the Sacrament of the Altar. Since then the ‘altar-pulpit’ has fallen into disuse, although some still exist.

Up the road from First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was Chisago Lake Evangelical Lutheran Church. It, too, was a Swedish stronghold. Its communion rail closely followed the half-circle pattern of communion rails in the Old Country, fairly filling the chancel space and forcing the ornate pulpit out into the sanctuary proper – in Germanic fashion. This half-circle confessed “the heavenly host” joining the Lord’s Table at an unseen portion of a full circle, which symbolically extended outside the church building and into the “church yard”– the cemetery.

Text was added around the arch of their chancel – a favorite place of Scriptural ornamentation. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” is a truncated version of Luke 11:28. Other text and opulent decoration covered the Neoclassical walls.

The much more austere Germanic sanctuary of Zion Lutheran Church, Corruna, Indiana, had a lovely altarpiece, an impressive, elevated pulpit, and a massive potbelly stove. This photo was surely taken for a special event, for the place is festooned with evergreen garland and a banner proclaiming, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Psalm 126: 3a.

Not to be outdone by Germanic Hoosiers, The congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church, Centralia, Illinois, got together for a reunion group portrait in 1927. Little did they realize that the text surrounding the chancel arch, “Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14a, would soon fall out of fashion during a war in which most Americans dared not speak or write German.

Meanwhile, St. John Lutheran Church, Houston, was doing things in its own style, as is evident by this not-so-old photograph of the restored chancel area. It uses, again, the words of Luke 11:28, while a rather striking version of a pulpit-altar commands the center.

If worshippers didn’t get a clue during the Divine Service at St. John, they were given another dose of the Word when leaving the church. Using a combination of old German text and Gothic architecture in an effect that could have come from Bavaria instead of central Texas, home-grown comfort was driven home with abbreviated words from Psalm 121:8 – “The Lord keep your going out and your coming in. Amen!”


  1. This was a very interesting slice of history!

  2. Many places in central TX resemble the ethnicity of the settlers, as many European countries are represented. The Germans and Slavs are prominent among them. Germany also sent immigrants to Mexico, influencing music and foods.

  3. I would like to send you a picture of our stained glass window with German writing over the entrance door.