Sacred Space Symposium Notes: Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Space, and Architecture

By June 3, 2009

[Again, take these as my far-from-perfect reformulations of a spectacular presentation]

Jeanne Halgren Kilde, “Foregrounding the Background: Power and Proximity in Sacred Space

Kilde began her fascinating presentation with a defense for the study of sacred space. She credited us for wanting to engage the issue, because it is largely in the background of religious scholarships. This neglect is mostly because of two reasons: first, we often focus on texts as the best representation of religious thought. Second, when we do move beyond texts, we mostly focus on ritual. This leaves out an important part of the ‘soul’ of religious worship: the actual space—the architecture, the layout, and the physical appearance of how and where worship occurs. She argues that we can gain access to the believer’s mind by looking at how they viewed space as an element of religion. Specifically to her research, Kilde has focused on what sacred space can tell us about the evolving idea of authority.[1]

Kilde gave several great examples of how this approach can reveal much about religious history. She briefly discussed what we can glean about the church architecture of Paul’s day, and the communal setting that appears to be paramount to their worship. She also addressed the Dura-Europos architecture, then moving to the growing importance of the basilica in the rising Catholic Church. She spent most of her time of Reformation-era and Protestant architecture, and how Luther’s church buildings elevated the pulpit (showing his emphasis on “the word” and the importance of “the speaker”) while still holding dual-importance with the sacramental author (emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist). Their revisions were not completely novel, but they did emphasize different points.

In America, there was some fascinating developments. They began placing the pulpit in the direct center of the buildings, placing even more emphasis on the speaker. The pulpit was still elevated, signifying the authority of the speaker over the audience. Even when they used outside amphitheater for John Wesley, he spoke near the top of the reversed earthly dome, instead of the bottom where natural acoustics would have done a better job at carrying his sound. Indeed, many of the early American church structures made it hard for the worshippers to hear–showing that the demonstration of the orator’s authority was more important than the needs of the listeners. This began to change, however, in the 1830s. Charles Finney’s chapel introduced the tabernacle approach in 1836, where the preacher was lower than the people—amplifying the idea that the power was being shifted to the people in this democratic age. The Kirtland Temple, built the same year as Finney’s tabernacle, was both revolutionary and creative. While the exterior was common, the interior was novel as it placed the podiums that represented authority at both ends of the hall—authority was to underline everything done within the walls. It created a new type of interior architecture that underscored their priesthood authority.

Much more needs to be done in this regard for Mormonism, she argued. We need to study how temple rooms have changed over time; what will this reveal about our developing thought? How will this teach us about the evolving relationship between authority and the worshipper? What does the design of the Celestial Room reveal about our belief in God and heaven?

Only addressing these issues will our grasp of worship experience be closer to complete.


[1] Kilde has two wonderful books out: Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship, and When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Both are now on my Amazon wish-list.

*Anyone who wants to read more on this, see this excellent guest post from Jeffrey Cannon.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Cultural History


  1. Kilde’s work is pretty ground-breaking stuff. I’ve read her When Church Became Theatre, and it added an entirely new element to my understanding of religious history in America.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  2. I’m glad you linked to Jeff’s post, as it came to mind as I read the summary. Sounds fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — June 4, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  3. […] Jeanne Halgren Kilde is the Director of the Religious Studies program at the University of Minnesota, where she earned her PhD. She is the author of two immensely important books: When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America, and more recently Sacred Power, Sacred Space: an introduction to Christian architecture and worship, and of several articles. The value of her work is only enhanced by her graciousness as a scholar and mentor. We?re immensely honored to have her offer her thoughts here on the recent BYU Sacred Space seminar, at which she participated. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Guest Post: Jeanne Halgren Kilde on Sacred Space at BYU — June 12, 2009 @ 3:51 pm


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