Magazine | December 31, 2018, Issue

Holy Names

(Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images)
What we call our churches can teach us something about our faith, and our nation

Not ten miles from my front door sits Old New Hope Baptist Church. One tries to parse the theology of that designation. One fails.

Indeed, a Sunday drive through the greater Nashville area brings a traveler face to face with any number of disorienting appellations. In nearby Lyles, for example, Higher Ground Church is practically neighbored by Rocky Valley Church of Christ, a topographical mystery that would test the divination of even the Church of God of Prophecy down the road. Driving to my brother-in-law’s house, I pass both Meeting Place Church, whose sign features a curiously unspiritual red-leather sofa, and Old Path Baptist Church, whose marker decidedly doesn’t. A church on Hillsboro Road, halfway between Nashville and next-door Franklin, declares itself the “Home of the Fish Fry,” a description rendered not on a changeable letter board but in words that have been chiseled, like the Ten Commandments, into a stone tablet on the lawn.

The names we call our churches have long provided a window into our souls, to borrow an irresistible cliché. From the sturdy and declarative Puritans came sturdy and declarative names: First Church in Salem (1629), First Church in Boston (1630), Old Ship Church (1681). Today’s houses of worship, though, are more likely to describe themselves using such unthreatening non sequiturs as “Rise” and “Journey,” the better to draw Millennials who might be put off by language (e.g., “Baptist”) suggestive of actual doctrinal positions. What the Oasis Church in southeast Nashville believes is anyone’s guess, as are the creedal identities of the River Church in Tampa and Vision Church in New York — two other congregations that, for all their names tell us, may well be baptizing infants by immersing them in soy-milk lattes.

Though openly sectarian churches enjoy their abstractions as much as anyone, theirs tend to be more explicitly religious, as well as repositories of theological distinctiveness. In my own relatively small denomination, the Presby­terian Church in America, at least 200 congregations use the words “Faith,” “Grace,” or “Hope” in their names. And though the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been so overcome by progressivism that it now stands somewhere to the left of Baal, 103 of its churches go by a name (Anchor of Hope, Church of Hope, Everlasting Hope) that includes the last.

Used in its Biblical sense, “hope” refers to what the believer knows, not what he merely desires. Congregants who prefer an unambiguous variation on that theme may find themselves drawn to Confidence Missionary Baptist Church (LaGrange, Ga.), Confidence Methodist Church (Martin, Ga.), Our Mother of Confidence (San Diego), or Assurance Baptist Church (too many to count). While researching this article, I searched in vain for Uncertainty Church, the Questioning Church, and Our Lady of the General Confusion. Yet given contemporary Christianity’s determination to cater to absolutely every taste, it shouldn’t be long before all three come into being.

Readers who delight in regional differences could do worse than to study the nation’s religious bodies. The American South, where I’ve spent most of my life, is a veritable hotbed of churches, and of interesting church names. Richmond, Va., for instance, is home to Ebenezer Baptist Church (an Ebenezer is a monument celebrating God’s intervention), and unrelated Ebenezer Baptists can be found in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Shreveport, Memphis, Knoxville, and dozens of other towns below the Mason–Dixon line. For a time, New Orleans counted among its houses of worship the Church of I Am that I Am (the building is now occupied by a homemade-candle shop), and congregants in Atlanta can spend any given Sunday in churches named for Mount Carmel, Mount Gilead, Mount Moriah, Mount Nebo, Mount Olive, Mount Pleasant, Mount Sinai, Mount Vernon, and Mount Zion, as well as their very own Ebenezer Baptist.

Flippin, Ark., is home, somewhat irreverently, to Flippin Christian Church, Flippin Baptist Church, Flippin Church of God, and is not far from a Bar None Cowboy Church. Versions of the last also exist in Oklahoma, Texas, and Iowa. If Internet lore is to be believed, the South has played host not only to Hell Hole Swamp Baptist Church (South Caro­lina) and Waterproof Baptist Church (Louisiana) but to the First Church of the Last Chance World on Fire Revival and Military Academy (Florida) as well. Though Halfway Baptist Church in Bolivar, Mo., is not technically located in the former Confederacy, it certainly can’t be beat for specificity.

Northern churches, as one would expect, tend to bear less fanciful names, the better to soothe the austere Yankee soul. Church Hill Baptist Church, for example, offers Mainers something on the order of a syllogism, while Church on the Hill (Boston) and the Hill Church (Mount Holly, N.J.) dispense with even that. New Englanders who desire plainness need not content themselves with one particular Wesley United Methodist Church. They have at their disposal at least a dozen.

Adding numbers to the mix, one finds churches by the hundreds and thousands, on every corner of this God-soaked land. Show me a town of any size that lacks a First Presbyterian Church and I will show you a landscape wiped clean by a meteor strike. Search for a First Baptist and you will uncover, inevitably, a Second. So ubiquitous, in fact, are First and Second Baptist Churches that the Southern Baptist Convention alone boasts more than a dozen Third Baptist Churches and one Fourth Baptist Church, in St. Louis. Methodists, too, are incorrigible numberers. One Methodist body in Waco, Texas, was a Fifth Methodist Church for decades until rechristening itself First Methodist. Though Newark’s Central Methodist Church merged with First Methodist in 1937, its original name, taken in 1849, was Sixth Methodist.

Unsurprisingly, the loveliest church names belong to Catholic congregations, Protestants having long ago decided that beauty is too easily made into an idol. Here in middle Tennessee, a supplicant can attend Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Holy Trinity Church, Immaculate Conception Church, Iglesia Sagrado Corazόn de Jesús, or any one of three dozen churches named for saints (St. Christopher, St. Ignatius, St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows, and many others). Worshipers in Mobile may visit the strikingly named Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church, founded in 1899 by the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, while Idahoans, Illinoisans, and Iowans may consider Our Lady of Limerick, Holy Ghost Catholic Church, and St. Mary of the Visitation, respectively. To my Protestant surprise, Mary’s “visitation” refers not to the Virgin’s encounter with a heavenly being (“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son”) but to Mary’s meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Perhaps to make up for that fact, the Archangel Gabriel has several congregations of his own: in Pensacola, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities.

While it remains true that, as William James wrote in The Varieties of Re­ligious Experience, people of faith often feel a “passionate loyalty . . . to the minutest details of their so widely differing creeds,” it is also the case that the genius of the American church is for tolerance and ecumenicism — the promotion of Christian unity irrespective of theological differences. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed on Sunday mornings, my fellow congregants and I are careful to profess our belief in the lowercase-c catholic church only, yet we’ve mostly grown out of our suspicion, formalized in the 1646 version of the Westminster Confession, that the pope is the antichrist. (Well, maybe this pope.) It is unlikely that in even our roughest towns the Congregationalists will take up arms against the Methodists, or that the Anglicans will steal the water from the Baptists’ immersion fonts. I myself was a Baptist for many years and am now a Presbyterian employed by Nazarenes. That there is room for all of us is one of the irreplaceable facts of the American experiment.

To put it another way, God bless the First Amendment.

Americans are Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Moravians, Quakers, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Catho­lics, and too many other things to name. (They are also Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and “nones.”) Christian intellectuals may complain from time to time about “church-hopping” — the practice of flitting from congregation to congregation in an increasingly fruitless search for perfection — but the sheer variety of our churches is a source of wealth, not poverty: something to be thankful for rather than something to fear. The snake handlers of Appalachia are, in their strange way, part of the woven fabric of this miraculous country. So are the Unitarians, whatever it is that they’re up to. So am I.

In his famous poem “Church Going,” Philip Larkin wonders “what we shall turn them into” once cathedrals “fall completely out of use” — whether they will become the province of the “Christmas-addict” exclusively, who visits only for a “whiff of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh.” Like Larkin’s England, America may one day descend into secularism. Our churches, like theirs, may be left to such a fate.

But not yet.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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