For two decades, I’ve been seeking, visiting and photographing one category of man-made structure found in all the original English colonies (and some of their most immediate offshoots): colonial-era houses of worship, or as I like to call it, a "CHoW." The reason it is inappropriate to simplify this category as “church” is that a significant percentage of these buildings is associated with denominations, religious groups, which do not use the word church. This includes the only synagogue remaining from the colonial period AND the many meeting houses of the Society of Friends, as well as a few other “meeting houses” of other denominations.
There are discrete events which might be markers for the beginning and end of the "colonial" period. The settlement at Jamestown is the easy one. For my project, the American Revolution is not the end point - because although the colonies did declare their independence in 1776, that declaration did not receive unanimous endorsement from the rest of the world right away. The creation of the US Constitution (1787) might have been another terminal point, but it wasn't accepted by all the colonies the day it was written either. Since a lot of extant churches from the 18th century were built between 1775 and 1790, using the entry of Rhode Island into the Union seemed to me the best year, as the final original "colony" ended its colonial status then. Even so, there are a very few exceptions in the collection, one of them for visual and family reasons (Old Bohemia Church in Maryland, built in the 1790s).
All the colonies had representations of the Crown in one way or another (forts, governmental offices), plus educational institutions, private homes, commercial establishments, and, after a while, industrial buildings, mills, and factories. In many of these categories, little remains from the colonial era of America, because of modernization in business and technology of all kinds.
Of course, numerous private homes have been preserved and restored up and down the Atlantic coast. However, for practical reasons, if we want to step into the colonial era, private homes are not readily accessible, and are sometimes not in congenial environments (an example: Betsy Ross’s house is on a busy Philadelphia street – with modern city traffic and all that that entails).
This project began for me during a time of personal difficulties, resolution of which required patience and a willingness to limit my travels much more than I was then used to (in particular, I needed to stay on the east coast). The book, “Colonial Houses of Worship” by H. W. Rose, published in 1963, had been in my library since the 1970s, but even though I’d read it I’d never pursued the idea of visiting all the CHoWs myself, until I had this travel restriction in 2001. It started with weekend jaunts to nearby locations, and became a major project after a few years, when I found (1) people were enjoying my photos, (2) I was discovering the peace available in quiet 18th century churchyards, and (3) I acknowledged my lifelong inability not to make projects and lists of almost anything travel-related. Seeing and photographing all of them became necessary, in effect.
Using Mr. Rose’s tome, with its photos and histories of 345 colonial houses of worship, as my original guide at a time when the internet was not fully loaded with reference materials pertinent to my search, I had a grand time exploring some towns and many country roads in search of the original 345 – which became a smaller number when I found several churches and meetinghouses were not as old as Mr. Rose’s research had indicated. Later, the internet, other books and alert friends helped me expand the list in other ways, resulting in a new total of almost 390 CHoWs. Thanks to the pandemic, two dozen which I only discovered in September 2020, I was able to visit several months later. There may be futher discoveries.
Because of my private troubles in 2001, the journey to find these CHoWs allowed me considerable time for quiet reflection, along with some amusement at the occasionally funny, unbelievable, and sometimes downright unhelpful comments by Mr. Rose about how to find some of the more obscurely located structures. To be fair, not only did Mr. Rose not have the internet to help him find them, the purpose of his book was to present the history of each structure, and the specific location was, at best, secondary. He probably did not figure anyone would be making a project of visiting all of them.
In the ensuing decades, the Rose book has been with me to hundreds of these colonial houses of worship. The buildings range from the central Maine coast to just a bit south of Savannah, Georgia, and inland as far as the Shenandoah Valley and western New York state.
The main reason I find CHoWs so suitable for evoking the atmosphere of the colonial era is that most of the remaining CHoWs have settings which enhance the connection to the earlier era. Sometimes this is simply because the original foundation had a good deal of land surrounding it, even if it was in a town (and many were not). With sufficient land, and a situation out in the country, modern influences such as engine noises and electric lighting are less intrusive.
These buildings, even if slightly modified in the more than two centuries since they were built, are normally places of repose, quiet, reflection, and thanks to geography and historic preservation, can allow the visitor to sense what our colonial ancestors might have felt approaching or being in these buildings. As a practical matter, the ones which have either a substantial amount of land surrounding them or which are surrounded by buildings of a similar vintage (such as one finds in Colonial Williamsburg) can be seen with a colonial eye most easily.
Many of these CHoWs are still active, with congregations, parishes or meetings which have sufficient membership that they have been able to maintain their now-aged buildings for upward of 230 years. Most are 18th century; less than ten percent date to the 17th century. Of the CHoWs which no longer have active religious affiliations, most have historic preservation societies taking care of them. A few (fewer than 10) are now private homes, and not open to the public, but most may be seen from public roads.
This website is not aimed at providing instructions on how to find these colonial houses of worship, but if you are interested in more detail, including location details, please contact me at the email address on the bottom of the page.
If all goes well, there will be a book published in the uncertain future; it will encompass much of the material included on this website. Check back occasionally for updates on the progress of both my photographic efforts and my search for publication options.
Stepping back in time is perhaps more sought after during periods of crisis than calm. If this is true, the desire to spend time in an earlier world would be extremely powerful during a global medical crisis, such as the one brought to us by the year 2020. Determining the scientific credibility of that desire is not my topic here, but providing one setting in the eastern US which facilitates that feeling, and thus may satisfy the craving for a moment in another time, is one of the purposes of this collection.
These photographs can serve as an introductory opening to the colonial era, but you should stay alert to current guidelines about Covid-19 travel before planning personal visits to these beautiful places. While such guidelines in the summer of 2021 have been relaxed, individual locations may have established limitations similar to those in place much of 2020. The restrictions that were in place at that time delayed me in the completion of my years-long project, but with the photographs I have been able to take in the summer of 2021, I am now just one or two CHoWs away from completion.