Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When William Penn established Pennsylvania, he did so in part to create a place where his own faith community, the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers), could worship freely, just as the Puritans did in Massachusetts and the Baptists in Rhode Island. But Penn went further – he established freedom for other faiths and creeds, welcoming one and all, regardless of their beliefs and liturgies.

The fact that Pennsylvania’s residents were free to worship as they pleased is well known. What is less well known is the spectacular consequence of that freedom; in an era when religious tolerance was so rare, Penn’s invitation attracted a wide range of believers who sought a haven in which to practice their religion without constraint. In essence, freedom led to diversity.

The early diversity of faith traditions in Penn’s colony led, naturally, to a highly varied spectrum of sacred places built to house each distinctive denomination. When religious groups settled in Pennsylvania before any other colony, they constructed what is now called first churches or first congregations-the first buildings constructed in America for their faith traditions. Pennsylvania has more first churches than any other state in the nation. It is home to the oldest German Reformed Church in America, the first Church of the Brethren; the oldest Mennonite Church; and the first Methodist Church. Philadelphia was a major center for free African Americans, and so the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was built in the city, as was the first African Presbyterian church, the first African Episcopal Church, and the first African church in the Methodist denomination. Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom is the nation’s first Ashkenazic congregation, a landmark in American Jewish history.

Since its founding, Pennsylvania has witnessed the formation and organization of many religious denominations. Churches that spawned the organization of their denominations are sometimes called mother churches. Both the First Presbyterian Church and the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia claim this honor. In addition, unique religious communities were formed in Pennsylvania, including Ephrata Cloister, an eighteenth-century pietist community founded by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768) in Lancaster County, and Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, a self-sufficient religious community led by George Rapp (1757-1847), which became internationally recognized not only for its religious devotion but also for its prosperity. Both historic sites are administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) as destinations along the Pennsylvania Trails of History.

Pennsylvania’s diversity of sacred places does not end with these religious landmarks. The Commonwealth is home also to sacred places designed by many of the country’s finest architects. William Strickland (1788-1854), one of the great practitioners of the Greek Revival style in the United States, designed St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Philadelphia, originally built in 1821 for the congregation of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), considered by many to be America’s first great modernist architect, who influenced a line of architects spanning from Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) to Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), designed Pittsburgh’s diminutive Emmanuel Episcopal Church in a simplified medieval era style now identified as Richardsonian Romanesque. Shortly after his death, Richardson’s firm designed Shadyside Presbyterian Church, also in Pittsburgh, in the same style.

Many of the nation’s foremost architects practicing in the Gothic Revival style have given great monuments to the Commonwealth, such as John Notman (1810-1865), who designed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, considered to be the first true Gothic Revival city church in America. Among Pittsburgh’s many landmark Gothic churches is the First Baptist Church by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924), architect of the Nebraska State Capitol at Lincoln. In southcentral Pennsylvania, a noteworthy Gothic landmark, the Mercersburg Academy Chapel in Mercersburg, Franklin County, was designed by Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1941), the nation’s most important Gothicist in the early twentieth century. The chapel was dedicated in 1928 in memory of the preparatory school’s fifty-five graduates who died in World War I.

St. Peter Cathedral in Erie is one of the greatest Gothic churches designed by Patrick Keely (1816-1896), the most important and prolific architect for the Roman Catholic Church in the late nineteenth century, whose religious commissions exceeded six hundred. A monumental example of the Victorian Gothic style, the cathedral’s foundations were built in part with dismantled stone from the Erie Extension Canal. In Pennsylvania’s small towns and rural areas, there are many fine examples of simpler, sometimes vernacular Gothic churches, some built from catalogues printed and promulgated by denominational offices. Among these handsome churches is a series of Carpenter Gothic churches, constructed of wood, which was cheap and plentiful, and embellished with fanciful bargeboard and towers. The distinctive board-and-batten façade of the Linfield United Church of Christ built in 1878 in Linfield, Montgomery County, emphasizes the vertical lines of the Gothic style.

The Gothic style predominated for a half-century, but many other styles and materials proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Congregations of all sizes and descriptions could choose a style and manner that befitted them, and many chose designs that reflected their ethnic or religious heritage. The twin domes of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church in the anthracite mining town of St. Clair, Schuylkill County, recall the Eastern European origins of the parishioners. The Polish parishioners of the old Cambria City neighborhood of Johnstown who constructed St. Casimir Church, now Saints Casimir and Emerich Roman Catholic Church, chose the Romanesque style for their church.

Pennsylvania’s historic ecclesiastical edifices include spectacular monuments by architects not generally known for religious buildings, such as Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last great designs before his death in 1959. Designed in close collaboration with Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen (1894-1972), Beth Sholom’s monumental form suggests a glass and metal mountain, which was no accident. Cohen and Wright intended the building to evoke Mt. Sinai, one of the most important sacred places in Abrahamic religions. The synagogue’s highly unusual form is a dramatic reminder that Pennsylvania is home to many sacred places that took on new forms reflecting modernity and change.

Chester Eastside Ministries, originally erected as the Third Presbyterian Church, in Chester, Delaware County, is octagonal in form, suggesting the open, theatrical form of its sanctuary. Elm Park Methodist Church in Scranton, Lackawanna County, was perhaps the finest design of George Washington Kramer (1837-1938), who helped popularize the auditorium seating plan for houses of worship and the Akron Plan Sunday School, a late nineteenth-century arrangement of a central rotunda surrounded by individual classrooms that had become the norm among most Protestant churches by the late nineteenth century.

The Keystone State claims more than its share of landmarks and monuments, but some of the most beautiful are the simplest in design. The Quakers espoused simplicity and plainness in the design of their meetinghouses, and many of them dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries survive, including the Arch Street Meetinghouse in center-city Philadelphia and the Merion Meetinghouse at Merion Station, Montgomery County.

Other religious sects, including the Mennonites, preferred the meetinghouse form as well, although the design of these buildings varied considerably. Depending on the sect, as well as the region and era in which it was built, a meetinghouse could be one- or two-story in height, and constructed of wood, log, stone, or brick. All share a simple, unadorned vernacular appearance and an open, undetailed interior. The Amish, a plain sect often identified with Lancaster County but also found elsewhere in the Commonwealth, prefer to hold services in their homes and do not maintain houses of worship. Meetinghouses and plain houses of worship may be located only a few hours away from the large, elaborate churches of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but they are equally iconic and representative of the long, rich history of faith and religion in Pennsylvania.


About Partners for Sacred Spaces

Partners for Sacred Places (PSP) is the only national, nonsectarian, nonprofit organization dedicated to the sound stewardship and active community use of America’s older religious properties. PSP brings together a national network of expert professionals who understand the value of a congregation’s architectural assets, its worth as a faith community, and the significance of its service to the community at large.

Programs and services offered by PSP value and respect the spirituality and faith of all congregations that open their doors to the community. Designed to stimulate success, it changes the ways congregations view their role so that their sacred place remains a rich and vital part of the social fabric of a community. Through its training programs, information clearinghouse, and professional alliance, the organization has assisted congregations in all fifty states to leverage existing and new resources, solidify their continued relevance, and ensure their sustainability.

Founded in 1989 by a national task force of religious, historic preservation, and philanthropic leaders, PSP’s advocacy and research activities are helping to build a shared sense of responsibility for the future of sacred places through legislation, funding, training, technical assistance, and public policy. For more information, write: Partners for Sacred Places, 1700 Sansom St., 10th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19103; telephone (215) 567-3234; or visit the Partners for Sacred Places website


For Further Reading

Chiat, Marilyn J. America’s Religious Architecture: Sacred Places for Every Community. Washington, D.C.: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Cohen, Diane, and A. Robert Jaeger. Sacred Places at Risk: New Evidence of How Endangered Older Churches and Synagogues Serve Communities. Philadelphia: Partners for Sacred Places, 1998.

Howe, Jeffrey W. Houses of Worship: An Identification Guide to the History and Styles of American Religious Architecture. Charlotte, N.C.: Thunder Bay Press, 2003.

Moss, Roger W. Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

William, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Wind, James P. Places of Worship: Exploring their History. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1990.


For their invaluable assistance during the researching and writing of this article, the author acknowledges Pamela W. Reilly, historic preservation specialist, and Bryan D. Van Sweden, community preservation coordinator, for PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, and Neeta McCullouch, editor of Sacred Places, published by Partners for Sacred Places, Philadelphia.


Robert Jaeger earned his M.A. degree in preservation planning from Cornell University and an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. He co-founded Partners for Sacred Places in 1989 and currently serves as the organization’s executive director. He previously served as senior vice president of the historic religious properties program for the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation. He coauthored Sacred Places at Risk (1998) and Strategies for Stewardship and Active Use of Older and Historic Religious Properties (1996) and authored Sacred Places in Transition (1994). From 1985 to 1989, he served as editor of Inspired, a bimonthly magazine featuring news and technical articles on the preservation of religious properties.