England’s Green and Pleasant Land on the Banks of the Schuylkill: The Story of St. James-the-Less, Part One


 
In 1846, several prominent members of the Philadelphia Episcopal Church met at the country estate of Robert Ralston in the village of Falls of Schuylkill. They were merchants, manufacturers, and other men of property, but they had not gathered to raise capital to build another factory or lay more miles of railroad track. Instead the meeting at “Mount Peace” produced the following goal: “To build a church which should be a country house of worship, as similar as possible to the best type of such a church that England could furnish, a veritable home of retirement and meditation, a quiet house of prayer.”1 All of the men were members of a small organization known as the Cambridge Camden Society, a tight-knit group of academics, architects and patrons of the arts who sought to radically transform British and American church design.

During the 1830s, the Cambridge Camden Society was formed in England to revive the authentic Gothic style in church architecture. Its corresponding spiritual equivalent, known as the Oxford Movement, was led by a group of Oxford University professors, theologians and students. Anglican thinkers such as John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, and John Keble felt that the Church of England had become liturgically lax and hoped to revive many of its traditional, Roman Catholic practices.2 The Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Camden Society wanted to reassert the centrality of the Mass over preaching in the Anglican service, as well as a reincorporation of pre-Reformation symbols and practices in the liturgy and design. St. James-the-Less was intended by its Philadelphia sponsors to be an authentic and perfect jewel of the emphatically medieval and British Gothic style.

As is common with cases of spiritual and aesthetic nostalgia, Ralston and his coterie planned St. James-the-Less in reaction to what was seen as a soulless, materialistic present. The Cambridge Camden Society became disenchanted with the classical revival that had been the dominant form of church architecture during the 18th century. Anglican churches built during the 18th and early 19th centuries in England and America based their floor plans and detailing on Greek and Roman models, most notably those adapted by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Examples of neoclassical Anglican churches in Philadelphia include Christ Church at 2nd and Market Street (1727) and St. Peter’s Church (1760). These churches are characterized by an open nave without side aisles, simple ornamentation, large windows letting in ample sunlight, and a lack of liturgical representative artwork. Firmly identifying with the Protestant rather than the Catholic traditions of the Church of England, these churches were meant to emphasize preaching and congregational hymn singing over communion and liturgical processions.


 

The Federal and Greek revival styles, steeped in the language of pagan classical antiquity, were wildly popular in Philadelphia during the first decades of the 19th century. To the sophisticated urban mercantile elite, the adaptation of the classical language for the young nation was a logical choice. The young republic, led by classically virtuous men such as George Washington, was the heir to Greek democracy and the Roman Republic. Nicholas Biddle, the erudite Philadelphia banker and man of letters, felt that the Greek revival style, with its associations with reason, restraint, and egalitarianism, should be the national style for the American Republic.3 The most perfect monument to Biddle’s idea is the Second Bank of the United States at 5th and Market Streets, designed by William Strickland and based on the Parthenon. As a practical matter, builders and architects could easily adapt the classical style to all manner of uses. By the 1830s, sober Greek porticos, entablatures and other decorative details adorned the row houses, banks, and schools throughout Philadelphia.

As the American Revolution and the hostility to all things British faded into distant memory, a number of prominent Philadelphians began to look to architects who were inspired by the English church’s medieval, pre-Reformation heritage. The Gothic style – almost exclusively used for church architecture since the Middle Ages – was not easy to adapt to a merchant’s row house block near Washington Square or a bank on Market Street. Gothic had inextricable associations with markedly “un-Republican” concepts, namely monarchy, feudal aristocracy, and clerical hierarchy. It also connoted mystery and complexity rather than reason and simplicity.

References:

  • 1Paul W. Kayser, A Brief History and Guide to the Church of St. James the Less. Philadelphia: St. James the Less, 1983. 2.
  • 2 “What is the Oxford Movement?” Pusey House Chapel and Library, 2006. http://www.parishes.oxford.anglican.org/puseyhouse/oxfdmove.htm.
  • 3 Joseph Downs. “The Greek Revival in America.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Jan., 1944), 173.
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