Let’s say Jesus and a couple of the disciples were on a road trip through these southern hills some Sunday morning and decided to drop in for fellowship and some preaching --- maybe dinner on the grounds. Where do you suppose they’d feel most at home?
If this seems dangerously close to the old WWJD (What would Jesus do?) game, get that idea out of your head. WWJD is a tricky exercise since a lot of times we’d have Jesus do what we would do if we were Jesus, which we’re not, and a whole lot of confusing self-projection gets involved --- so I’m not advocating it.
I just mean that, considering who they were and where they lived, when they lived and how they operated, what surroundings would seem most familiar to those good old boys?
My theory is that if a building were involved, it might be a farm house in an old order Amish church district where neighbors gather to worship, share lunch and fellowship every other Sunday, moving from house to house as the seasons progress. That’s what the early church did, too.
Or how about an Easter sunrise service out at Red Haw State Park, since a lot of preaching back in those days took place in the open air. If baptism were involved, I’d put money on a farm pond down in a pasture somewhere, frogs, mud and all.
I got to thinking in these mildly subversive terms while beginning to index some of the church buildings I’ve written about here over the years in the sidebar on your right.
Truth of the matter is, I’m a sucker for old church buildings --- and don’t think much of most of the newer ones. My favorite church exterior in Lucas County belongs to First United Methodist in Chariton; my favorite interior, to First Presbyterian. I admire well-executed stained glass as well as those clear glass windows in and views of the countryside from old frame country churches.
I relish the embroidery, from the elaborate altars at Sacred Heart in Chariton to the stained glass dome in the aforementioned First Presbyterian. But I also admire the restraint in those denominations that keep their buildings plain, focused on the fact the people who gather there are the church, not the place they meet.
Nothing makes me happier than a well-played pipe organ --- unless it’s a bunch of shape-note singers who can fill a room with harmony after no more than a cue from a pitch pipe or tuning fork --- entirely without accompaniment.
Sometimes I try to decide if a building was designed and built to glorify God --- or the congregation. And then there’s the power factor. Some church buildings are so overwhelming they seem more a pawn in a power game than a place to worship. You can admire the result but be bemused by the motive. Whatever the case, I enjoy them all.
This is all a roundabout way of getting to what for now is my favorite church in the whole wide world, although admittedly I’ve not traveled that widely. I have, however, visited a fair share power churches in my time, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, the Washington National Cathedral, Saigon Cathedral and, closer to home, both the cathedral churches of St. Paul and St. Ambrose in Des Moines and (from the outside since non-Mormons are not allowed in) the newly-rebuilt LDS Temple at Nauvoo.
But soaring above them all in my estimation, just as it soars above the Des Moines River down in Van Buren County, is the old Bentonsport Presbyterian Church. I love that old building that just seems to bend over backwards to make you feel at home.
I wish I had more historic detail to share, but can tell you only that it was built in the early 1850s and reportedly dedicated in 1855. The proportions and the interior are classic, but the exterior detail is light-hearted gothic revival. According to lore, the clear-toned bell in the tower came from a river boat.
The steeple ran into a few structural problems some years ago and was restored, but for the most part the original structure is intact. An arched ceiling lifts your spirits and the light coming in through clear glass is wonderful.
This was a Presbyterian church, remember, so the interior is very plain although the woodwork is beautiful --- even the wooden cross now up front would not have been endorsed by the plain-spoken and plain-worshiping folks who built it.
If the love of God built the church, poverty preserved it long enough for the Bentonsport Improvement Association to acquire and conserve it. It’s open for walk-in traffic during the summer tourism season, now fast approaching --- and for interdenominational Sunday worship, too.
There originally were four churches in tiny Bentonsport, we’re told. The Methodist church is still there, but now a dwelling. The interesting old two-story brick Congregational church has been demolished. And I’m not sure anyone remembers what the Universalist church looked like. Be that as it may, we’re lucky old Presbyterian survived. If you’re in the neighborhood this summer, don’t miss it.