The late, great John Updike waxes poetic on his personal history with — and the collective personality of — the New England church world:

“Like Mr. Mutrux, I came late to New England. The first regional church of which I had experience was Harvard’s Memorial Chapel, that splendid but slightly cold reproduction of the Colonial manner, with its immaculate box pews and huge dark choir screen. Attending, I would sit back on the left-hand side near a small bronze plaque that seemed to me the epitome of New England fair-mindedness: opposite the great wall covered with the names of Harvard alumni killed fighting for the Allies, the plaque gave the names of four German graduates . . . Harvard has not forgotten her sons.

“Returning some years later to live north of Boston, I would attend the Congregational church in Ipswich, a handsome, town-dominating example of “carpenter Gothic” exactly contemporaneous with the First Parish Church in Brunswick, Maine, and like it, tipped wooden pinnacles and walled with boards and battens. The interior posed a delicate white-painted heaven of shapely roof trussing; the light came through tall pointed windows of old gray-glass lozenge panes. Some winter mornings, hardly a dozen of us showed up, while the minister shouted across the empty pews and the groaning furnace in the basement sent up odorous warmth through the cast-iron grates and the wind leaned on the crackling panes. I have never felt closer to the bare bones of Christianity than on those bleak and drafty Sunday mornings, with the ghosts of frock-coated worshippers and patient carpenters making up for our sparse attendance . . . Through its hushed and graceful spaces, so different from the colorful and stolid Lutheran interiors of my childhood, I entered into the spiritual life of my adopted region.

“Can this life be distinguished, even minutely, from that of other regions? It is tinctured by the Puritan beginnings and the stony soil, the four sharp seasons and the nautical outlook of the indented shore. To Calvinism, Irish Catholicism added its own austerities and wit . . . ‘Live free or die’ runs the motto of one of our six states, and there does seem to be an extra tang of the free, of the voluntary, in our chilly, salty local air. The New England spirit does not seek solutions in a crowd; raw light and solitariness are less dreaded than welcomed as enhancers of our essential selves. And our churches, classically, tend to seek through their forms, so restrainedly adorned, their essence as houses for the inner light.”

— John Updike, “Foreword,” in Great New England Churches: 65 Houses of Worship that Changed Our Lives by Robert H. Mutrux (Chester, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1982), xii-xiii.

Previously:
What are New Englanders Like?
Church Replanting in New England
10 Reasons New England Suffers for Mission
Why New England is the New Missional Frontier (Resurgence post)

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2 thoughts on ““Never Closer to the Bare Bones of Christianity”: Updike on the New England Churches”

  1. Zach says:

    Man that’s good

  2. Owen says:

    Love it. Good find, Jared. Have you seen the massive book of NE church photography “White on White”? Very expensive, but very worth it.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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