Smith, Ryan K.

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Smith, Ryan K.


Education: University of Delaware, Ph.D., 2002.


Office—Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of History, P.O. Box 2001, 912 W. Franklin St., Richmond, VA 23284-2001. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, educator, historian. Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, assistant professor of history.


Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses: Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 2006.


Ryan K. Smith is a writer, educator, and historian who holds a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Delaware. He serves on the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where he is an assistant professor in the department of history. In addition to his academic duties, he is a writer and researcher with an interest in the religious symbols of nineteenth-century American houses of worship, in particular those of the Protestant faiths. Smith's first book, Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses: Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century, was released in 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press, and in it he explores this unique period in time regarding religious symbolism and how it evolved into what is now considered commonplace in modern society. It has become typical for most Americans to associate certain symbols with church and religion, including the Latin cross, a building with a spire, Gothic stained-glass windows, as well as candles and flowers. However, it was not always the case that such items were correlated with religion.

In Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses, which is based on his doctoral thesis at the University of Delaware, Smith discusses the fact that, during the nineteenth century, Protestants in America were opposed to such images and associated them specifically with the pomp and ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. He explains how various denominations within the Protestant church slowly began to take on some of the symbolism and rituals for themselves, primarily focusing on the architectural detail of their churches and the symbol of the cross. While the logical reason for such a change might be supposed to involve a growing tolerance for the Roman Catholic Church, in reality the opposite is the case. Smith explains that the Protestant church remained firmly anti-Catholic, but the spread of the religion in the United States during the nineteenth century, in part due to a heavy influx of immigrants from parts of Europe where Catholicism was considered the dominant religion, forced the Protestants to consider other means of maintaining their own numbers and attempting to gain additional followers. In addition to incorporating certain familiar aspects from the Roman Catholic mass and architecture, the Protestants acknowledged that the rituals and the imagery provided a more emotional context and outlet for a follower's expressions of faith, and that in turn such an outlet would create a more meaningful link for parishioners between their own faith and the religious practice they engaged in while at church. And finally, as Americans became more prosperous, they wished to see that prosperity reflected in their houses of worship, a desire that led to more ornate architecture and interior decorations in the Protestant churches across the nation, as well as simpler luxuries, such as flowers and robes for the choir.

Although the spread of the Catholic symbols was widespread, it did not happen overnight, and in some parts of the country it was a slower process as Protestant churches continued to hold to their own beliefs regarding what they considered to be appropriate in the way of religious symbols and detail. The time necessary to build a new church, in particular, affected the pace at which the Protestant faith could adopt certain structural changes. Richard Cleary, reviewing Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses for the Catholic Historical Review, remarked: "Smith brings together strands of research on the histories of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism, and architecture that too often have been viewed in isolation and convincingly demonstrates how they interlock as threads of a shared story." Jeanne Halgren Kilde, writing for Church History, noted that "within the modest scope of the author's initial question, this book makes a reasonable case for the argument that fear of Catholic competition propelled Protestant leaders to mimic Catholic worship practice as an appeasement to their own spectacle-seeking."



Books & Culture, January 1, 2007, "Cross-Purposes," p. 14.

Catholic Historical Review, July, 2007, Richard Cleary, review of Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses: Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century, p. 717.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, November, 2006, P.W. Williams, review of Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses, p. 498.

Chronicle of Higher Education, May 26, 2006, Nina C. Ayoub, review of Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses.

Church History, March, 2007, Jeanne Halgren Kilde, review of Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses, p. 213.

Journal of American Studies, August, 2007, Michael J. Collins, review of Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses, p. 499.


Christianity Today Online, (February 2, 2008), Edward Short, "Cross-Purposes."

University of North Carolina Press Web site, (February 2, 2008), author profile.