When Justin Dunn preaches about Jesus feeding the 5,000, he points to the stained glass window on the southwest side of University Baptist Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
There, the gospel story is illuminated alongside the stories in the other windows in the 67-year-old sanctuary, which show Christ’s birth, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection.
“As a pastor, you’re always looking for a good illustration,” Dunn said. “The windows are perfect for that because they’re right there and get people to look up, and then they’re going to come back next week and see the same window again.”
Stained glass windows became common in American evangelical churches in the West and Midwest in the 1870s. With the prosperity and growth following the Civil War, church architects increasingly turned to Romanesque and Gothic Revival styles, according to David Bains, professor of biblical and religious studies at Samford University, and that included gorgeous windows. The stained glass created an aesthetically rich interior and blocked out the bustling city streets outside.
Early evangelical stained glass often featured simple symbols, like a Bible or a cross, but technological advancements in the manufacture of opalescent glass in the 1880s and ’90s allowed for more elaborate biblical scenes.
“You get big, very legible teaching images of Jesus that you can look at and think about during church services and that ministers can appeal to in their sermons,” Bains said. Evangelicals “copied popular illustrations by German artists that were then being reproduced in Bibles and Sunday school literature” and enthusiastically funded the work of artists including Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge.
Today, however, this fragile religious art is in danger. Everything made between the 1870s and 1920s has reached an age when it needs restoration, which can cost around $2,000 per square foot. The lead between the pieces of cut glass that holds the panes in place may be getting dangerously weak.
“After 100 years or so, the lead in a stained glass window oxidizes,” said Martin Faith, founder and president of Scottish Stained Glass. “Very often, it can’t hold the weight of the glass anymore. Although the glass portion of stained glass can last forever, the leading won’t. And depending on the kind of environmental conditions that you’ve got, whether it’s really hot, or if you get big temperature swings between night and daytime, those elements cause the deterioration of stained glass.”
Faith knows how meaningful stained glass windows can be. He and his wife, Gillian, married under the luminous windows of Glasgow Cathedral.
He grew up in Glasgow, where the Glasgow School of Art has a renowned stained glass program. The Scottish city was full of glass art, decorating churches and 19th-century homes.
“And not just one piece of stained glass,” Faith said. “It would be every single window.”
In his first career, Faith manufactured modern windows and started collecting stained glass, especially when windows were in danger of being destroyed. When he moved to the US in 1991 for Gillian’s work, he started selling his Glaswegian glass to American collectors.
That led him into conservation work. Today, located in Denver, he’s on a mission to preserve the American church windows that have illuminated congregations for 100 to 150 years.
While he personally is not convinced that something only 100 years old counts as “historic”—“We have pubs in Glasgow that are older than Colorado,” he said—Faith and his team are eager to protect a congregation’s past.
In 2021, the company did the preservation work for the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Oklahoma, just in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
When a white mob destroyed the neighborhood in a riot in 1921, terrified residents took shelter in the historic Black church. In 24 hours, around 800 people were injured, 300 killed, and 35 blocks completely destroyed. On North Greenwood Avenue, the AME basement was the only structure that survived.
The church rebuilt, though, and in 1925, the AME memorialized donors’ names in fine stained glass. The church members loved the windows, but time was not kind to them. Extreme Oklahoma weather, vibrations from the nearby interstate, and the occasional rock had left the windows in a sorry state when the professionals showed up.
“There were probably 500 broken panes in the church at the time when we started to get involved in it,” Faith said. The artisans were able to identify the original glass manufacturer, though, and were delighted to find the company was still in operation in Indiana. Kokomo Opalescent Glass was able to consult its archives and make identical panes.
After Scottish Stained Glass restored the 1925 windows, conservator Maria Sheets designed a brand-new window to display Vernon AME’s proud 120-year legacy. Sheets, who grew up in Oklahoma but didn’t learn about the massacre in school, dug deep into the history, reading every book she could find about the event and consulting all the archival material available at the church.
She looked at yearbooks and painted the portraits of members who survived the massacre, former pastors, and Jesus—presenting a picture of the church’s faith that will remind future generations of their history and help visitors understand.
“The legacy window allows people to see the history of Vernon without anybody else to give them a tour,” said Robert Turner, the pastor who championed the restoration project and helped the church get grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and major donations from family foundations.
While the history of other churches with aging stained glass might not be as dramatic as Vernon AME’s, the windows still represent a legacy of faith.
At First Presbyterian Church in Brazil, Indiana, a church member noticed that the leading was starting to fail, and the congregation had to ask itself some questions about what to do next.
According to pastor Gary Scroggins, there’s a need for a physical assessment of the health of the windows. But maybe more importantly, a church needs to think about its past, the meaning of its physical space, and what the church owes to the future.
“How does your building speak to such things as stability, beauty, and tradition?” Scroggins asked. “How is restoration a commitment to the future? What has been given to your generation by those who came before?”
First Presbyterian partnered with Indiana Landmarks, a program that has helped preserve dozens of aging sanctuaries, for the historical assessment and funding of the restoration.
Most evangelicals in churches with stained glass, of course, don’t know how much the windows cost, when they went up, or whether they need serious investment for their preservation. What they do know is how those windows make them feel.
In Oklahoma City, Bob Searl remembers that when he was pastor of University Baptist Church, back in Shawnee, he would sometimes go into the sanctuary on a stormy day, look up at those images, and pray.
“The Scriptures talk about the beauty of God,” the pastor said. “And I think a sanctuary can reflect something of that beauty through its windows. It immerses us in the story and surrounds us with those names and images. It can fire up our imaginations.”
Susan Fletcher is director of history and archives for The Navigators.
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