First church to name themselves
May 18, 2009 6:51 PM   Subscribe

What was the first church to give themselves a non-geographic name?

This afternoon, out of nowhere, it struck me as strange that churches even have names. Then I conceded that geographic names, like "the church of God in Corinth", or "Lake Mills Lutheran Church", are to be expected, but then it seems like a jump to start naming the church after things or people, like Hope or St. Luke.

I am wondering how I could go about finding out the first church to apply a name to themselves which was not a direct description of who they were. When did this practice start?
posted by relucent to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is impossible to answer. People have been calling religious buildings "...of so-and-so" since story begot faith which begot organized religion.
posted by parmanparman at 7:04 PM on May 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

how I could go about finding out the first church to apply a name to themselves which was not a direct description of who they were
I seriously doubt that you can. I bet that this information is forever lost.

Anyway, Wikipedia's ancient churches of Rome page lists a bunch of churches from as early as the 4th Century, named after things other than their geographic location. For example, Titulus Aemilianae (now known as Santi Quattro Coronati) was named after its foundress; St. Peter's Basilica after the person who is traditionally considered entombed there.

I'm not claiming that these examples are the oldest, or even the oldest that can be found; I'm just saying that they're really old, and I don't see any reason to believe that this kind of thing hadn't been happening essentially ever since there were Christian churches, and more importantly before there were any real historical records of Christianity.
posted by Flunkie at 7:07 PM on May 18, 2009

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was built in the 6th century and the name means "Holy Wisdom" in Greek.
posted by smackfu at 7:08 PM on May 18, 2009

I should clarify that I am not referring to naming the building itself, but the gathering of people that make up the church. Hopefully it is not impossible to answer, though Google is failing me. At some point it had to have switched over from the general and descriptive ("the saints in Ephesus") to the specific and named ("Woodland Hills Community Church").
posted by relucent at 7:11 PM on May 18, 2009

In the classical period, temples were typically referred to by a place name and the name of the god to which they were dedicated.

The Sumerians had a rather poetic naming scheme for their temples, giving them names like E-sherzid-guru (House clad in splendour) and E-melem-hush (House of terrifying radiance).
posted by mr_roboto at 7:14 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Catholic Church. The word Catholic means "universal."
posted by Ironmouth at 7:41 PM on May 18, 2009

relucent: I should clarify that I am not referring to naming the building itself, but the gathering of people that make up the church. Hopefully it is not impossible to answer, though Google is failing me. At some point it had to have switched over from the general and descriptive ("the saints in Ephesus") to the specific and named ("Woodland Hills Community Church").

But that's the point—the habit of naming churches by names other than geographical is coeval with the habit of naming the buildings churches inhabit. I've spent some time as a classicist, and have some interest in the early church, and I've never once heard of a community of believers which is referred to by a name rather than a reference to their location or their makeup. It was not at all habitual for small, communal groups of believers that met in houses or small halls to refer to themselves as "the church of St. Peter" or "the church of St. Cassian;" small groups of Christians hardly even called themselves something so formal as a "church" until the heirarchy was established, and even then they were not named; they only had particular leaders.

I'm only hazarding a guess here, but I would bet that this habit is almost certainly something that came about during or after the time of Saint Constantine. That's for two reasons.

First of all, the time of Saint Constantine was the first time that the Christian communities could actually build churches. Before this time, permanent structures that represented communities of believers were nearly unheard-of outside of places like Alexandria.

Second of all, the time of Saint Constantine was a time of integration for the Christian community and conversion for the theretofore pagan society. I do know that the first notable church buildings dated from this time. Saint Constantine was very keen, whether it was in order to hurry along the process or out of some personal belief, to found Christian traditions on pagan roots. There is something particularly pagan about naming churches; Christianity along would, I believe, tend (in a pure theological realm) toward unitary names, and away from glorification or differentiation of small communities and their individual uniqueness. And gaudy buildings named after demigods were very well-known before Christianity; the only real difference is that now these demigods were Saints rather than actual demigods. In Fustel de Coulanges' great work on the Classical world, The Ancient City, there is some interesting consideration of the ways in which local saints, those which in the Christian world have always provided place- and church-names like “Our Lady of Blessed Sorrow” and “Our Lady of the Benediction,” were merely continuing a system of local gods which was at least two thousand years old already. This is not to say that naming churches is pagan; but I would warrant that the practice came more from the pagan influence than from the Christian, just as did the habit of building buildings and other structures to honor faith. Saint Constantine became emperor in 306 and issued the Edict of Milan in 314; the earliest of those churches that are mentioned in the Wikipedia article Flunkie linked to date from directly thereafter.
posted by koeselitz at 8:04 PM on May 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think the question is unanswerable. The first churches were little more than rooms in people's homes. This was in the period before Christianity was tolerated within the Roman Empire. After this period, churches gradually moved into separate buildings, but Christianity had spread quite far and wide by then. So it's impossible to know what the first church was, period, let alone the first named church. Sorry.
posted by hiteleven at 8:08 PM on May 18, 2009

I'm not exactly certain what you're asking. Of course you realize that church means two things: the building, and the body of worshippers. Naming a building in honor of a God, Saint, or whatnot is simply ancient as could be, e.g. the Temple of Adonis. In most ancient times nativist religions had local gods, which were sometimes rolled up into a culture-wide god as with Zeus, Apollo, or Athena. So locality and dedication were sometimes one and the same.

In the early centuries of the Christian religion, of course, there was One Church based in Rome, and so after this hierarchy sprung up you didn't have independent congregations at all. Most Catholic churches were named for saints out of tradition. Even post-schism(s), you still had Eastern and other hierarchies.

You didn't really get Christian churches acting as self-sustaining, self-directed congregations until the Protestant era. So to me, the idea that you'd have "First [Whatever] of Jones City" requires that you be breaking with the older tradition first, not the other way around. Geographic coming at the same emphasis as sect is really a fairly modern habit. The newest churches de-emphasize sect entirely, e.g. Willow Creek Community Church.

So if anything, I'd say you have it backwards.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 PM on May 18, 2009

I've been giving this question some more thought, and I think the problem is that you're looking at this question from a Protestant perspective. For Catholic churches, the name or names of the saints to which a given church is dedicated are important, not geographic location. In medieval donation documents the saint's name always comes first in identifying a church, to be followed by place name (often a vague one) only to specify exactly which church (or monastery) was being addressed, since there was lots of duplication in saint names.

I'm not a religious historian, really, but from what I know about this stuff it was probably much more important for early churches to link themselves to the community of saints than it was to associate themselves with "secular" geography, particularly in the Roman Catholic church. Members of the church were a spiritual community linked by Christ in some mystical fashion or another, and therefore physical geography was of secondary concern.

A more workable version of your question would be to ask when churches actually began associating themselves more with their secular communities than with a community in heaven. As dhartung states, this would have happened during the Reformation period, when the saints were dropped (except in Anglicanism) and local community became much more important. Framed in that manner, it would be a worthwhile issue to check out.
posted by hiteleven at 5:51 AM on May 19, 2009

Throughout the "holy land" there are churches named for so-and-so saint, but not becuase that was a name given to them in honor of that saint, that is the spot where the saint lived/died/performed some miracle/appeared in a vision, etc. Some of these churches became famous and other churches and shrines were built to resemble the original or to honor the original building or because they were on the pilgrimage path to the original and therefore they also have the name of the saint. Later, becuase the saint was famous, they named shrines after saints or dedicated them in the name of an honored saint even if the area has no real connection to the saint. As Christianity spread, so did this practice. Often the reliquary of the church will contain some relic related to that particular saint. Sometimes churches were named for important holy concepts (e.g., Holy Name of Jesus, Holy Comforter, Christ the Redeemer...) At the same time there were churches named for their geographic location or who the builder/rebuilder was. Most of these places have a saint's name or holy concept name as well, but they are more well known by the other name.

Then came the reformation. As churches fractured and ended the devotion to saints and apostolic succession they started naming churches after other things like geography (e.g., Third Street, Lake View) or revered biblical geography (e.g., Calvary, Mt. Olive) or biblical litarary references (e.g., Tried Stone, Tree of Life) or by the name of the theological movement they subscribe to or the cardinal order of schism from that particular theological movement in that town they are (e.g., First Baptist, Third Four-Square Baptist Church, Sixth Evangelical Full Gospel Reformed National Baptist Presbeterian Methodist).
posted by Pollomacho at 6:30 AM on May 19, 2009

« Older Is it possible to grab XML across domains?   |   Doctor Who withdrawal! What do I watch now? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.