Swastika-Type Symbolism on American Churches

Our first example of the use of the Gammadion or Fylfot-Cross is to be found in the Central Congregational Church, Providence, Rhode Island. Records show that the windows were installed about 1893 at the time of the church’s dedication. The dome of the church has eight stained glass oculi. While four of them depict the Chi-Rho monogram, the other four contain the Gammadion or Fylfot-Cross. An oculus, a circular opening in a dome or wall, was a standard feature of Byzantine and Neoclassical architecture

The Gammadion became a well-used element in early Christian iconography and features in the Roman catacombs and elsewhere in the early centuries of the Common Era. This and other correlative devices were used in the catacombs to create an atmosphere of hope that Christ was alive. The Gammadion sometimes incorporates the Chi-Rho and Alpha and Omega monograms. Appropriately enough and according to the church archives the ‘bent cross’ in their church represents the broken power of death.

Our second example comes from the Charlotte Blagdon Chapel, University of Michigan. In addition to the Hazel Hunt memorial windows, there are some smaller windows less accessible to the visitor. These 1929 windows were designed by the architectural firm Pond and Pond and fabricated by the Linden Glass Company, both of Chicago. It was the original intention of Mrs. Henderson, the power behind the project, to provide a restful room, for reading and meditation. As it was hoped that people of a variety of beliefs would avail themselves of it, symbols of all faiths were incorporated in the designs of the stained glass windows.

The Star of David was juxtaposed to the Latin cross in one window, and the Swastika was placed above the St. Andrew’s cross in another. Altogether there are 12 devices in the three windows. This syncretistic amalgam of symbols is distinctly reminiscent of the iconography associated with the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky established some decades earlier. In that context the Star of David, the Swastika, Ouroborus [depiction of a serpent biting its tail], and the Egyptian Tau all found their place.

Our third example comes from Hawaii where the First Chinese Church of Christ was dedicated in 1929. It features wooden pews with Swastika carvings. They appear in the tilted recto format. The official website states that these are ancient symbols that represent ‘eternal blessedness’. The church’s design was the result of an architectural competition resulting in a blend of Western and Eastern features.

So where did this concept come from? Scholars generally agree that the Swastika symbol was current in China from a very early period, long before the advent of Buddhism. This symbol was linked to a range of concepts not least the aspirations for good fortune and a long life. Indeed most popular symbols in China express auspicious blessings and a peaceful and prosperous future.

It is not surprising therefore that this concept of ‘blessings’ is carried over into the treasury of Christian faith and belief, and that the Swastika symbol is incorporated in the furnishings of the Church in Hawaii. The dedication took place before there was any popular outcry against it on the grounds of the Nazi misappropriation of what had been a positive and life-giving symbol worldwide for millennia.

Our final example comes from the Cathedral Church of Saint Mary, St. Cloud,Minnesota. In addition to the Gammadion there appeared representations of the Basque Cross or Lauburu, a very distinctive curvilinear form of the Swastika, though not nearly so frequently encountered as the rectilinear form in the Western world. Clearly in the period of its construction these symbols would not have presented any problem to the casual eye as they had been generally and widely accepted as legitimate variants of the Greek or Roman Christian cross for centuries.

It was only in the mid-1930s that a perceived similarity with the Nazi insignia began to cause responses ranging from mild surprise to outright consternation that such a symbol should appear on a Christian church. Books by Rudyard Kipling were provoking similar responses in this period and by 1933 Swastikas had been expunged from the covers of his books.

The church authorities felt that they had to make a decision. There were two options; either they had to retain these ‘suspect’ discs and provide an explanation to visitors, or they had to have them removed and replaced with softer symbols of catholic spirituality. They chose the latter course of action.

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