Before Johannes Gutenberg printed the Word on paper in the 1450s, Bibles were rare, and people who could read them were as scarce as book clubs. So the Word of God was written in stone, wood and glass "” cathedrals.

Stained-glass windows were "the poor man's Bible," telling the Gospels and life of Christ through dramatic pictures, lit from above. Cathedrals soared toward heaven, with vaulted ceilings and arched windows that poured in shafts of light like visible metaphors for Christ.

The cathedral floor plan was a footprint of the cross "” a vertical aisle leading to the altar, intersected by arms of the cross called transepts. The interiors overflowed with sculpture, art and beauty, to glorify God and bring heaven to earth. Cathedrals were theology sculpted in marble and gold.

But they tell us more than the story of God. They also tell us about the people who built them "” peasants who sacrificed what little they had for something taller and more beautiful than anything built by those in any other village or town.

These days, we build sports stadiums instead.

But between 1845 and 1875, Cincinnati had its own "arms race of faith" near the intersection of Plum and Eighth streets. The legacy of that golden age of churches is three "cathedrals" that are living, functioning time capsules of history, treasures of faith.

It started with "The White Angel," St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, finished in 1845, the most historic cathedral in Ohio and one of the oldest in the nation. It's a sanctuary of breathtaking beauty that compels hushed reverence. The style is neoclassical: a rectangle of white limestone guarded by massive Greek columns, topped by a graceful spire pointing to heaven. The main entry opens to ranks of more tall columns that march down the aisle into the distance, like trees lining a path straight to God. Framed in the center on the far wall is a three-story mosaic of Christ on his throne, in crimson and white, pointing to heaven as he hands the keys to St. Peter, all on a background of sparkling glass tiles infused with 24-karat gold, which seems to shimmer and move like living water.

Transepts were added in 1953 to complete the footprint of a cross. The walls are painted with scenes of Christ's crucifixion on terra cotta, echoing a Grecian urn. But everything points to the altar, then Jesus "” an architectural catechism of the Catholic Church. It is scripture as sculpture in black marble, ivory pillars and gold leaf. The spire was the tallest structure in Cincinnati for decades. No wonder such beauty inspired other faiths to compete.

"I don't know if that was the stimulus or not for other churches, but they sure started springing up," says Fr. James Bramlage, who has served at St. Peter for 20 years.

Within 15 years, another place of worship was planned across the street. After delays during the Civil War, the Plum Street Temple opened in 1866. The Moorish-Byzantine design rises a dozen stories, with twin minarets that climb into the clouds. Designed by Rabbi Isaac Wise to recall the "Golden Age" of Jewish history in Spain, it's a melange that stretches the boundaries of "diverse." The National Register of Historic Places calls it the fountainhead of Reform Judaism in America, the largest branch of Jewish worship, with 1.5 million members.

The Temple is as complex, beautiful and intricate as the Torah. "From the outside, the tall proportions, three pointed arched entrances and rose window suggest a Gothic revival church," a Temple history says. "The crowning minarets hint of Islamic architecture; the motifs decorating the entrances, repeated in the rose window and on the Torah Ark, introduce a Moorish theme; the 14 bands of Hebrew texts surrounding the interior were selected by Rabbi Wise and were chosen primarily from the Book of Psalms."

The theology is "Tikkun Olam," says Senior Rabbi Lewis Kamrass. "It means mending the world. If you speak the words in prayer (but) are not putting them into your own deeds, (that) would be a real shortcoming. It's what God expects of us.

"It is the grandeur that speaks to the great gratitude and the deep conviction that America would be the next golden age of Jewish life."

Protestants came next, with Covenant First Presbyterian a block away at Eighth and Elm in 1875. Although the congregation dates to 1788, and gun-toting, horseback preacher James Kemper, the Presbyterians merged and split for decades before they united at Covenant First.

"In 1848, talk of a second Great Awakening was sweeping the country," says Pastor Russell Smith. "They prayed for revival three nights a week, and prayed for the city. The congregation tripled in size."

The Gothic stone church that resulted has lost its towering spire, but still stands solid and strong. The interior echoes a Scottish tithing barn. Solid walnut pews make a semi-circle on a sloped floor. Lavishly carved altar furniture was done by William and Henry Fry, Cincinnati's Rookwood of woodcarving. It's a symphony of coal-dark wood and crimson velvet.

"Everyone can see everyone," Smith says, "as if to remind them that, 'You are the church, you are the priesthood of believers.'"

When the two-story pipe organ clears its throat at Covenant First, it is not the "still small voice of God." It's the God of thunder, the God of crumbling mountains, the whirlwind God who shakes the mightiest oak like a dust mop and makes your ribs hum like a tuning fork.

When he takes the altar, Smith feels the Cloud of Witnesses described in Hebrews 11.

"Not every church needs to be a grand, historic edifice," Smith says. "But I am so grateful there are places like this. The saints of the past were very good to us."

So who were those saints of the past? What were they telling us?

The most opulent place of worship, St. Peter In Chains, was filled with mostly poor German and Irish immigrants, who fled oppression in Europe only to find bigotry in their new land.

"There was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment," Bramlage says. "This was a statement that we're here to stay. We're going to be around for a long time. Get used to us."

On Sundays, even the poorest families were surrounded by wealth and beauty, such as life-size paintings attributed to Titian and Rubens. "This was the first art museum in Cincinnati," Bramlage says.

Plum Street Temple was also a statement. "There were laws in Europe that prohibited a Jewish Synagogue being taller than a non-Jew walking by on horseback," Kamrass says. So their Temple rose more than 100 feet.

"It was not saying that we can compete with the Catholics or have made it economically. It was a statement of acceptance, and thanks to God for acceptance. Were they treated as second-class citizens? Certainly. But being a second-class citizen here looked good compared to outright oppression and physical danger elsewhere."

The powerful merchant class, which built Covenant First included names such as Shillito, Lytle and Beecher (famous abolition preacher Lyman Beecher). Their statement was "a witnessing tool to show the solid relationship to Christ," says building superintendent David Schroeder. "When you walk in here, Jesus is honored. You know right away he owns it."

They crusaded for abolition of slavery and spread the Gospel through evangelism.

Other churches gathered nearby. A Unitarian church once stood near City Hall, flanked by a German Presbyterian Church that is now empty offices at 801 Plum. An Episcopal church was a block away.

Covington's spectacular Gothic masterpiece, St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, was conceived in 1853, and finally opened for worship in 1901.

Cincinnati's oldest black congregation, Union Baptist, dating to 1831, relocated to Seventh Street behind St. Peter in Chains in 1971.

Their history echoes the other cornerstones of faith: celebration of freedom, dedication to the city, trust in God; faith in the future.

What those saints of the past believed speaks to us today, because it was written in the most permanent ink, in the language of the great cathedrals "” glass, wood, marble and stone.
 
Honoring the Tradition
Of churches 'good enough for God'

Solomon's Temple is described to the last cubit in the first book of Kings: bronze pillars, a ceremonial washing "sea" bigger than an Olympic pool, walls lined with cedar, doors of olive wood and floors of pine. The sanctuary was larger than a basketball arena, lined floor- to-ceiling in pure gold. Construction took 80,000 stone-cutters, 30,000 laborers and 3,300 foremen. It was finished in seven years.

"It took Solomon 13 years, however, to complete the construction of his palace," says the first verse in the next chapter.
Pastor Chad Hovind likes to use that contrast to make a point and raise a question: "Solomon spent seven years on his temple, but nearly twice as long on his own palace. What's good enough for God?" he asks.
Too often, what's good enough for God is only mediocre. "Something we would never buy for ourselves is what we buy for God," says Hovind, pastor of Horizon Community Church.

Instead of "first fruits," our sacrifice is windfall apples, the bruised leftovers after we harvest what we keep for ourselves.
"Giving God our very best should be the motivation for our hearts," says Hovind, who will take that message to his congregation when they move into a new church on Newtown Road in January.
I've been a member of Horizon since a few dozen families started meeting at Indian Hill High School, then Cincinnati Country Day. I know how Horizon families are thrilled to move into their own house of worship after nine years of complicated set-ups and tear-downs at CCD each Sunday.

About 250,000 square yards of dirt were needed to raise the former Indian Valley Golf Course property above the flood plain and make room for a fast-growing congregation of interdenominational evangelical seekers. About 500 attend two Sunday services, but that is expected to double or triple at the new church with 30 parking spaces and 65,000 square feet.
Research from groups including the Pew Forum on Religion and Barna Group shows mainline Protestant churches are shrinking. Growth is static among Catholics and Reform Jews; but growth is booming among evangelical churches, known for contemporary Christian rock music, firm Bible teaching and the trademark megachurch.

That pragmatic big-box design makes a statement that the "church of believers" is more than bricks and mortar. Crossroads in Oakley, for example, may look like a shopping mall, but it is hugely successful.
 
Horizon is a cousin of Crossroads, but follows a retro-church trend, also seen in new construction such as St. Pius X in Walton, Ky., and Florence Baptist Church at Mount Zion.

"Our congregation wanted something that looked like a church, and I loved that," Hovind says. It will blend traditional beauty and form "” a cross-shaped footprint, atrium, stained glass and pews angled slightly inward "” with modern high-tech sound systems and video projection on 20-by-35-foot screen.

All that came at a cost of about $15 million, according to Building Team Leader Trey Smith.
"It fits the average cost per foot for a bank or shopping mall," he says. "It's not extravagant."
But it does occasionally draw criticism, Hovind says.
 
"This is something generational, for the future. It's our dream that it will result in millions and millions and millions more in money given to charities," such as a Feed My Starving Children campaign at Horizon to pack and send 100,000 meals.

Fr. James Bramlage at St. Peter in Chains is not surprised by the critics. Building another St. Peter in Chains today "would be a hard sell," he says.

First, there's the cost. The original $300,000 would equal more than $18 million today. And duplicating priceless marble, carvings, gold and mosaics could run up Biblical costs like Solomon's Temple.

"People say today, "¢Why do we need that? The money could be used better for any number of things.' They don't have the appreciation for the significance of such a building devoted to God," Bramlage says. "That's good in a sense "” faith at work for the poor. But it doesn't have to be one way or the other. You can honor the Lord and still serve the poor."

He points out that the greatest historic churches were often built by and for the poor.
 
Hovind says, "What we build reflects our values. In the past, our most beautiful buildings were churches and schools. Now they are banks and shopping malls."

Like Solomon, we put more effort into our own palaces.

Horizon's goal is to "challenge leaders to change the world," Hovind says. "All of us are leaders. If you have a college education, if you have a roof over your head, if you can feed your family, you are among the top 1 percent of the population in the world. To those whom God has given so much, much is expected."

If all churches are scripture in stone and wood, the new Horizon sends a message too, Hovind says, "Our God is beautiful, our God is mighty, our God is excellent and worthy of the best."

Cincy Contributing Editor Peter Bronson is a member of Horizon church.