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The Wayfarers Chapel is renowned as “the glass church” on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. While it’s actually not the only glass church in the world, the Chapel is uniquely set within a grove of redwoods overlooking the ocean. It would be better to describe it as “the tree chapel,” as its designer called it.
The designer was Lloyd Wright, son of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Just before he received the commission, Wright visited the Northern California redwood forests. During that trip, he had lunch at a restaurant in a redwood grove. Looking up through the restaurant’s glass skylight, Wright felt like he was in a vast cathedral made of trees. He decided that he would seek to recreate that enlightening experience if he ever designed a church.
Starting with this inspiration, Wright designed the “tree chapel” to provide a feeling of being simultaneously indoors and outdoors, connected to nature and to God’s presence. The glass and local stone integrate with the surrounding redwoods which, seen through the glass, seem to form the ceiling and walls. Skylights with ribs suggesting the veins of leaves reinforce that connection. Natural light that changes throughout the day creates layers of reflections that further blend the chapel’s geometric architectural elements with the trees and the sky outside.
The Wayfarers Chapel is not a church in the usual sense. Its mission is “to nurture the spiritual journey of wayfarers.” (That idea may have had particular significance when the Chapel opened in 1951. Its location, on what was then the rural, sparsely-developed Palos Verdes Peninsula, was well off the beaten path.) Though it’s “sponsored” by the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the Chapel does not have a permanent congregation of members. The staff of clergy, representing diverse denominations, provide Sunday services, baptisms, memorials, and weddings— including same-gender ceremonies— for people of all denominations and faiths.
The Swedenborgian Church of North America is a small Christian denomination, with around 2,000 current members. It’s one of several churches inspired by the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, to whom the Wayfarers Chapel is dedicated as a “national memorial.” Notable Swedenborgians include deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller; and John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, the peripatetic missionary who spread Swedenborgianism along with the apple nurseries he planted around the American frontier.
Emanuel Swedenborg was an 18th century Swedish scholar and writer with wide interests. He studied and wrote about mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences before switching to anatomy and physiology. At the age of 53, Swedenborg turned to theology after he began having dreams, visions, and visits from angels and spirits. He spent the next 28 years expounding on the “deeper meaning” of the Bible, and defining a form of Christianity that he said was revealed by angels, spirits, and Jesus himself.
Although Swedenborg did not start a religion or a church, he foresaw a “New Church” based on the revelations he had received. His extensive writings, describing visits to Heaven and Hell, and conversations with spirits who live on planets within and outside our solar system, led critics to question his sanity. But some eminent 19th century philosophers and writers took him seriously. A few people in England (and later in the United States) found Swedenborg’s writings compelling enough to found the “New Church” he had envisioned.
The Wayfarers Chapel reflects the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Church, which differ from what other Christians commonly believe. Swedenborgians believe in one God (rather than the Trinity), a force of goodness that will ultimately lead to the creation of Heaven on Earth. People are spirit-beings temporarily housed in a body; once that body dies, a spirit’s afterlife is determined by their actions and choices during life rather than by the faith they professed. God thus welcomes into Heaven anyone who lives an appropriate life. Swedenborgians also believe that God assumed the fully-human form of Jesus not to save his believers from Hell, but to make God accessible and knowable to everyone. And Jesus’ second coming is not a single event in the indefinite future, but a continuous process that has already begun.
Travel Note: As the Wayfarers Chapel is a very popular venue for weddings and baptisms, you might have to wait to enter the Chapel. My first visit was on a Saturday afternoon. I was fortunate to arrive during the half-hour between two scheduled weddings. On my second visit, this time on a weekday, I waited for a similar half-hour opening in the day’s schedule of baptisms.