Tennessee’s roadside religion is widespread, varied, and includes much more than church architecture. It reflects a range of religious beliefs and experiences, as well as Tennessee’s cultural diversity. Religious roadside architecture encompasses everything from large-scale works of art commissioned by religious institutions to small, homemade creations placed in residential yards. Geographically, numerous examples can be found in all three of the state’s grand divisions.
Church signs compose Tennessee’s most ubiquitous form of roadside religious expression. While some signs simply provide basic information such as service times, others indicate congregations’ theological predilections or serve as a means of evangelism. Examples of church slogans include: “Stop, Drop, and Roll will not work in Hell”; “Give Satan an Inch, He’ll be a Ruler”; and “No God, No Peace. Know God, Know Peace.”
Some churches, however, rely on devices other than traditional signs to draw attention. For example, motorists entering Memphis on Interstate 40 dramatically encounter three white crosses at Bellevue Baptist Church. With the center cross standing 150 feet tall, flanked on either side by crosses measuring 120 feet high, these crosses exemplify the need for large-scale visuals to compensate for high-speed traffic. Additionally, Bellevue’s large-scale mega-church architecture complements the crosses’ dimensions and demonstrates the reality of high-density suburbanization in eastern Shelby County.
At times, Tennessee’s roadside architecture conflates politics and religion. On Highway 70 South on the Upper Cumberland Plateau, a wooden American eagle holds the Ten Commandments in its outstretched wings. In Memphis, at the predominantly African American World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church, a seventy-two-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty holding a cross and the Ten Commandments known as the “Statue of Liberation Through Christ” overlooks the intersection of Winchester and Mendenhall.
Large-scale objects such as these often generate controversies in the local communities where they are built. As with any form of art, differing aesthetic preferences spawn opposing reactions. While for some people these objects are beautiful and provide religious comfort, others view them as offensive eyesores. Local debates often address the technicalities of zoning laws, but the controversies simultaneously encompass much more ideological issues regarding competing notions of religious freedom.
Although institutions such as churches are responsible for much of Tennessee’s religious roadside architecture, individuals also create a significant portion of this art. Some of the best-known roadside icons include folk artist Harrison Mayes’s homemade crosses that instruct motorists to “Get It Right With God.”
Roadside memorials also demonstrate religious sentiment as they commemorate deceased friends and family. Often taking the form of simple, white wooden crosses, these memorials can be much more elaborate and are found on roads throughout the entire state. In addition to commemorating lost loved ones, roadside memorials serve a didactic purpose by reminding other motorists to drive safely.
Yard art represents a domestic form of religious architecture. Common examples include statues of Jesus, mailbox signs, crosses, and angels. While Christian symbols dominate the region, Tennessee’s roadside includes many world religions. For example, on South Mendenhall Road in Memphis, an eight-by-eight-foot Buddha statue dominates the yard of a ranch-style home. The Garden of Love in Maryville constitutes a conspicuous example of Tennessee’s domestic religious architecture. Set into a hillside along Highway 321 North, the garden uses an arrangement of rocks set against a black background of mulch to deliver the message “God is Love, He Forgives” to passing motorists.
Tennessee’s religious roadside architecture is an important component of the state’s religious fabric. It serves a variety of purposes, including evangelism, religious instruction, commemoration, and the facilitation of worship and piety. Often derided as Christian kitsch, these examples serve as genuine expressions of faith to many people.