Today’s blog topic is one many night owls – particularly those who spend any significant amount of time on the road – are probably familiar with: Neon church crosses.
Neon church crosses that light up the night sky are one of the most famous symbols of nighttime America. They can be found along many major American highways and interstates and in some inner city neighborhoods. Neon crosses can be found on top of church steeples and on the sides of various other buildings across the country, inviting the public to come to church or acting as beacons of comfort at night for anyone with troubles on their mind. During the Christmas season, they spread a bit of Christmas cheer along dark stretches of interstate highway where Christmas decorations might be sparse. Most importantly of all, neon crosses have become messengers in the night which help spread the message of Christ during the nighttime hours when most people are asleep.
For many centuries, crosses on top of churches have pointed us in the direction of Heaven, lifted the cross of Christ to the world, and much more. Neon crosses have served all of these purposes for many decades now. It’s unclear when and where the first neon cross was created in the USA, but neon signs in general became highly popular in the United States during the 1920s-1930s. It can only be assumed the first neon crosses appeared on churches during this period.
For the next five decades onwards, neon crosses would pop up all over America. Many of these crosses have become historical landmarks. One such cross is the famous Route 66/I-55 neon cross over St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (also known as the Church of the Neon Sign) in Hamel, IL. This cross was erected in 1946 in tribute to Oscar Brunnworth, a local soldier who was killed in Italy during World War II. This cross has been a source of inspiration and comfort to many late-night drivers driving along I-55 ever since it was erected. Another famous American neon cross is the foreboding cross hanging over St. Paul’s House in Manhattan, NYC which has warned passers-by that “Sin will find you out” for six decades now since it was erected in the 1950s. Also in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood is the iconic “Jesus Saves” cross, which has made appearances in TV shows, movies, websites, and more.
In the 1970s, the number of neon crosses (and neon signs in general) began to drop in the US due to complaints about light pollution and rising electricity and maintenance costs. There are not nearly as many neon crosses now as there once were, but they are still very much a part of the American nightscape.
In addition to the US, there are other countries where neon crosses have become a familiar part of the nighttime landscape. One such country is South Korea. In the ROK, red crosses can be found all over the country. They are on top of virtually all Protestant churches across the country, including in the capital Seoul, which has earned it the informal nickname of “the city of the neon crosses!” These crosses serve very much the same purposes as the neon crosses in America do. And on top of Aegibong Hill near the DMZ separating North and South Korea, a huge electric Christmas tree tower is lit every year for 15 days which broadcasts a visual message of peace to the North through the Christmas season. This tower can be seen as far away as the North Korean city of Kaesong. However, some of the red neon crosses that have popped up in Korea may not exactly be a symbol of traditional Western Christianity……
According to a July 2008 article from the Asia Times Online, some of these red crosses have a meaning that goes beyond traditional Christian symbolism. In Korea, red crosses are also symbolic of the Donghak, or the “Eastern Learning” movement indigenous to Korea. These crosses reflect the “Poguk anmin” (“Protect the nation and secure peace for the people” in English) mantra, which is the call for a return to Confucian ideals and a Korean identity not shaped by foreign influence. In this case, these crosses are a call for Korean Christians to practice a more Korean-specific form of Christianity.
One other neon cross that deserves special mention is the neon cross on top of the Muen Church in Shanghai, China. Erected in 1936 when the church was known as Moore Memorial Church and inspired by the neon crosses in the US, this red cross stood out in the city’s nightscape when all around it were neon signs advertising nightclubs, dance halls, and all the other “party hard” establishments that are part of any major city at night. After the Communist victory in mainland China in 1949, all the neon lights – including the Moore Memorial Church cross – were turned off by the authorities. The cross would not be turned on again until 1988. Today the Muen Church is surrounded by office buildings and billboards advertising the latest iPhone, but it still stands out in the midst of the urban hustle and bustle, just as it did in the 1930s and 40s.
Other countries which have their own neon cross traditions include the Philippines, where blue neon crosses can be seen in cities across the country at night; Vietnam, where the neon lights of the Nha Trang Cathedral can only be described as stunning, and the UK, where a blue neon cross adorns the top of the Round Chapel in the Lower Clapton district of London’s Hackney borough.
Since they started making their first appearances in the night skies all those decades ago, neon church crosses have been a source of inspiration for many, have become historical landmarks, and have carried Christ’s message throughout the night. They have also become a means of guidance (both spiritually and navigationally) and have soothed many a soul, Christian and non-Christian alike.
–http://route66news.com/2011/01/01/the-old-neon-cross/ (Article about the Hamel, IL neon cross.)
–http://www.religiousproductnews.com/articles/2007-February/Feature-Articles/The-History-of-Church-Steeples.htm (The History of Church Steeples)
–A Protestant Church in Communist China: Moore Memorial Church, Shanghai 1949-1989 by John Craig and William Keating. Excerpt from Google Books about the church’s neon cross.
-http://www.idealshanghai.com/venues/3756/ Website about Muen (Moore Memorial) Church.
-http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704300004575095864172124230 (Article about Seoul’s neon crosses. Defunct link as of 12/18/17!)
[This post was originally published on January 29th, 2014 at The Contemporary Night Owl blog.]