The History of Seattle First Baptist Church
The Church of the Quatrefoil
The quatrefoil is an ancient symbol of good luck, a Celtic symbol representing "the wheel of being," as well as a Christian symbol of the cross. It is particularly evident in Gothic architecture. It is described as a tracery constructed with four equal foils. In historic Christianity, the four petals of the quatrefoil represented the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They can also represent the "four ends of the earth," or the Native American prayer to the North, East, South and West.
In Baptist heritage, our houses of worship have historically been unadorned to avoid the pretense of idolatry. In more progressive Baptist churches, such as Seattle First Baptist Church, since the beginning of the 20th Century, there was a desire to stress what we hold in common with mainstream Christianity. Thus, our buildings began to have more ornamentation. This is true of our historic English Gothic sanctuary completed in downtown Seattle in 1912.
The quatrefoil was in the original sanctuary in the pew end carvings, the balcony facings, the stairwell banisters, and the exterior arches leading into Fellowship Hall. In three subsequent renovations, one very early, another in 1950 and a final in 1990, the church decided each time to expand the quatrefoil. In the first renovation, the wood carvings around a new central baptistry featured many quatrefoils. In subsequent renovations, the central chandelier was added in the shape of a quatrefoil and the chancel walls and chancel rails offer many quatrefoils. New ironwork around the exterior corner portico is in the design of a quatrefoil.
As a Christian Cross
The quatrefoil is an evocative or suggestive cross, as opposed to an obvious cross. It could be a cross, but it doesn't have to be. The upper foil can remind us of God the Creator. The two side foils as God as Spirit and Jesus Christ, and the bottom foil can represent the church. We are the foot of the cross. The traditional cross is "only about God," but the quatrefoil cross considers God and humanity together, an inclusive cross. The quatrefoil affords room for us, at the foot of the cross, an integral part of the design. It truly is impossible to say anything about God that is not also a statement about ourselves. God is not an abstract reality "out there," but is known through relationship. The ologian Martin Buber aptly called it an "I and Thou" relationship. The quatrefoil cross suggests this connection.
In our sanctuary, there are a number of "bottomless quatrefoils," as on the balcony walls. These could be crosses inviting us to step into the cross and into relationship. Only when we enter into the quatrefoil does it become fully formed and only then can we become fully formed. One is reminded of St. Augustine's prayer: "Thou has created us for thyself, and our heart is restless until we find our rest in Thee." (Confessions)
As a Symbol of Symmetry and Wholeness
The quatrefoil in our sanctuary is typically surrounded by a circle. A quatrefoil is an elegant circle because it represents equal proportion, harmony, and symmetry. Each foil is balanced and round, suggesting wholeness and harmony. It doesn't protrude or intrude-it fills, it is whole.
It doesn't partition or divide. It doesn't force us into either/or choices, it doesn't back us into corners or dead-ends. It is a symbol of inclusivity. Lacking sharp external edges, it suggests that no one has a corner on the truth. Rather than superiority or dominance, it suggests balance.
It can be a symbol of global communion, global oneness. It can remind us that we live in a day marked by the interplay of the world's great religions. Somehow, our faith walk and that of others must co-exist compatibly, to proclaim the truths of our own tradition without arrogance, and disregard former notions that we have the corner on the truth, whether among Christians or among the world's religions. Like the Quatrefoil, ours must be an inclusive gospel, without hard edges or harsh boundaries.
As a Green Cross
The quatrefoil is found in abundance in nature. The cruciferae family of plants are those with four-petaled flowers. A cruciferous plant includes mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, turnips. There are 3,000 species worldwide comprising this cabbage family of plants that characteristically have four equal petals spreading out in the form of a quatrefoil. One such plant, the four-leaf clover, has meant good luck to any who find it, and likely has its origin in the quatrefoil as a symbol of good luck in Celtic lore.
One important facet of the Quatrefoil in our sanctuary is its prominence as a design in nature. It is, therefore, the only green cross, a symbol found first in the environment before it was ever found in architecture or faith.
Seattle First Baptist Church stands in the tradition of a Green Cross, an activist congregation committed to protect the beautiful harmony that God gives us in the created world.