“This isn’t a self-explanatory site,” John Bright said, while gesturing to the cavernous ceiling of the centuries-old Christ Church.
As a research associate at Christ Church Preservation Trust, Bright is one of the people who helps explain the site’s storied history to the 250,000 visitors who pass through its gates and those of the nearby burial ground each year.
The church, at Second and Market streets, was founded in 1695. Among its many claims to historic fame, Christ Church’s services were attended by Presidents George Washington and John Adams, Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin, among countless other significant figures in American history. About 12 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are buried on Christ Church property.
“It’s like Facebook for the 18th century,” Bright laughed about tracing the interconnectedness of the nation’s early leaders through Christ Church.
Bright, a native of the Lehigh Valley, wears many hats at Christ Church Preservation Trust, the 50-year-old secular nonprofit dedicated to preserving the church, its burial ground at Fifth and Arch streets and Neighborhood House, the 1911 structure adjacent to the church, the current incarnation of which was built in 1744.
As his title suggests, Bright devotes part of his time to projects that involve bringing the church’s history to life, like the updating and revamping of its Guide Map, which was published earlier this year. Scouring the vast archival materials housed in the church’s basement — which includes everything from parish registers to meeting minutes of the vestry, much of which is also available online — Bright compiled a comprehensive catalogue of notable pew holders, locations within the site and ephemeral items of importance.
“A site like this has so many levels of history,” he said. “It’s a cool place to be if you’re a history buff; you can sit where George Washington sat, where Ben Franklin sat and be in this beautiful building where all of the people who wrote our founding documents once were. People have this sort of secularly spiritual response to that often. We like to allow people to feel that if they’re inclined in that direction.”
Much of Bright’s work is devoted to giving tours of the site to walk-in tourists and scheduled school groups, as well as leading specialized programming.
Though religion can often be a taboo subject, Bright said he has found that many of his tour participants are eager to objectively explore the role it played in the shaping of the country.
“People often think that if you’re talking about religion, you have to be talking about religion in a religious way, in an evangelical way. It’s interesting for people to hear how issues of religious belief and how the government responded to it are interwoven into our early history and how it got us to the government we have now. All of that is extremely important to understanding our country. It requires you to talk about religion, but you can talk about religion in an objective, historical and analytical way. And people are fascinated by that.”
The expertise Bright brings to his tours is shaped in part by his robust religious education: He holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and religion studies from Lehigh University as well as a master’s from Lutheran Theological Seminary. He has also done doctoral work at General Theological Seminary in Manhattan and at Temple University.
That background has been key to his work in developing the church’s new programming on American religious history, rolling out next year, on which he has taken the lead.
“Having our own programming like this will allow us to seek out groups and bring them here ourselves,” Bright said. “There are a lot of tour companies in the city we work with and they bring people in but when we start offering our own programming, it gives us a bit more pragmatic control over the number of visitors we have.”
The initiative is in line with the Trust’s enhanced effort to more proactively engage with the public, Bright said.
“There’s a vague business component to it, in that we have to raise the money to do what we do, but the primary turn we’re trying to make at the moment is into more of an educational institution,” he said. “Which we are in a real way already, but the changes we’re moving toward — working directly with schools, creating our own programming and bringing people here for that — are intended to make us on a regular basis more active in reaching out, as opposed to simply offering our history to people who are choosing to come.”
Bright said Christ Church first caught his own attention several years ago when he was in the market for a new worship space.
When walking down the street, he spotted a sign outside the church advertising an LGBT potluck after that day’s services.
“I had literally already been to one church service that day but I thought, I’m church shopping at the moment so I might as well do two in one day,” he said.
The potluck was at the home of a local couple, and another congregant offered him a ride there after the service.
“Given I was completely new, the level of hospitality — ‘Come in my car, we’ll go together’ — left a very favorable impression on me, “ he said, noting that, once he joined the church, he was further impressed by the level of LGBT inclusion. Bright started working for the Trust in 2013, several years after joining the congregation.
“It is a complete non-issue,” he said about his sexuality. “It’s just not something we even talk about, except in the context of when someone says, ‘How does it work there, being gay and Christian?’ That’s literally the only time. Everybody is just simply a member of the congregation. It doesn’t rise to the level of even being mentioned.”
Christ Church’s status as an affirming, progressive congregation, set against the backdrop of its rich history, puts it in a unique position, Bright said.
“We’re very much at the intersection of culture and history and religion here, by merit of what we are and by merit of what we do and by merit of how we do it,” he said.
Though Bright said he and other tour leaders stay away from engaging in political or religious debates with tour participants, he does enjoy the opportunity to open the minds of people who come into the tour with pre-conceived notions about the country’s religious history.
“It’s not our job to engage in politics but instead to accurately tell American religious history, which does require doing turns away from ideas a lot of people really do have in their heads culturally,” he said. “I answer their questions in ways that let them know I hear them but that gives them the information — without antagonizing or turning them off to what I’m saying — that is enough of a little prick in the arm to where they may be like, ‘I never thought about it like that before.’ That’s the most difficult, most challenging and most fun thing — particularly when it works — that happens here.”