Churches and church-going are mentioned often in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but the church that is described in most detail is not, ironically, a church attended by whites but rather the black church attended by Calpurnia and other African Americans. Most of the characters in the book apparently attend church, but it is Calpurnia’s church that is given by far the most attention.
References to churches abound in Lee’s text. Thus we learn early in the novel that the Radleys “did not go to church, Maycomb’s principal recreation, but worshiped at home.” Later we learn that the local Methodists have challenged the Baptists to a game of touch football. Later still, and more significantly, Atticus explains to his daughter, Scout, why he has decided to defend Tom Robinson, an accused rapist, in court. Atticus suspects that Tom is innocent, and so he tells Scout,
“I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
In comments such as these, we get the sense that Atticus is a Christian who takes his beliefs seriously, although he never parades those beliefs or calls public attention to his own religious convictions. We never see him or his family inside a church, although off-hand references to their church attendance occur repeatedly.
It is Calpurnia’s church that is described in great detail:
First Purchase African M.E. Church was in the Quarters outside the southern town limits, across the old sawmill tracks. It was an ancient paint-peeled frame building, the only church in Maycomb with a steeple and bell, called First Purchase because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves. Negroes worshiped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays.
We see both the outside of church and the worshipping that takes place inside. The church is the center of the black community. It symbolizes love in the same way that the courthouse described later in the book symbolizes – or at least should symbolize – the law. The fact that the Finch children are welcomed inside the church symbolizes the possibility of true love, or at least a truer sense of community, between the races. Lee takes us inside a black church so that we can see African Americans less as members of a different race than as followers of the same God that white people follow. Blacks are shown to have the same moral and religious ideals as those professed by most whites.
If the courthouse ultimately represents the divisions and prejudices and racism that still exist within Maycomb, Cal’s church represents Maycomb’s better possibilities. Cal is the most obvious representative of Christian morality in a community that could use many more persons of her type.