From Zoar to Moriah: 6 church names with a biblical meaning

Churches in much of Britain tend to have very dull names. Anglicans and Catholics name theirs after saints, and unless they are particularly quirky (St Erkenbrand, anyone?) it's hard to be enthusiastic about them. The older Nonconformist churches are even worse – Anytown Baptist Church or Anonymous Street Methodist just don't cut it.

There's one corner of these islands, though, where the naming of churches was once practised as a fine art. That corner is Wales, where during the 19th and early 20th centuries there was an explosion of chapel-building. Many of them in those green valleys, sadly, stand empty – there were too many of them in the first place and it all got a bit competitive – but their names are a testament to a rich scriptural culture, and they say something important about what went on inside. Here are six common names, with their biblical origins.

Wikimedia CommonsSalem Chapel in Pwllheli, Wales.

1. Moriah

Named after the mountain where Abraham went to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). Naming a church Moriah was an expression of dedication and a call to commitment: every Sunday, we go up to Moriah too. Moriah is also where David offered a sacrifice to end the plague God had sent on the people (2 Samuel 24). So it stands for God's mercy and preservation.

2. Nebo

In modern-day Jordan, Mount Nebo is the place where Moses went to view the Promised Land before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). He would see it, but not enter it. Calling a church Nebo is an expression of hope in God's future - we don't yet have all that we have been promised, but God is faithful. It also evokes a powerful commitment to evangelism: outside the church doors is the Promised Land that God's people will inhabit.

3. Salem

Salem is associated with word for 'peace', 'shalom', and is another name for Jerusalem. It's mentioned in Genesis 14:18, where Melchizedek 'King of Salem' brings out bread and wine after Abraham's victory. In Psalm 76:2 it says of God: 'His tent is in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion.' A church named Salem is a place where God dwells.

4. Shiloh

Shiloh is the place where the Ark of the Covenant remained for hundreds of years, the centre for Israelite worship before the Temple was built. It was in Shiloh that the boy Samuel first heard God speaking to him (1 Samuel 3) and responded, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' A church named Shiloh is a place where the people listen for the voice of God, and respond with obedience.

5. Zoar

Zoar was a small city on the 'plain of Jordan', like Sodom and Gomorrah. When they were destroyed by fire (Genesis 19) Zoar alone was spared as a refuge for Lot and his family. Naming a church Zoar says something about the fragility of the world and how the church is a refuge from its hardships and wickedness.

6. Peniel

The word means 'face of God' and is sometimes spelt Penuel. When Jacob wrestles with the angel in Genesis 32, he names the place Peniel: 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared' (verse 30). In churches called Peniel, people wrestle with God and seek his face.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods