Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?

A Chapel Car missionary leads a worship service for a small gathering.

Well, neither had I, until I read the book, This Train is Bound for Glory. It tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In many towns, saloons, gambling dens, and “dance halls” (usually brothels) outnumbered all other establishments combined. Most towns did not have schools, nor a church of any denomination. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. They knew that having a church in their community was essential. And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.  They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea. Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style pump organ. The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down bunks that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/ living space, a water closet/ toilet, and a tiny office/ study area.

The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance. The usual pattern was to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding. Sometimes it was parked near the railroad’s shops; often it would be parked near a town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women there.

Baptist Chapel Car #4, “Good Will,” was a frequent visitor to Abilene and this part of Texas. Its history shows several revivals between 1910 and 1930, held in association with Abilene’s First Baptist Church and other congregations.

The missionaries who served on board had to have a special calling. The men had to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work. They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there. They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone. And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

Their wives had to have a calling of their own. It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car. They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment. Most of the couples who served were young and newly married and had not yet started having children. Sometimes they were older couples whose children were grown. There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

There are many stories of the “rolling pastors” intentionally working among the newly arrived immigrants, the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society. At the front of the partition of one chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” written across it in gold leaf. It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board. They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.