May 12, 2014
According to Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, a "pew" was defined as "an enclosed seat in a church" that had been in the past "made square" (i.e. boxed in with doors for access). His dictionary goes on to add that in "modern churches in America" pews were generally "long and narrow, and sometimes called slips." A visit to a colonial era American church such as Bruton Parish in Colonial Williamsburg, or the even earlier Puritan era example of the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, Massachusetts, shows the boxed-in construction of pews that kept the occupants warm in winter by confining the heat radiated from carry-along foot warmers. Over the years, the definition of a pew has been refined to describe the church furniture we recognize today. The current Concise Oxford English Dictionary describes a "pew" as "a long bench with a back, placed in rows in churches for the congregation." Generally, pews are austere to mildly decorated backed benches, set in rows, accessed by aisles, and designed to accommodate the congregation in worship with the most efficient use of floor space while providing some degree of comfort (though some might question the "degree of comfort" of some pews).
Despite the common use of pews in American church buildings, the use of them for the seating of all members in worship developed over time as a result of the Reformation. Margo Todd's The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland provides a glimpse of changes in church seating. Todd opened her section on the topic commenting that, "The Scottish Reformation was an era of pew-building" (318). However, the seating of the era varied in design within a church and from one church to the next. If one was wealthy and socially prominent, then one would have constructed in the church building a seat or gallery that might be decorated with the family crest and have an attached canopy and/or lectern. Some of these seats were elevated and had their own staircases and private entrances from outside the building (319). These extravagant lounges for the socially prominent, royals, or other wealthy members were built according to plans approved by the church elders and then crafted by jointers contracted by the family or person desiring the new seating. In some cases, the elders required the plans to be changed so proposed high backs, canopies, and other tall elements would not obstruct the view of the pulpit by the congregation (321). At the other end of the economic spectrum were the poor who might have no seat at all or carry a simple stool with them to church upon which they sat on a jealously guarded square of floor space (323). Maybe some of the poor sat on windowsills like Eutychus in Acts 20:9 while listening to the Apostle Paul. In some cases there were seating disagreements that led to violence. Circa 1630, Elspeth Kettle found her stool occupied by Barbara Stewart, who she forced from it, then took it from her, and jabbed her with a knife on the side of the head. Stewart responded by stabbing Kettle's ears with a needle so that she bled (323). And you thought it was hard to find a seat in church. The transition from personally owned seating to common seating owned by the church was similar to other changes produced by the Reformation in that it was evolutionary and not revolutionary.
The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, 1560-1843, by George Hay, 1957, provides some interesting comments regarding the development of the use of pews. He notes that there were specialized pews for marriage, baptism, and for the repentant. In the case of the repentant, a "cutty stool" was placed in an elevated location in clear view of the congregation so that the repentant could be seen by the rest of the congregation. The repentance stool or bench was sometimes placed in a special box pew clearly visible to the worshippers. Hay notes that the National Museum of Scotland held in his day a stool from Greyfriars, Edinburgh, with a footrest and turned legs that he believed dated from the eighteenth century, and that the city church of St. Andrews had "a rather rudimentary bench" used for the same purpose (196). Todd, who calls it "the stool of repentance," notes that the purpose of the stool was to provide a seat for the repentant "for the duration of the service for which their 'humiliation' had been prescribed" (131). As the years passed in Scotland, the specialized seating moved from places of dedicated prominence, to specific seats in the congregational pews, and on, thankfully, out the door and into history. Could it be that the use of the anxious bench in revivals led by C. G. Finney and others in antebellum America traces its origin to the "cutty stool" of Scotland in that the prospects for evangelistic conversion were brought together for specially directed revivalist calls to repent much as the congregant on the "cutty stool" was held up for viewing as a humiliated repentant.
As churches came to include pews among their furnishings in the American colonies it brought about another practice that continued the class system of seating. In Colonial America and well into the nineteenth century, churches sometimes charged rent for the use of pews. The fees, pew rentals, were paid according to the depth of the pockets and level of concern for the best seating location of the lessee. The better seats had higher annual rents than the lesser locations so that an individual or family could sit where the fee was within their personal budget. In some cases, the fees for the seats were not set but were instead established through bidding--the highest bidder had the best seat, or at least the best seat that could be afforded. The rents were most often dedicated to the maintenance and upkeep of the church property. The fees were collected in different ways, but a few examples collected from church pew rental receipts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, show that fees of from 6.00 to 6.75 were paid quarterly between 1830 and 1859. Some extant nineteenth century and earlier church buildings have the aisles of pews numbered, which allowed the renter to select seating according to the aisle and seat number as counted from the aisle.
The New Testament book of James has something to say regarding seating in the church. In chapter two, verses 1-4, James addressed the church saying, "My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, 'You sit here in a good place,' while you say to the poor man, 'You stand over there,' or, 'Sit down at my feet,' have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" James instructs his recipients that as the first century church struggled with recognizing the equality of its members as those redeemed by the same grace of Christ, socio-economic status must not affect the common bond among the church members as worshippers of God. The letter of James was circulated in churches in Asia Minor in which government officials, business owners, workers, and slaves would have in some cases worshipped together, so James' point was and is that the socio-economic status of the worshippers was to be left at the church door. In Scotland, the transition from the personally owned seating of the past to pews owned as furniture by the church developed slowly, but the result was a better application of the inspired words of the Lord's brother. The evolutionary changes from showy galleries for the rich and the associated use of stools by the poor to pews owned by the church providing equal seating can be traced to the sola Scriptura emphasis of the Protestant Reformation. However, it may be that another step in the evolution of church seating must take place in the minds of church members. Anyone who has visited a church while travelling or as a prospect for membership when relocating may have experienced the discomfort of sitting in a pew only to have someone approach you and say, "Excuse me. You are sitting in my pew."
Is the pew the final step in the evolution of church seating? No, it appears that there is another church seat in vogue and it is the folding or stackable padded chair that is often upholstered with a blue, nylon, faux tweed-like material. Those who are lovers of the old wooden, scratched, sticky, creaky pews, with limited legroom, and sometimes squashed foam padded velvet upholstered cushions may find the modern mass-produced steel, polyurethane foam, and synthetic upholstered chairs too modern. Wooden pews are a visual and tangible reminder of the history of the covenant people of God in a congregation. Some old pews have provided seating for successive generations of families as they--heard the Word of God, were brought to faith in Christ, saw their descendants married, mourned at funerals, received the sacraments, gave offerings to God, prayed, and sang to the glory of God. But then those new fangled metal padded chairs are so comfortable compared to their oak, mahogany, walnut, pine, and poplar ancestors with their after-market rectangular-slipping-sliding cushions and those annoying buttons. Besides, sometimes too many people are uncomfortably crammed into the pews. But then, how do you point to a metal chair that was moved to a new location around an erected folded table for Wednesday night supper every week and was never in the same place and say, "That is where I was sitting when I understood the gospel," "That is where I was sitting when I saw my grandchild baptized," or "That is where I was sitting when I participated in the memorial service for my son killed in Vietnam?" So, between the lovers of old pews and the avant-garde proponents of portable chairs there is a conflict. Yes, the historic old wooden pews are sensual and emotive, but then those padded metal chairs are practical, and, well, sooooo comfortable and they provide a definite width of seat for one's comfort.
Sources--Noah Webster's First Edition of an American Dictionary of the English Language, San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967, 1995, which is a reprint of An American Dictionary of the English Language, 2 volumes New York: S. Converse, 1828. Angus Stevenson and Maurice Waite edited the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. George Hay, The Architecture of Scottish Post-Reformation Churches, 1560-1843, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957, see particularly pages 195-99. Margo Todd's The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, is a fascinating study using many sources including local church sessional records. It provides a unique perspective on the transition of Scotland to its Protestant, Calvinist, and Presbyterian Kirk. Note that the UK National Archives defines Early Modern as 1485-1750.