The History of Pews

Luke T. Harrington wrote the other day about the history of church pews. He’s a Lutheran church historian and writes rather humorously, so enjoy.

Is there anything more reassuring than a church pew?

Simple. Humble. Sturdy. Two rough-hewn planks, fastened with a handful of nails, permanently fixed to the floor—and open to all. Occasionally padded, often not; not comfortable, exactly, but comforting. An invitation to the weary traveler to sit and hear the Word of God proclaimed; a simple reminder that we follow a humble, crucified carpenter; the perfect symbol that all are equal at the foot of the cross. From the greatest king to the poorest pauper, from the holiest saint to the most desperate sinner, all have sat in these pews before us, pondering their failings and begging for mercy. Despite the advent of stadium-style seating and auditorium-like worship halls, the simple, ancient pew endures—and no wonder, because it is, and always has been, the perfect metaphor for the faith.

Except—nothing I just said is even remotely true. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of all that. Would you like to know the true story of the pew? Okay, then—buckle up. (But not actually, though, because pews don’t have seatbelts.)

It turns out that there’s no evidence of churches having seating of any kind for at least the first 1,400 years or so of Christianity. In other words, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin—all those guys very likely lived their whole lives attending churches that were standing-room-only. During ancient Christian worship, parishioners could stand, kneel, or even mill about the nave if they so chose. There’s no record of whether they engaged in stage dives and crowd surfing, so we’re forced to assume they did. […]

In other words, seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation. In order to emphasize how not-Catholic we were, we began to jettison everything from our worship: confessions, creeds, communal prayer, a weekly Eucharist—basically everything except long, boring sermons. And when your “come to church” sales pitch is essentially “Listen to me yammer about Jesus for several hours!” the response is predictably going to be “Uh, can I at least sit down for that?”

And so, the pew was born.

Sounds scarily close to right to me.

When pews first began to gain in popularity, however, they weren’t anything you probably would have recognized as pews—they were more like those luxury skyboxes they have at sports stadiums. So-called “box pews,” which were particularly popular in England and America, were anything but the austere benches you’re used to, and featured four walls—often shoulder-height or higher—along with doors, windows, curtains, kneelers, tables, and sometimes even fireplaces. Basically you could hide in them and do whatever the 17th-century version of playing games on your iPad was (I’m guessing cock fights?).

They were also bought and paid for—and frequently custom-built—by each congregation’s wealthiest families, who held actual deeds to them and frequently passed them down to their children as real estate, like the world’s worst timeshares. On the rare occasion that the deed to a pew would free up, there was more often than not a public fistfight (a metaphorical one, usually) over which family would get it—being seen in a prominent pew was an important status symbol, like having the biggest beard at an Acts 29 church or having the dorkiest fedora at Hillsong.

If I recall, Boston’s Old North Church (and probably others) still has them, including their owner’s names on brass plaques. You know names like Revere, Adams, Washington, and such. Interesting history, I think. And at least it probably did minimize this.

Eventually, though, the more reasonable voices won out, and most parishes did away with their box pews, replacing them with the “free and open” wooden benches we know today, resulting in worship services where uncontained toddlers run rampant, ruling over their terrified congregations with tiny iron fists.

In any case, we had finally all learned our lesson, and now nobody goes to church to be seen, which is why we all cram into the back pews and leave right after communion.

Right, guys? Or is that just me?

Who? Me? Nah, you must be talking about that other guy over there, the one who gets his nap during the sermon and then leaves. By the way, I think that is the reason we tend to have coffee hours after church, so we’ll hang around.

Via: The History of Pews Is Just as Terrible and Embarrassing as You’d Imagine

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About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

13 Responses to The History of Pews

  1. Interesting, with much or some truth (beyond the jokes), but the essence too of the Preaching-Pulpit would also be interesting! Preaching today, in modernity & postmodernity, has lost also much of the biblical and historical essence!

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      That’s why it’s here. He writes it as funny, but the history is, I think, pretty close to correct. That would be interesting, never seen anything about it, anywhere. Boy, is that the truth, even in my lifetime.

      Like

  2. the unit says:

    Whew! That’s an interesting history of the pew. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Indeed so! Besides it’s always good to laugh a bit at ourselves. Even Fr Robert got a chuckle, I think. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • the unit says:

        Yes, and as far as inventions in history go, I’d rather sit on the pew rather than here! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          Oops. https://www.google.com/search?q=inventor+of+helicopter+car&tbm=isch&imgil=vkY6pgjcZRDoLM%253A%253BGnX56u2yXdZS-M%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fafflictor.com%25252F2012%25252F05%25252F07%25252Fjess-dixon-floating-it-would-appear-in-his-flying-automobile-1936%25252F&source=iu&pf=m&fir=vkY6pgjcZRDoLM%253A%252CGnX56u2yXdZS-M%252C_&usg=__fDzKOmgEBcwUrzkiEmfX_yZlKUU%3D&biw=1366&bih=638&ved=0ahUKEwjM-f2vmtrUAhWDRCYKHe57DbgQyjcINA&ei=xk5QWcz-CoOJmQHu97XACw#imgrc=vkY6pgjcZRDoLM:

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Pretty cool, but as I get older, I find i’m not quite as indestructible as I thought! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          Yeah, I’d sooner try to move a mountain than to push my luck…and faith to sit in that machine. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Sit in it, OK, even drive around the field, but flying it, well, a bridge too far comes to mind. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          Afraid I’d have to say a prayer to even do that.
          BTW. Thanks for yours for us last week!

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Never a bad idea.

          No problem on that, anytime. Hope it worked out, and the way you want. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          Got to redress and some recovery to go through yet, but with the Lord’s help…one day at a time. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Only way to do it. Don’t push it too hard, but push it hard enough. Or something like that! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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