Every other Friday in D-List SaintsLuke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.

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.

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.

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.

If this sounds insanely uncomfortable to you, keep in mind that which body postures are considered comfortable or uncomfortable is a highly culturally constructed thing. The ancient Romans, for instance, almost never sat in chairs, preferring to stand or recline, while modern Japanese are still perfectly happy sitting on the floor, even well into their elder years. The idea that sitting in a backed chair is comfortable is a modern, Western notion, and one we’re currently learning has all sorts of health drawbacks. Also keep in mind that ancient and medieval Christian worship involved the average parishioner much more actively, with a lot of kneeling and recitation, and climaxed with the entire congregation coming forward for communion.

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.

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.

In other words, they were pretty much the exact opposite of what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this person,” and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Of course, for this and numerous other reasons (see also: cramming poor congregants into a smaller and smaller space as more and more rich people demanded space for luxury pews), clergy began to speak out against them—but as is often the case, they were shouted down by economic concerns. Churches were getting more and more expensive to build and maintain, and pew sales and rentals were providing a large chunk of that funding (especially in America, where churches weren’t publicly funded). 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?


58 Comments

  1. During a cathedral tour in Germany, they showed us the pews designated for the wealthy. These had full body portraits of the owners painted on them (a portrait for each seat and member of the family!) so it was very clear that this was THEIR pew.

  2. My friend, you do not need to look far to find the Church that continues the ancient tradition of standing during worship and not having pews. That Church is the Orthodox Christian Church. Some may have pews due to certain accommodations made in response to American culture, but, you will be able to find an Orthodox parish near you that does not use pews. Not only that, but the Orthodox Church also continues to believe and practice the original Christian faith as taught by the apostles. I encourage you to visit an Orthodox parish near you.

    1. They do have usually a few differently shaped pews in the back of their churches for the elderly and a throne for when the bishop visits.

    2. Omaha, NE. St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox church.

      SEATS AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE.

      Seating is primarily a Western phenomenon, even in Eastern churches in the West.

      It is a cultural thing.

    3. Just because one church has places to sit during worship, hence American culture, doesn’t make it wrong. Just as the Orthodox churches do not provide places for all to sit is their culture…we shouldn’t try to change it for change sake. What is more important is the position of the heart in worship and WHO you worship!

    4. My friend, the Orthodox Church of today would not be recognized by Peter, Paul, or any of the other apostles. It is entirely naive to believe that it has not mutated and modified with many accretions over the centuries. Orthodoxy needs the Reformation.

  3. I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for 13 years. Both parishes I’ve belonged to have been pew
    free. We stand in an open space and there are a few benches around the perimeter for people who need them. Some Orthodox churches have adopted pews, but many have not.

  4. Pew rent continued into the 20th Century. After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother couldn’t afford the pew rent in her small northern Wisconsin Catholic church. A few months after the funeral she came to church on a Sunday with her family only to be turned away from the family pew and told she would have to sit in the back. She marched out of the church and never darkened the door of a church the rest of her life.

  5. Very interesting and enlightening. I don’t remember reading about the rich folks paying for the best seats, up front, leaving the back seats for the poor. That’s at least part of the reason for the Free Methodist denomination.

  6. And when your “come to church” sales pitch is essentially “Listen to me yammer about Jesus for several hours!”

    PRICELESS!!!

    And that is, sir, the honest truth. When I was Protestant, a new preacher for the congregation was chosen on his yammer, and that pretty much alone.

  7. What a nice article! A bit of accurate history, presented well.

    To this day Byzantine and most other Eastern Christian Churches (both Orthodox and Catholic) do not have pews (though most have a few benches along the walls for the elderly). Many sit during the sermon, and it’s not uncommon for smaller children to sleep on the floor. The exception is North America, where they have mostly adapted the customs of Western Christians.

  8. One of the practical reasons for box pew was for heat. Many churches were built long before central heat. People would bring coals from their fire at home, in a pot or something else that wouldn’t burn the floor. It is much easier to heat a box pew than the entire church. However, private pews were real estate and the better pews were much more expensive than the less desirable seats. I’ve seen the pew rent rosters from my church, built in 1827. The best seats on the center aisle went for about $1000, while the seats in the balcony were rented for $12. You can guess where the servants sat.

    1. I am such a sucker for a balcony seat. I guess it’s because I have such good memories of sitting up in the balcony with all the other teenagers, sneaking a banned Starburst every now and again, or trying to fill out the New York Times crossword while only half-paying attention to the preacher.

      It was sort of like the Wild, Wild West of church. You were still at church, and therefore doing your duty, but it was the anything-goes bit of the sanctuary.

      Are teenagers the new servants? Food for thought.

  9. While I agree in the general thrust of the article, the author gets a few things wrong.

    1. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, people received communion very rarely beginning, so the practice of everybody going up to receive every Sunday, as in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, or Lutheran churches of today, hardly ever happened. Even on the rare occasions when people did receive (about once a year) it was after mass from the reserved sacrament. The Reformation churches actually increased the regularity of communion. In most Protestant churches people were required to receive at least four times of year in order to remain in good standing within the church.

    2. With few exceptions, pews were assigned to various families by the vestry or board of trustees both in the Church of England and in the Puritan breakaway congregations according to the family’s status in the larger community. The custom of buying or renting pews came about with the advent of “proprietary chapels” in the 18th century. These were extra-parochial and thus relied entirely on the income derived from their members rather than taxes. This practice became the norm after the American Revolution in the U.S. and the reduction of government support from the European states beginning in the late 18th century.

    3. The luxury pews that Harrington refers to were few and far between and were reserved for political figures and great landowners, i.e. the “gentry.” While most of the other seating were box pews, and people could embellish them or make them more comfortable with cushions or the occasional chair, this was not the norm until the 19th century and really only applied to congregations in the Reformed tradition.

  10. Head east young man.
    Eastern Orthodox Churches STILL eschew pews, especially Russian and Slavic (Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian etc) ones.
    The Greeks seems to have bowed to Western culture and installed pews, and most newer Orthodox churches in America of the Antiochian (Arab) and Greek jurisdictions also have them.

    However–there is still usually a lot of addition space for standing and moving around. And seeing people perform (full) prostrations during certain points in the Liturgy, move around to kiss icons or lights candles–is common. Children are welcome in the service as well—we are very comfortable with a bit of additional movement happening during the service, and understand worship needs to be physical–on multiple levels, in multiple ways. Truly participatory–not just sitting on your seat and listening to a sermon.

    I appreciated your article—makes you wonder what ELSE got thrown by the wayside and just how important it might be…? ;-)

    God bless you!

  11. We stand in my church. We have only a few chairs and small benches for elderly and those who simply can’t stand. We are the unchanged church.

  12. The box pews were also for warmth. Families would take fire pots in and close the doors sitting around them. But, the rest is pretty kuch it. I stll have the rent permit for my family’s pew in the church I was Confirmed in.

  13. Most Orthodox churches still don’t have pews, and you’ll see lots of people milling around all through the service. I visited our local Russian Orthodox church for Easter service and was on my feet for nearly four hours! It’s funny, though, how a lack of pews made the service feel more communal, like we were all worshiping as a single organism.

    1. They do have usually a few differently shaped pews in the back of their churches for the elderly and a throne for when the bishop visits.

  14. Some hint on ” … There’s no record of whether they engaged in stage dives and crowd surfing, so we’re forced to assume they did…”: See St Augustus and his anoyingly long Sermons – there is a record on a listener falling to death out of a window he was aparantly sitting in while listening (or not) to said sermon. Death by sermon…

  15. Dear Luke – well done! I have dedicated my life to the removal of pews in churches (among many other things!) in a way which breaks what is quite a serious spiritual curse over our mission centres and which allows totally new mission and financial models to flourish and help save our heritage and future! Yours sincerely, Rev Graham Singh (St Jax Montreal / Anglican Diocese of Montreal) .

  16. James chapter 2 gives us insight into the earliest church meetings – They sat:
    “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”

  17. I’d like to add that people didn’t take baths. So it stunk. A church pew caused people to say what it was like “pew.” Right?

  18. When I left the Methodist church for Orthodoxy I discovered this history of pew, that the early church didn’t use them etc. Traditional Orthodox churches still don’t have peer, they would get in the way of doing prostrations and so on.

    The curious thing I found was that some Orthodox churches in this country who are housed in formerly Protestant churches kept the pews so they would appear more American! It makes it awkward tho, since you’re standing for 2 hours in between rows of pews…

    Now I am back in the Methodist church and enjoying the pews, lol.

    1. The Orthodox Mass can last four hours. Except on Christmas and Easter most of the faithful either do not go at all, or show up the last hour and often half hour. Pews are the least of the problem in churches. Not everyone can stand for hours.

  19. Yes, and I enjoyed the humor.

    Except in the medieval church the whole community did not surge forward to receive communion. By the Middle Ages, receiving communion was rare – four times a year seems to have been the norm. One had to have permission from one’s priest or confessor to receive communion frequently, and it raised eyebrows and could be the cause of scandal. To do so caused your neighbors and church official to fear you had fallen into heresy, were emotionally-unbalanced religiosity, or thought you were holier than the rest of them. The emphasis was on seeing -adoring the host as the priest raised it at the consecration. The sanctus bells were the cue to look up from your beads or the devotional book you were using. It took centuries after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and a lot of liturgical reform to change the congregation’s pattern, really not accomplished until the 20th century. Mine is correct, but sorely lacks your humor.

  20. Hope you will visit an Eastern Orthodox Church where the tradition is kept, maybe during Lent when the absence of pews allows for the congregation to do prostrations (note, some congregations have caved in to pews, ugh).

    1. More often than not, it is because the orthodox congregation bought the building with the pre-existing pews.

  21. Whap happened to the old and frail? Or the sick and those who have problems standing? I used to be able to stand for services but I cannot stand for long periods any more. Surely the Christians of old were also humans with back problems and health issues or even old age?

  22. That is one of several reasons for the name Free Methodist Church. When they seperated from the Methodist church the seat was free.

  23. In Acts 2 the Holy Ghost came into the house where they were sitting. Maybe the church should have never stood.

  24. That was both informative and hilarious-thanks! My favorite part-we have no record of them doing stage dives & crowd surfing, so we have to assume they did. 😂😂😂

  25. This leaves me with a simple proverb from Confucious, “man who fart in church sit in pew”.

  26. This article is incorrect about how standing became the norm. Early church meetings were in house churches and the communion was an actual meal where they sat and ate after reading Scripture. It was not until Christianity became the official religion of Rome, (Constantine c.f.), and the worship became an official state ceremony held in large basilicas that people started standing—because there were not enough chairs for everyone. The Eastern Church retained this no chairs and gave it a theological reason; whereas, the Western Church started having non-communicating masses where everything happened behind the rood screen including the priest or bishop communicating FOR the people. They then processed the host out from behind the screen in a monstrance so those in the nave could have “ocular communion.” (The Eastern Orthodox tradition still celebrates this way with the host and wine commingled then processed out from behind the iconostasis and then only those who prepared themselves for communion that week may partake.) At this point the congregants had nothing to do for most of the mass so they sat and recited the Latin prayers from rote and waited for the bells to signal it was time to pay attention. The reason for non-communicating masses was simple as well, people feared taking communion because if they dropped the host it was a mortal sin. That’s one of the reasons they started placing the host on the tongue directly—if it fell, it was the priest’s sin and not the communicant’s.

  27. We need many more articles as this on the many cultural and spiritual history of the Church. Let our historical and present differences help bring us together.

  28. While I’m glad that our Orthodox friends have seen clear to not worry themselves about seating, I honestly don’t think whether we sit or stand is all that important and definitely not even a remotely determinative factor when choosing a denomination. The church, in her long history, has done it both ways and if we’re gonna try to one up each other with the “right way” or “the truly early church way”, I believe a few more scenes straight from the pages of the New Testament bear mentioning.
    Luke tells us that, after Christ had read the Isaiah passage concerning himself, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Acts also tells us the apostles went to Antioch on a Sabbath, entered the synagogue and sat down. (Acts 13:14) We know the early church naturally incorporated some elements from the synagogues and we know sitting was what folks did (and still do) during a synagogue service albeit on mats for some people in Jesus’ day. I appreciate the reference to James, as the early church itself was in full swing by then and sitting was a thing.
    That said, I would have to admit that the origin and practices surrounding the use of pews in America is, at times, pretty weird. But people in the past did strange stuff at times even outside of the church. Remember how Shakespeare’s original audience stood in the Globe Theater back in Elizabethan England? Oh sure, you could sit down if you were willing to pay enough…kinda reminds you of….well, you get the point. As for me, I’m still way more interested in what people are believing while they’re sitting or standing. As a Lutheran, although I’m tickled we do have seating, it must be said that a significant percentage of the time, we are actually either standing or kneeling, so, other than prostration, we do it all.

  29. Christ Church in Philadelphia (the “birthplace” of the U.S. Episcopal Church) had such pews; even the parish records will tell you where George Washington and Ben Franklin Sat when they attended.

  30. A side note from Scotland, which I discovered when doing some research into the history of our church, which was built as a mission church in a poor mining village by the Church of Scotland, originally supervised by the church in the next town. The old church building was maintained by the local Protestant landowners, and when it was renovated in the late 19th century the landowners also renovated the pews, and then informed the Kirk Session of which pews they had reserved for themselves, and which pews the congregation could have access to! When our church was opened the supervising church tried to rent out the pews: there was a standard rate for all pews except the one farthest from the pulpit, which was cheaper! When the mission church became a Parish Church pew rents were quietly forgotten about.

  31. It might be worth noting that pews did exist and increasingly featured in churches before the Reformation– from the 14th century, in fact. They were not in any sense a post-Reformation development. Much scholarship has been done on this subject, some of the best in the early part of the last century. See Cox and Harvey, English Church Furniture (1907) and Howard and Crossley, English Church Woodwork (1917).

  32. While our Episcopal Church has pews, we stand for most of the service. Just sit for the lessons and long boring sermon.

  33. I always heard the pew deeds in early NewEngland time were also in order for men to have deeded property. When only deeded property-owning men had voting rights this deed gave voting.

  34. (1) Box pews have fortunately been retained or restored in many of the US east coast colonial churches – such as my own, King’s Chapel, Boston- warmer in winter, churches which generally have far more respect for historic interiors than many churches in England. (2) People now live longer and we need to encourage elderly people to keep coming to church. Many Orthodox churches here in Australia DO now have pews including, for example, the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Sydney. (3) At 81, unable to stand on the one spot for long – though still able and keen to kneel – I am simply angered by those who replace pews with chairs. When kneeling for prayer, I can lean against the pew in front, and that pew also helps me to get up. The interior of too many historic churches here and in the UK are once again being disfigured by the removal of pews (and don’t get me started on placing altars in front of altars, and the installing of screens in beautiful spaces that I cannot look up to – literally because of an arthritic neck, or metaphorically when the beautiful east window of S.Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney is by philistines hidden during Divine Service).

  35. The great nineteenth century English church reformer, John Mason Neale waged a campaign against pews and, if you can get hold of it, his “History of Pues” might be well worth a read.

  36. While I agree with your overall thesis, there are some sweeping historical inaccuracies. The Reformation was fecund in its creation of confessions, stuck to the creeds and communal prayer remained key (hence the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer). As a previous commenter has said, Calvin and Cranmer both argued strongly for weekly communion, whereas the medieval Roman church had regressed to just a few times a year. Just because our modern evangelical churches are liturgy-minimal, doesn’t mean their predecessors were.
    In England, the majority of church pews date only from the 19th Century, which is why it is so often the Victorian Society which is challenging churches’ attempts to get rid of pews for more comfortable and flexible chairs.

  37. Thank God you did not talk about the church not using air conditioning for over 1900 years. I would hate to see those units removed to recapture a more primitive church. Although the (pre-air conditioning)church fans that people propelled with their hands were usually furnished by the local funeral homes… which would remind us of our mortality.

  38. You are obviously unfamiliar with the story of Jenny Geddes who threw her stool at the head of the Dean of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was protesting the introduction of the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637. She was reported to have shouted, shouting “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug?”. A “lug” is an ear. A riot then ensued, with other members of the congregation shouting and throwing stools. A woodcut from that time shows the rioters throwing fold stools, a type of portable stool that goes back to Roman times.

  39. Interesting article, though I did not see any references. Of course if you wanted to go all the back to the apostles days, they met in homes daily and on Shabbat went to the synagogue or the temple and used whatever seating or lack thereof was available as described in the early chapters of the book of Acts. But the Protestant movement did not go back to the original design of the assembly. Rather, as the article states, they threw out those things they felt were too specifically Catholic and kept those things they wanted – apparently adding the pew. Maybe the pew then should be the symbol of the Protestant organizations.

  40. Fun to read. The Episcopal church I attend required pew rents into the 1950s. A prime pew was about $5000.00/year. There were some free seats in the balconies.
    All are welcomed now.

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