The History of the Church Pew

Courtroom benches

If you’ve ever been in a church, you’ve probably seen that bit of church furniture commonly called churchpews. Church pews are typically arrayed in lines or a semicircle facing the front of the church, and we’ve been using them for a long time. Before the Protestant Reformation that began in the year 1517, most churches didn’t have churchpews. At least not permanent ones. So how did they come to be as important a part of the modern church building as the church steeple or the portable baptismal pool, and how have they changed over the years?

The Rise of the Sermon

Protestant Christians at the time of the Reformation began to emphasize the teaching of the Bible, which meant listening to the Bible explained in a sermon. Sermons had existed before, of course, but they weren’t all that long. The emphasis in many medieval Roman Catholic churches was on the mass. At that time, people often simply stood. Once they started having to attend sermons that could run a couple of hours, it became important to have churchpews for them to sit on.

The Earliest Churchpews

Since Christianity was illegal for the first three centuries of its existence, there are very few church buildings from that time. The first things like a church pew were stone benches that were placed along the church walls. These could be removed and rearranged as needed, but they didn’t appear until the 1200s. Prior to that, most congregations stood. It’s not clear if the stone benches were really that much of an improvement over standing, though.
>h3> Churchpew Rentals

Once churches started using benches made of wood, it eventually became common practice to rent them out to families of anyone else who might need a lot of seating. This was an important way some churches raised money, but in the 1840s and 1850s it became a huge controversy, and eventually the practice was ended.

Pew Designs and Arrangements

Once it became common to make or buy church pews made of wood, the design and arrangement became very important. From the 17th century till the middle of the 19th century, a lot of churches, particularly in the UK, arranged their seating by social class. The higher your class, the closer to the front you would stand. It was also common to have churchpews with kneelers attached at the back, so that the people behind could fold down the kneelers and kneel on them for prayer. Some church pews today are cusnioned seating, but the typical antique church pews would be made entirely of plain wood.

The pew is an essential piece of church furniture for most modern churches. And while a lot of the essential aspects of worship haven’t changed, the pews have changed a bit. Today’s pews are far more comfortable than the old ones, providing a bit of back support and a lot of cushions. But one thing is for certain: so long as people gather publically to worship, they’ll be needing a place to sit.

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