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Church Pews: A Historical Perspective

Oct 31, 2007
Churches have seen a lot of radical changes over the last couple of centuries. Some of the changes have revolved around ideologies while some were reflected in the different styles of church pews that have evolved over the years.

Some of the early Christian designers and architects had developed a centralized plan that was based purely on a circular shape, or the polygon or square. The most important aspect of the centralized plan was the centre of the entire structure that was dominated by a dome at the top. This plan worked well because the congregation attending churches were standing and not seated. Hence pews were not used in the medieval times.

The pews were a dominant feature in various churches in the period between 1600 and 1800. During this time, social rank was considered as a major influence in the seating arrangements and those with higher social status were able to sit in the church pews closest to the pulpit. All churches had a separate section of pews that were meant for seating general public while others were set aside for special groups. The different types of seating arrangements in a church included pews for the poor, adolescents, deaf/hard of hearing, widows and black people. Church pews for black people were known as Negro Pews. Some of the churches had numbered Negro pews and even labeled them as "Negro."

Another seating arrangement in churches in the bygone era included slave owners paying to purchase pew space for their servants or slaves. In the period between 1840 and 1930, the church shifted from having private seating arrangements to free pews and open seating arrangements. This led to the coining of the term: "free church".

The early years of the 19th century brought in several reforms and led to the collapse of the old parish system. The old parish system was set during the 12th century and meanwhile the surrounding landscape in England was changing at an enormously rapid rate. Cities were growing up fast like Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and London. In spite of that there was no guarantee that you may find pews even in the neighborhood church. Seating accommodation was still haphazard and disorganized. Most of the churches rented out their pews to individual families and in some of the churches, there were pews in the name of a house. As a result, there was great pressure in the church as no one else could sit on the pews except the ones who have rented it. Churches resorted to making free seating arrangements along the galleries to cope up with the problem but this was insufficient especially in the light of increasing population.

Since 1930, there have been major changes in the seating arrangements in churches across the world and also in the US where an increasing democratic ideology was removing the demarcation that separated the white from the black people. In the post Civil War era, most of the churches added new fittings and furniture that included box pews and pulpits.

The post war era also saw reformation that affected the design of the church. The pulpit became a prominent feature, and was placed behind the Communion Table. The communion table replaced the altar. If we look over the different periods when the church architecture and pews went through changes, we will find that the changes were driven by theological considerations. Today, theological considerations have no place within the modern architecture of churches all over the world.

Some of the churches have even experimented with the rearrangement of the church pews and there was a time when parishioners sat across each other in a face to face seating arrangement. The church pews were introduced in the Middle Age and the seating arrangements were meant only for those who needed to sit like the elderly or infirms. As time passed, Bishops got their chairs and this was followed by church pews for the ministers and the congregation. In the modern world, all churches have pews to accommodate most of people attending mass.

The pew seating arrangement was seen as a Northern European invention and there was a time when the wealthy people bought their pews. In some of the churches, there were pews based on the gender. But those were the medieval ages and things have changed radically in the 20th century. Today there is no difference between white or black, no gender separation or wealthy and poor: anyone and everyone can sit on the church pews and reach out to God.
About the Author
Graciella Chairman is a Church chairs designer based in Muenster Texas dedicated to providing churches, sanctuaries and temples with quality Church Chairs.
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