History of Church Seating

Church Pew Pictures, Images and PhotosIt’s happening again. Another local church is talking about ditching the traditional pews in favor of something more plush and comfortable. I really feel uneasy about this. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere in Leviticus a warning about the ungodliness of a relaxed posterior and the slippery slope of comfortable worship. In fact, I’ve always believed that when Noah descended from the Ark, right after he kissed the ground and gave thanks, God handed him another set of plans for turning those spent boat planks into splintery, uncomfortable seats of holiness to be placed in all the sweltering hot outdoor summer revival meetings I attended as a child. The backs of my legs still bear the imprint of the wooden slats. Through the first eleven years of my life, I thought this is what was meant when the Bible says that God will put His mark on you.

Amazingly, the idea of sitting in church didn’t even emerge until the Reformation. It’s true! Up till that time, those poor German peasants worked hard all week long and then went to church on the day of rest to do what? STAND and listen to a sermon in a language they didn’t even speak. You may not have known this, but when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, thesis number 58 was, “It’s time to let us sit down in church for crying out loud!”

It seems odd that the stand-at-church practice ever came into being in the first place. After all, the earliest churches were in people’s homes. No cathedrals, no stained glass, no gymnasiums for the athletic outreach program. (Actually…they considered an athletic program, but during the gladiator period, this required equipment that was beyond the budget abilities <and strength of stomach> of most home churches.) Nope, there were virtually no buildings of any sort. Admittedly, it’s kind of hard to build big impressive structures when you’re on the run from Saul and his little band of stone throwers. That’s why archaeological sites only find foundations. They never got the chance to build the wall.

The separate seating of men and women was also a common practice for centuries, both in the Old and New Testament days. It’s even practiced in some places today. Folks upholding this practice will tell you that there are many unexpected benefits to this arrangement. No single or widowed member would ever again feel isolated. Teens would gather round and greet the elderly matron, perhaps even sitting with her during the service. A recently widowed gentleman would not be suddenly sitting alone, but rather would be surrounded by the fellowship of his band of brothers. And of course, the distractibility of courting couples would be minimized by the geographic separation. But by far, my favorite of the reasons offered by these separate supporters was that when speaking of sins more at home in one sex over the other, the pastor no longer had to cast his glance about the room like a tennis match judge, finding the faces for whom the message applied. They were all pooled together in one neat little package. Really. That’s what they said. I’m not sure about this, but it does explain why my Pastor wears a neck brace the day after a sermon on pride.

In some churches you’ll see kneelers. These little flip down steps of wonder were put in place for the ease of congregants whose church liturgies involved more and more kneeling. No such devices can be found in the earliest church structures. That’s because the preferred submission position was prostrate (face down, flat on the ground) and the early church architects felt a flip down panel accommodating this practice would require too much space between the pews. Besides, early attempts of this device revealed a flaw that sometimes catapulted would-be-supplicants up and over the altar.

Kneeling became the preferred method of humility. However, for quite some time, congregations needed no such kneelers. They were of hardier stock and found the cold solid stone against their knees refreshing. But then the Church Potluck was introduced and folks began having problems with the getting back up part. Enter: the kneelers. Followed by kneelers not quite so close to the ground. Then, the padded kneelers. Then ,the intricately needlepointed padded kneelers. I think heated gel pads and a lift ticket are the next obvious mutation.  

Now seating is growing more and more like expensive theatrical events. Stain resistant. Deeply cushioned. Padded armrests. Sometimes even with cup holders. I fully expect this trend toward more technology will eventually include an electronic circuitry panel embedded into the backs of the seats in front of us allowing us to provide constant assessment and feedback of the pastor’s efforts.

My current level of interest….hmmm…my mind did wander just a bit there. I’ll give him a 4. Clearly he’s trying. But that passage about Cain and Able could have used a bit more action and drama. A video clip would have been nice. Well, maybe just a 3 then.

I’m thinking we’ve got this backwards. The technology should be on the side of the preacher. If we begin to whisper and be distracted or start nodding off, he would have several buttons of wonder at his disposal. First offense, the chair simply vibrates. Sort of a you’ve-been-warned sensation. The second option would be a sort of elevator that lifts you up over the crowd a good three feet, so that others will know of your transgressions. For the really offensive congregants or those who’ve completely gone to sleep, I’m thinking a mild tazer is in order. You know what they say. If you laid all the sleepers in church end-to-end along the pews…they’d be a lot more comfortable.

I fear for this dangerous direction. This inevitable progression of technology and comfort should probably be nipped in the bud right now. All these concerns have motivated me to form a protest group to bring back the spartan environment of the early church. We’re still working on a name for our organization, but we’ve got our slogan all figured out. “Superior holiness can be yours through better seating.” God’s judgement of our devotion might just be on the line. After all, the mark of God most definitely is not the imprint of a lovely-hued stain-repellent polyester weave.



Filed under Church history

23 responses to “History of Church Seating

  1. amy

    so glad you are starting a blog!!!

  2. Caroline Hogan

    Yes I am all for a call to get out of the comfort zone! (just as long as we don’t go back to wearing a hair shirt!) Waky waky people!
    Let me know if this BLOG writing help with the buzzing going on in your brain and the itching to get it out there! (My brain and fingers are on fire and I don’t know what to do!!! I am not technologically savvy!!!)
    Looking forward to reading more from you Carol!

  3. Dawn

    lol! How about this for a name: “The First Church of Heavenly Discomfort.” Keep it up!

  4. Vivi Miller

    I sat here laughing so hard I had to hold my sides. And you aren’t alone on those hard slatted seats… I used to go with my grandfather to Quaker Meeting… They were so hard that no matter how boring the sermon was (and for a youngster, they were ALL boring), falling asleep would be worse because of the bruises from the pews. It got so bad, that at one point I considered becoming Buddhist… but was afraid I’d get stuck in the Lotus position…
    Love ya 🙂

    • It’s funny, for all my complaining, I have a soft spot in my heart for those dreadful, hard, camp meeting chairs. I actually found a set at an auction and they now have a place of honor in my family room. Of course, no one ever actually sits on them. 🙂

  5. Lori Morgan

    By this point I was truly LOL…
    “The second option would be sort of elevator that lifts you up over the crowd a good three feet, so that others will know of your transgressions.”

    I sent this on to my Pastor.

    Love it!

  6. tgmagazine

    Very funny, Carol! Look forward to reading more. Heather

  7. Kimberly

    This was really an excellent read and so much truth found in it! Thanks for sharing this as too much emphasis is placed on comfort instead of worship it seems, at least at times.

  8. CarrieZ

    Our church has the pews on the bottom floor and seats up in the balcony where we sit. Except the seats are a little snug and we have yet to find a place where my 6’3″ hubby can put his legs comfortably. 🙂

    (I think something might be wrong with your RSS feed link–I’ll check back later.)

  9. Terese

    Brilliant! Thx for the chuckle on this gray Tuesday morning! 🙂

  10. Liz D.

    Very funny! My only concern is the pastor may feel led to randomly tazer folks out of sheer excitement!

  11. Irene

    Learned a lot…laughed more. Thanks for the piece, Carol!

  12. Carolyn

    Love it! I can’t believe that I also was actually fond of those creaky campmeeting pews despite a sore bum. And those comfy chairs that lock together make cleaning the sanctuary harder. Can we talk about being on your face with your nose pressed into a smelly carpet? I think the old method of wood floors with the carpet running down the middle was better for both cleaning and sniffing!

  13. Literally laughing with tears rolling down my face. I can so see our church with lots of people three feet in the air. What would really be funny is if you went up and down according to how much attentive you were. People would probably pay to come cuz it’d be like an amusement park.

  14. Carol

    I think my pastor would enjoy the buttons of wonder way too much! Thanks for sharing this!

  15. Julie Astbury

    Sept. 6
    Hi Carol,
    I just read all of your “essays” and enjoyed them all. Thanks. You’ve reminded me not to be irkible, except for that woodchuck that is eating our winter squash. I’m beyond irkible; I’m out for the kill. Paul is fetching a trap and the woodchuck will be removed and relocated.
    No need to comment back to me; I know you are cloistered this week. Julie A.

  16. Tanya B

    I love standing in our little, intimate non-denominational church. Sometimes 50 other people are standing and sometimes it’s just a couple of us.

    Now I know why I love to stand…because it’s in our roots!

    Thanks for the history lesson.
    Blessings to you and your loved ones!!!

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