The box pew mentality

August 10th, 2011 · by Tom Stuart · Church History, News & Reflections

Last Friday I spent a day in Boston sightseeing with relatives.  Our major focus was what is called the Freedom Trail with sites that trace the history of American Independence and the start of the Revolutionary War.  The trail begins at Boston Common and ends at Bunker Hill and is actually marked by a red brick line set right in the sidewalk pavement.  Along the way a person can visit places where the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party took place, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s House, Old North Church and Old Ironsides.

For me, the most fascinating stop on the tour was the Old North Church.  Old North which is formally called Christ Church in Boston was built as an Anglican Church in 1723 and is the oldest standing church in Boston.  From its steeple on the night of April 18, 1775, the “one if by land, two if by sea” warning signal was given of the march of the British toward Lexington and Concord.  Paul Revere made his historic midnight ride to alert the minutemen and the next morning the “shot heard ‘round the world” signaled the start of the Revolutionary War. 

Old North Church

What really struck me were the pews.  They are box pews, which were common in colonial New England.  Box pews basically segment the church into compartments defined by five foot high walls and are large enough to accommodate an entire family with benches along two of the walls.

Church seating often reveals much about the nature and quality of the worship experience that is expected.  How seats are arranged is deeply influenced by the desired level of formality or informality of the liturgy and architectural restrictions in seating a large group of people so that they can see and hear a speaker.  In recent years we have come to recognize the limitations of traditional seating arrangements when it comes to encouraging relationship building and fellowship.  That is why, with our rows of pews or chairs, we often joke about fellowshipping the back of one another’s necks and talk about the necessity of participating in small group gatherings beyond the confines of the Sunday morning worship experience.

In researching the history and purpose of the box pew I found it to be a prophetic foreshadowing and caricature of our present day Sunday church service.  It is theorized that the pew walls resulted from the fact that early churches were not heated and the walls minimized drafts serving to keep the occupants relatively warm in winter.  Families typically would sit together.  Members of the congregation had to purchase their pews and pay a yearly rental to maintain them.  Different pews had different prices depending upon their location.  Those on the center aisle and near the front fetched a higher price.  It entitled the owner exclusive use of that pew and in some churches the pew boxes were even furnished and decorated to their owner’s tastes. 

Where families sat indicated their social status and so the church was not only physically segmented but socially segmented as well.  The high walls also afforded people privacy in both their worship and non devotional activities.  I can understand now why the pulpit in many of the old churches was in a perch constructed high above the congregation, so everyone could see the preacher and he could see them.

Why is it that although box pews no longer exist to separate and segment us we still have the tendency to insulate ourselves when we come to church?  Is a “box pew mentality” simply part of our human nature?  I think it is. You can take the box pew out of the church but until you take it out of people’s minds it is still there.  We love our privacy and we like sitting in the same seats week after week even though we don’t own them.  Realistically, big gathering are just not a conducive setting for dropping our walls and sharing our turf.  Some people naturally feel more comfortable doing that than others, but most do not.

I believe the real solution to the box pew mentality is simply to take it out of the church and enlarge it.  That’s right.  What I am advocating is small group involvement.  A small group is like a box pew that has been expanded to include several families where warmth, fellowship and worship can be shared in a safe environment.  Getting to know people, studying the Bible together and serving together as a small group is the best antidote I know to the box pew mentality.  It takes that basic human tendency, the box pew mentality and redirects it into meaningful relationships and spiritual growth in God.

Do you have any thoughts on this topic?

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5 Responses to “The box pew mentality”

  1. Loved this post-
    We visited Old North Church this past Spring and I was also taken with the box pews. I thought about how cozy it could have felt (think of those big dresses in those boxes, several of them perhaps) and how it would have felt to be a ‘have not’ in a side back box, a less desirable pew- and watch the ‘haves’ in their primo box seats with better creature comforts- I wondered how that was in play today. And l love your concept of expanding the ‘box’ mentality to a small group- great analogy!

  2. Thanks for your comment Judy. Like you I felt the social stratification was unsettling, particularly in the light of James 2:1-4 1 where the church is warned not to show such favoritism. “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 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,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

  3. Exactly! You have to wonder what they did with that! Maybe just became Quakers : )

  4. Greetings! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the excellent work!

  5. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a note of encouragement! Blessings!!!

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