The box pew mentality

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 atBunker 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 inBoston. 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 towardLexington andConcord. 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 ChurchWhat 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

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