For many years, pew rentals were an accepted fundraising means of many Christian churches. Patrons and parishioners would pay a regular fee for the privilege of reserving a certain bench or seat for themselves, their guests or designees. I believe the practice has fallen out of favor in western Christianity today; but it did go on for quite a long time, harking back to the Middle Ages, where the “godly elite could warm their distinguished persons” in front of private fires, behind walls and screens that separated them from other congregants.
The rentals would help the church meet its expenses, but it also provided a means for social distinction – the see-and-be-seen seats up front cost a great deal more than the po’ folk seats in the back, and people sitting on seats that didn’t cost anything were advertising their indigence, or their unwillingness to support the Church’s work. There was also the unsettling spectacle of a visitor or new attendee being asked to vacate their chosen seat by someone who had paid for it. These factors motivated church leaders of many denominations to move away from the pew rental system.
Still, the opposite, a “free pew” system where offerings were voluntary and less public had its drawbacks advertised as well. In a fascinating 1894 article by Rev. Frank E. Ramsdell, he explained that, despite the “earnest and altruistic arguments of those who plead for a more Christian democracy in our churches”, the free pew system was introduced in his church and then quickly abandoned. He explained that under the free system:
The distribution of the audience was in inverse ratio to the distance from the choir and pulpit. The back seats resembled a crowded political gathering; the front seats reminded one of a well-inhabited cemetery. Families no longer were sure of sitting together…The young people no longer sat with their parents, but were inclined to gravitate toward one another. Priceless associations were being destroyed. Lifelong friends ceased to feel the social and spiritual re-enforcement of mutual worship. Historic pews were losing their precious power of tender and hallowed memories. The child now grown to manhood no longer bowed in worship in the old accustomed place where in the early years the mother joined with him in praise and prayer. The little conveniences which each family adds from time to time – the cricket, the marked Bible, the extra hymn book, fan, note-book and pencil, provided perhaps by those dead or absent – were missed more and more as one after another earnestly and almost sadly declared, “I have no church – I do not feel at home.”
Wow, Rev. Ramsdell does go on. While I think he’s talking his own book to justify the change back, I don’t doubt that there were some awkward dislocations surrounding the change, and people were not altogether comfortable uprooting a system that had had a strong influence on local culture and relationships for generations. But one supposes that communities can find an equilibrium in most any system.
Pew renters also faced practical, non-spiritual problems, the same way that a householder doesn’t often have much control over who moves in next door. Here is a pew reservation slip from 1834, in the Parish Church of Cranbrook, Kent, England. My Drawbridge ancestors lived in Cranbrook for 130 years, and I found it while looking for evidence about them (my Aunt Drawbridge’s name actually appears on another slip).
I have no sitting in the Church as the Pew N1 that I was accustomed to sit in is filled with children; in consequence I have absented myself from the church some time and shall still do the same until a comfortable sitting is provided for me.
Whether Cranbrook Church offered the front row to the most generous donors I am not actually certain. However Mr. Seymour certainly behaved himself a customer whose needs were not being met.
(Further comment should be made on the change in audience distribution. In Rev. Ramsdell’s congregation, the only way to induce patrons to sit in the front rows was to make it a mark of honor and distinction and charge them for the privilege. Otherwise, then as now, people crowded to the back. Apparently, once it was free it was no longer worth having.)