The Pews, Part 1

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Pews emerged at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Most early churches were built around a dome or central area where priests or preachers would preach, while the congregation stood around. The rise of the pulpit as the focal point of the church with the sermon as a central act of Christian worship, especially in Protestantism, made the pew an indispensable item of church furniture. It allowed the people to sit in stationary position, not looking at each other but looking at the pulpit, all facing the same direction.  In the 1700’s it was common for pews to have a family’s name on them and everyone knew that those pews were reserved for that family. Even if a family did not arrive for worship, the pew was still theirs and remained empty while others stood.  Free pews were set aside for “strangers.”

The pews you sit on every Sunday are the original 1849 pews. There have been three St. George’s Churches, 1730’s, 1815 and 1849. The first Church had wainscoted or paneled pews. We do not have any details of pews in the second church but we know the construction of the last two churches was financed entirely by the sale of the pews though. In 1849 the Church was both sufficient in size to handle an enlarged Church population and the Church was debt free.  The Church raised over $24,000 then ($500,000+ in today’s dollars) by selling 80% of the pews. Pew sales are not just Episcopalian and can be found in the Congregational Churches, Catholic and Presbyterian Churches.

St. George’s pews can be studied in several ways. One way is to look at pews as objects and how they have changed in numbers and surface based on shifts in the interior design of the Church and parishioner needs. 100 pews were built for the 1849 Church, 8’,8” long and 13” wide. At first they were gained, gradually “darkened” after 1925 and finally painted in the early 1950’s. Over time pews have been lost due to modifications in the Church and also to cater to current needs, particularly handicapped parishioners.  We can see how these changes are reflected in the renovations of the Church. The pews contain more than the seats. There are the book rack, kneelers, cushions and in some cases memorial plates that adorn the tops of the pews. In many Churches families decorated their pews to provide their own touches.  In St. George’s families added their own carpeting.

Another way is to consider the purchase and tax of the pews which is the financial component. Pews ownership was demonstrated in a deed similar to real estate. Like real estate owners pew owners were taxed beginning shortly after the Civil War, a practice that continued until 1943. Trends in this taxing tell us about changing revenue trends in the Church for almost 100 years. The changes in America and the inability to collect the tax by 1930 led to the demise of the system in 1943.

A final way is to study the families and individuals who bought these pews.  Besides financing the Church,

pew ownership reflected a sense of order and stability in the early Church and Fredericksburg.  It is fascinating to see how the pews were retained by families throughout the period.  I selected four periods – 1849, 1907, 1916 and 1939 to study this stability. 10 families of the 80 pews sold owned the same pews through out this period. Another 15 owned pews for three of the four periods. You knew where you could sit and you probably knew those who sat around you. Even today many people tend to sit in the same place and consider it “their pew”. I have heard of people coming to the Church in this century and being told they were sitting in “someone else’s pew”. Note that even when pews were sold, approximately 20% of the Church contained “free pews” for “strangers”, a term used from the 1700’s to the 1900’s.

To my knowledge, we have never kept attendance figures with names for the Church though communicant lists appear now and then in our history. We do have original list of individuals who bought the 1849 pews as well as the prices paid for them. The Heritage Center archives has Edgar M. Young’s pew book showing the ownership of the pews from 1899-1943 and how well the tax was paid.  We have a framed picture of pew ownership done by Philip Lanier in 1917. An entire book could be done of the various people that have occupied the pews and the role they played in St. George’s and in the life of Fredericksburg. The Wallace family, for instance served as judges, mayors and Bank presidents for decades.

There have been controversies involving at least two pews that have been recorded by the Vestry minutes, a key source in studying our early history. Some historians have taken pew research further.  For example, there have been studies in New England correlating pew purchases with tax records showing emerging class formation and shifts in the early 19th century.  We can actually do something very similar with the 1849 Church,

Go to The Pews, Part 2