You probably are thinking that its a silly question to ask: Why do we have pews in church? After all, its only natural to have a place to sit where you will be for an extended period of time, like when celebrating Mass. Today, we enter into a church and find a seat within the pews and remain in that spot for the entire service. Seems simple, right? Well, it may surprise you that pews in church are a relatively recent phenomenon in Catholic history. Long ago, parishioners would typically remain standing for the entire Mass, with only brief periods of kneeling. So what changed to make pews the standard in churches across the globe?

Before around the 13th century, almost all parishioners would stand during the entirety of the celebration of Mass. While there was scant seating for the weak and elderly, Medieval churchgoers would spend almost on their time on two feet. This was because the pulpit was placed in the center of churches, so laity would have walk to the priest if they wanted to hear the homily well. The lack of pews also facilitated enough space for all churchgoers to kneel during the service.

Starting around the 13th century, simple benches made of stone began to appear in churches across England, generally around the perimeter. Eventually these benches made their way to the nave, and were fixed in place on the floor. By the 15th century, stone was replaced with wooden pews that became relatively common across churches in England. However, in the rest of the world, this was not the case.

It was not until the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that pews started to take hold. In early Protestant worship, the focus shifted away from liturgies and more towards the sermon given by a preacher, along with their discourse and discussion over interpreting the Bible. Over time, nearly every church in England made use of the standard pews in the nave as we see today.

In the beginning, pews were installed inside churches at the expense of the congregants. Families would purchase pews for their use during Mass and guard them voraciously, even locking them up in pew boxes to prevent use by others. They would be issued pew titles, similar to the deed of a house or a car title, indicating ownership of the pews. Over time, churches were able to afford their own pews for installation. In these cases, pews would be rented out to worshipers to provide funds for parishes. This practice of pew renting was brought over from England into the United States, when churches had no secure way of raising funds. This practice and the usage of pews came to be adopted by the Catholic Church as a result of the pews prevalence in the United States. With the addition of pews to Catholic Churches in the United States and England, Mass shifted to make use of them. Homilies were extended because congregants could sit for them, and sitting during various parts of the liturgy became common.

While most have adopted the usage of pews, Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Byzantine rite generally do not use them for various reasons. In one essay on a popular Orthodox website, it is said that “Pews teach the lay people to stay in their place, which is to passively watch what’s going on up front, where the clergy perform the Liturgy on their behalf.”

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t find that to be a recent adaption to have pews. Pews may not have always been part of the plan when churches were first established, but seating came into the churches relatively quickly from reading the item. I am grateful they did along with kneelers. I do not care for the Churches who pulled out their pews and kneelers and put in folding chairs with the introduction of the Novis Ordo.

  2. I have seen recent changes in most churches, Protestant especially as I have only been in a few Catholic Churches in my life, being Protestant most of my life, and those Catholic, they still have Pews. We recently visited an 1100 year old Anglican Church in England. They told me a year ago all the Pews were removed and replaced with chairs. I was very disappointed. Sad really.
    Churches starting to copy each other??? A ripple affect. Ripping out Pews and putting up huge progection screens, calling it a “place” not a church. It’s as if they want to start over with a blank canvas! But why!? That question perhaps without an answer except to “keep up with the times”. I heard a woman in her thirties comment recently she didn’t want to go to church and “feel” like she was at a funeral.
    I actually attended a funeral service yesterday. A Methodist church. I know nothing about Methodist. Anyway, in the Foyer they have a coffee shop set up. I love my coffee the morning but…… :/
    The church I was raised in (Protestant) and we raised our children in; recently moved the communion table to the BACK of the Sanctuary! That was the “straw” for me.
    I’m now in a struggle. The recent scandal in the Catholic Church has me in a quandary. I actually converted to Catholic 3 years ago after much decision and prayer but now…..
    I’m not confused. I’m disappointed.
    I’m at the end of a long road at a fork and I’m stuck there!
    Thanks be to God HIS word is the same yesterday, tomorrow, forever!

    • Our Lord suffers for His bride betrayed to be sure. Don’t leave. Be Mary. Be John – at the foot of the cross. Be there as Christ is re-presented on the altar, and He will always be there for you, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist.

      Your fellow convert

  3. Many people would not be able to stand up for 1-2 hours. Not just aged. Persons who have knee problems, back problems, and a female friend with female issues…her private parts are falling…I have Epilepsy. I look healthy, but if I have a seizure, it could injure me seriously. I recently had a seizure one night on the toilet. Bruised ribs for 2 weeks. It is not a matter of revence or sincerity of heart but none of the people whom I know personally with these types of problems would come to church if we could not sit with support

  4. William O’Donnell Pews are needed in all churches and kneelers should remain in the catholic churches. People cannot stand for a hour or more, just look around you when in church, white head, bald heads & over 75% are now near or over senior age. Children if they do attend are restless enough sitting. You are there to hear the word of God, as well as comments from the pastor or Priest and for Catholic to receive communion. I think more people should pay attention to how they dress for a service or Mass.

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