Wednesday, May 4, 2022

A Brief History of Pew Rental

Pew Boxes at Old North Church, Boston

A few days ago, I posted some pictures of Christ Church in Philadelphia, including the pews rented by Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin, and was surprised by the number of comments inquiring about pew rental. Most were curious, others horrified, but I saw an opportunity to look into were this practice originated and what caused it to fall out of style.

Pew at Christ Church, Philadelphia
held by John and Betsy Ross

Pews started appearing regularly in churches around the time of the Reformation in the early 16th century. Before this time, people typically stood or, if the occasion required, brought their own portable seating. The building of permanent pews or pew boxes was originally funded by those willing to contribute to the cause, thereby also reserving their seat, much like purchasing a seat at a benefit dinner today, though open benches were often placed in the back of the church for those unable or unwilling to rent a private space.

Pews at Christ Church are numbered to ensure
everyone takes the right seat!

This form of church fundraising became particularly popular in America where tithing was not required by law and the church was not supported by the government. Pews might be rented at a set rate or auctioned off to the highest bidder. Since the pews were rented or purchased, the church could also pass on maintenance expenses directly to the congregation members. One might receive a letter of reprimand if one's pew was in need of cleaning or your kneeling cushions had grown shabby.

An extra large pew box reserved for the president
(General Washington or John Adams while Philadelphia was nation's capital)

Pew boxes and pew rental started falling out of fashion in the 19th century. One reason you have probably guessed. Forcing parishioners to pay for the best seats caused too much of a distinction between the haves and the have-nots in a setting where worshippers are supposed to be storing up their treasure in heaven. Pew boxes also took up more space than open benches, so more people could attend if the private pews were replaced. 

Open benches at St Stephen's, Boston

Since pew boxes at some churches were purchased rather than rented and passed down as family property from generation to generation, some pushed back against abolishing them. Some churches made the transition gradually, allowing free seating in unrented pews until all current rents had run out. Many churches had some form of pew rental into the mid-20th century.

Pew boxes in French Huguenot Church, Charleston

As churches moved away from pew rental, many of them adopted the weekly giving envelopes that we are more familiar with today. Don't forget to put enough in there to cover the cost of replacing those old cushions!

All photos property of Samantha Wilcoxson


  1. Fascinating, Samantha! Thanks for your research. I knew about this as a practice but really didn't know the origins. A perfect example of how something very small and mundane in practice (standing in church) evolved over time through a period of transition (people wanting to sit in church) turned into something far more prominent and divisive. A prime example of why we constantly need to reexamine our traditions to get at the root of why they started to find value in them (related to the mission of the church) or not.

    1. Thank you! What I didn't include was the increased call for seating during the Reformation because Protestant ministers were more likely to give lengthy sermons. ;-)