Before going into the history of pews, it will be relevant to know what it broadly defines. A pew is a long bench often enclosed on two sides with partitions and primarily meant for seating members of a church congregation or choir or even people in a courtroom. However, pews are inherently linked to a church sanctuary and it will be similarly treated here.
Even though pews are considered to be linked to churches and Christianity, they are a relatively modern phenomenon. For most of the history of churches, worshippers stood during service and Mass and churches were entirely devoid of places to sit on. An exception was made for the infirm and the elderly with a few pews for them. Further, in medieval churches, the pulpit was placed in the middle of the church with worshippers gathered around the priest to listen to his brief homily. Pews really came into its own with the rise of the Protestant Reformation when sermons stretched from being brief to longer durations with discourses centred on the interpretation of the Bible.
Pews were not constructed by the church authorities in the beginning. They were made and installed from funds collected from the congregants and hence were deemed to be personal property and not seating for the general public. Pew deeds fixed title to pews which were purchased from the church, the money going to maintenance and upkeep of the places of worship. Again, with church attendance being compulsory in the late medieval and early modern period, pews came to be a reflection of the social hierarchy amongst parishioners. Rich gentry and wealthy members of the parish got better seating places in exchange for contribution for church upkeep including construction of galleries and other facilities. It was not uncommon to see disputes arising from right to ownership of pews amongst the congregation.
So far as the spirituality side of pews is concerned, Catholics in England and the United States introduced pews in churches after the Protestants when homilies started getting longer and organised seating became absolutely necessary. However, Byzantine and Christian churches have not adapted to pews and the Eastern churches do not have pews even today. The following explanation in an Orthodox publication puts this matter in perspective clearly.
“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. Pews preach and teach that religion and spirituality is the job of the priest, to whom we pay a salary to be religious for us, since it is just too much trouble and just too difficult for the rest of us to be spiritual in the real world of modern North America. Pews serve the same purpose as seats in theaters and bleachers in the ball park; we perch on them …to watch the professionals perform: the clergy and the professionally-trained altar servers, while the professionally-trained choir sings for our entertainment.”
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Pews are generally made of wood and placed in the nave of a church in systematic rows. The seat and the backrest are usually cushioned even though some conservative churches prefer to leave out these minor luxuries. Some types of pews have a stand in front to hold the Bible and hymn books and still others have a padded rest in front for parishioners to kneel on. These can be lifted up to make way for the congregation when they move in or out of the pews.
This is then the history of pews in churches in a nutshell even though a lot more can be said on this subject.