For sale to the highest bidder: When Vermont church pews were considered personal real estate

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine on 2.19.22 in the Remember When column with the title “Church Pews for Sale or Rent”

Old First Church, Bennington, Vermont. Photo credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

On Nov. 25, 1835, Mr. Seth Shaler Arnold wrote in his diary: “Attended the sale of the pews in new Meeting house Westminster. Bid off one for Esther — two for father and one for myself and Mr. Ruggles.”

Two years later in June, he wrote: “Settled with Mr. Ruggles. Bought his share of ⅓ of pew No. 8.” And by August, Mr. Arnold was musing on the fact that “Mrs. Cobb commenced sitting in my father’s pew and then changed to mine — Mrs. Nutting has sit (sic) there more than a year. And Mr. Hollis Wright’s family have just commenced sitting there. The two former at 75 ct. each and the latter at about 2 dollars.”

Buying church pews? Renting them out? What was going on here? What might appear socially discriminatory (or morally questionable) to the modern eye, was an economic necessity at a time when communities were establishing themselves in a young New England.

A commodity

English churches began to assign — and thus, assure — a seat to every member of its congregation sometime after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century (before that, people apparently just milled about). But in America, “assigned” seating became “contracted” seating. What was a citizen’s right in the official church of the Old Country, became in the New World — where no such nationally-supported religion existed — a privilege.

The word pew comes from a Dutch word meaning “an enclosed seat.” In New England’s churches and the meeting houses where secular and religious gatherings were held, the pews were just that: enclosed boxes, some complete with doors and cushioned benches where a family could sit in comfort. Wealthy families built ever more elaborate pews, some even containing a wood stove.

For families, the box pews, and their proximity to the pulpit, were a way to display their social status; for the community, they provided income for the minister’s salary and the building’s maintenance. But for some people, like Westminster’s Mr. Arnold, the pews also presented a church- and community-sanctioned business opportunity. The churches did keep a modicum of control, however. Some contracts stated a pew-owner could not remove or decorate his box, or “set up a grocery, or a grog shop or apply it even to any other useful purpose or shut it up.”

An asset, an inheritance

When the bankruptcy of Mr. Smith, of Rutland, was splashed across the papers in 1842, it was made known that his pews, No. 32 in the West Rutland meeting house and No. 53 in the Rutland Baptist meeting house, would be available at a public auction.

And in February 1840, this public notice was printed in the Vermont Mercury:

To the Hon. the Probate Court for the District of Windsor … The undersigned … make application … to sell and convey the following real estate of the said deceased, for the purpose of raising money to pay his just debts … Pews numbered one, two, three and thirty-two on the Lower Floor of the Meeting-house at Greenbush, in Weathersfield … and Pews numbered twenty-six, thirty-three, thirty-four ….

All told, the deceased had owned 13 pews. And the secret was out that they were more than he could afford.

Just as with any real estate today, a pew was of potential interest to creditors. Whether its owner was living or passed on, if there were debts, his pews were sold to the highest bidder. However, according to the statutes of the time, any pews along with all other property (except the sacrosanct family home), could also be auctioned off if a widow and/or minor children were left insufficiently provided for by the deceased’s estate.

However, the converse was also true: If a meeting house was foreclosed, repurposed, or the pews were removed or damaged, the church was required to compensate the owner for their loss.

Nineteenth-century wills and probate files remind us that, for those who managed to stay financially solvent, these pews were considered real estate and as such, could be inherited by family members. For example, when Mr. Lincoln died in 1825, he left his wife, Mary, and “her heirs and assigns pew numbered (No. 31) thirty one,” in Hingham, Massachusetts’s New North Meeting House, while Miss Darling of Woodstock, who died in 1845, chose to bequeath her “right in a Pew” to the Universalist Chapel in which it resided.

Thing of the past

The selling or renting of pews and pew boxes didn’t always sit well. Some clergy, both within and without Protestantism, felt it defied the values of the church. Some were more vocal in their dissent than others, such as the Rev. Jeremiah O’Callaghan, who, throughout the 1830s and 1840s, wrote letters to the Burlington Sentinel and Free Press raging against what he considered a form of simony — the selling of church roles, offices or property.

Although some church-goers and ministers were concerned that “free churches” would bring “undesirables” into the services, others argued pew ownership should continue for economic reasons. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, many churches did begin removing their box pews.

This change is reflected in the gradual disappearance of pews from the lists of auctionable items in public probate and bankruptcy notices. However, before collection plates began circulating in the late-19th century, pew-renting continued. For example, Rutland’s Immaculate Heart of Mary was still recording pew income as late as 1893.

Old First Church, Bennington, Vermont. Photo credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

A few churches in New England did keep their box pews, Boston’s Old North Church being one. Here in Vermont, Bennington’s Old First Church and the Union Meeting House in Burke are just two gorgeous examples which are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and provide us a glimpse into the lives and minds of our ancestors.

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