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.

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