Around the World: Church Pews - West Wind Hardwood

All photos were taken by either Jan or Shelley Nielsen

What is a constant when travelling in Europe?  As we overheard folk from Downunder say recently whilst in Europe, it’s the ABC’s of Europe.  If you know that acronym, email me at and I’ll put your name in a draw for a $25 gift certificate.


And what would it take to get a man who is passionate for all things wood inside churches, castles and abbeys; time over again, and again, and again?

Jan and Support Team (Shelley and Rosie) – Dolores Hildago, Mexico 2012

Wood floors, Wood Windows, Wood Pews

Let’s start with pews!

Prior to the construction of Church buildings, worshipers would meet at people’s houses to celebrate “the breaking of the bread”. It was commonplace for houses to have long bed-like cushions in which people would recline to eat their meals. It is likely then that when the Eucharist was celebrated, the congregants would either stand or recline as was the custom of the time.

Once Church buildings began to be erected, Christians used to have to stand throughout the service. The only other acceptable stance was kneeling; typically used for penitential acts. So if you were an early Church Christian, you either stood or knelt. Sitting wasn’t an option.

Photo of a Painting – Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico – 2013

Backless stone benches began to appear in English churches in the thirteenth century, originally placed against the walls. They were originally intended for the priest and assistants who were officiating Mass; expanding this idea to backless stone benches around the walls for parishioners.

Sankt Sebaldus Kirche, Nuremberg, Germany
Benches against the wall; Along with a more modern touch in front


Churches were not commonly furnished with permanent pews before the Protestant Reformation.  In other words, for the first fourteen centuries of Christianity, people stood throughout the worship service. It was the rise of the sermon as a central act of Christian worship that made the pew a standard item of church furniture. In time, they were brought into the centre of the room, first as moveable furniture and later fixed to the floor. Wooden benches replaced the stone ones from the fourteenth century and became a common fixture.

The No-Wood look, Mascota, Jaslico, Mexico
Clean and Lean


The church space became more fixed, more controlled. People’s habits became more fixed, less fluid. In some churches, pews were installed at the expense of the congregants, and were their personal property; there was no general public seating in the church itself. In these churches, pew deeds recorded title to the pews. Pews were originally purchased from the church by their owners under this system, and the purchase price of the pews went to the costs of building the church. When the pews were privately owned, their owners sometimes enclosed them in lockable pew boxes; pews encased in panelling. They were typically straight pews enclosed with a latched door at the end.

Certain areas of the church were considered to be more desirable than others, as they might offer a better view of services or, indeed, might make a certain family or person more prominent or visible to their neighbours during these services. During the late medieval and early modern period, attendance at church was legally compulsory, so the allocation of a church’s pews offered a public visualization.

But something else happened; with pews came the social classes. The social hierarchy from out there became the social hierarchy in here. Whereas before people constantly mingled in an ever-shifting, always-moving group, now, with seats, people began to distance themselves from one another. Given a more controlled space, people asserted their rights and privileges for the better seats. We experience similar dynamics in a stadium or concert venue where the wealthiest people generally buy the best seats closest to the action.


In order left to right: Catedral de Morelia, Michoacán; Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal, PQ; Cologne Cathedral; Christ Church College – University of Oxford


Pew rental emerged as a source of controversy in the 1840s and 1850s, especially in the Church of England.  In the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, people started to write about how this practice was excluding people from the church. It was felt that keeping people from attending worship because they couldn’t afford a seat was not very Christian; giving rise to “free and open” churches where seating was open for anyone instead of being owned by individuals.

While the overall build of pews hasn’t changed much, there are three common pew styles seen throughout the world today. Pews are generally made of wood and arranged in rows facing the altar in the nave of a church. Usually, a pathway is left between pews in the centre to allow for a procession; some have bench-like cushioned seating, and hassocks or footrests, although more traditional, conservative churches usually have neither cushions nor footrests. Many pews have slots behind each pew to hold bibles, prayer books, hymnals or other church literature.

Big or Small – The concept is the same – for all the same reasons.


Standard Pews

Most pews are of the standard style. These all-wood pew bodies are simple yet elegant. They are long, straight benches offering the congregation a chance to sit during a sermon.

The wood used will vary. There are also different pew ends which are the entrance and exit points to the pew row. These end pieces often have unique or intrinsic designs on them to provide some aesthetic appeal.

Standard pews are often upholstered as well. Cushions are added to the backrest of the pew as well as the seat. The cushions provide added comfort to the congregation.

St. Stephan’s Cathedral – Passau, Germany

Radial Pews

Radial pews are very similar to their standard brethren. They too are typically made of all-wood bodies and can be finished in different styles. The only difference is that radial pew has a slight curvature to it. This curvature allows for seating to face a focal point, usually the altar, improving sight-lines for larger congregations.

Weltenburg Abbey, Germany
Radial Pews – The modern look in old surroundings


Box Pews

Lockable pew boxes encased in panelling.  They were typically straight pews enclosed with a latched door at the end.

Today, Church pews abound. Some are posh.  Others are penitential, and some are just so plain beautiful you hesitate to sit yourself down.  They are found in grandiose cathedrals; small hill-top devotionals.

Apparently, they are welcome anywhere…. even your home.

Church Pews still in demand and repurposed!!

Furniture Sold/Fabricated – Located on the Road between Dolores Hildago and San Miguel de Allende – 2012


If you have any questions about our photos; whether location, church identification or have general comments, all are welcome.

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