Why Are the Pews Like That?

A frequent first reaction of visitors to the church is “Why are the pews like that!” King’s Chapel has high-sided box pews, common in colonial New England churches. Dating to 1754, these are the church’s original pews. Their large size accommodated entire families; their high sides kept worshipers sheltered from the winter drafts in the stone cold church and provided some measure of privacy. They are intriguing for other reasons – each box pew was a piece of property bought and sold at auction!

Box pews at King’s Chapel sold for as much as $40,000 in today’s dollars, with an annual $650 fee on top of that! The sale of the pews, their rents, and taxes were regulated by the church vestry, and voting rights in matters and duties of the church were granted only to proprietors of pews. Church members who could not afford pews sat in the upper galleries on plain wood bench pews, until these were later boxed in for the growing congregation.

Once the pew was purchased and the annual tax paid, the box belonged to the owner. With exclusive use of the pews, families could structure and decorate them as they pleased. Another question often asked is why do some of the seats face backwards? This served dual purposes: the first one being that children would sit with their back facing the minister and the altar to allow their parents to keep an eye on them. To have a disobedient child at service was highly frowned upon. The second purpose was that it would allow the individuals to watch the choir and organist in the rear gallery of the church during concerts, a tradition that continues today.

Today, the box pews at King’s Chapel offer glimpses into history as the carpentry and design of each pew tells the story of the family that once owned the property.