The time-honored practice of collecting pew rents

Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.

Among the original documents tucked away in the archives of the Congregational Church of Needham is the Weekly Calendar for June 15, 1890. The calendar is notable not only for its mention of the Strawberry Festival to be held later that week, but also for the general reminder to parishioners that pew rentals are to be paid on a weekly basis, and that folks who missed a Sunday service were expected to make up the balance in their next weekly offering.

The portion of the June 15, 1890 Weekly Calendar reminding parishioners that their pew rentals are due on a weekly basis. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Congregational Church of Needham (then called the Evangelical Congregational Church) collected pew rents in the mid- to late-1800s as a way of raising funds for the maintenance of the church property. Although the idea may seem foreign to us today, it was a common practice at the time. Many Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches across Europe and America collected pew rents.

Although I have not yet found evidence for this in our archives, it was common for the amount of pew rent you paid to vary depending on the perceived desirability of your pew. That meant your fellow parishioners would know exactly how much rent you could afford (or chose) to pay based on where you sat in church. People being wired the way they are, where you sat in church ultimately became a reflection of your relative social status. This link between pew rents and social standing was one of the reasons the practice of collecting pew rents was ultimately dropped.

Still, the practice was common enough that when the church ultimately stopped collecting pew rents in the late 1890s, it felt the need to advertise that fact in its Weekly Calendar for years afterwards.

Excerpt from the June 5, 1904 Weekly Church Calendar informing visitors that the church no longer collected pew rents. (Photo: Shala Howell)

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