The pew rent system and membership

This is a continuation of the thread on the history of membership in Unitarian and Universalist congregations.

I know the very idea of a fundraising canvass will send many of you into a fit of groaning. But the approach to funding, also known as the voluntary system, is a huge improvement over what came before it: the pew-rent system.

By this I mean raising money for building a meetinghouse and sustaining a minister by selling or renting seats or pews. You can see vestiges in older churches, in the form of engraved plates with names of people long dead. Owned pews were property: they could be inherited or sold. Their use was restricted by their owners, and status-seeking persons could show their social station though high-priced seats up front. Additionally, they could be used as collateral in securing debt. Pew owners, very often hereditary and with no particular interest in a congregation, had been known to sell out meeting house for profit.

The pew-rent system made theological orthodoxy nearly impossible to enforce, even as it reinforced class structures. Thomas Whittemore, in his 1840 The Plain Guide to Universalism, cautions societies to maintain the twinned church–a community of professing believers– with the religious society because

In some cases, especially in Boston, it is impossible to guard the society against the admission of members, whatever their religious opinions may be. For what is a religious society in Boston? It is the proprietors of the meeting-house, the owners of the pews therein. These pews may be transferred from one to another, at the will of the owners; and the purchaser has the full and legal right to attend all the proprietors’ meetings, and vote in all concerns of the corporation, whether he be Christian, Jew, Mahometan, or heathen. The whole business is in the hands of the proprietors of pews, and we suppose, of right, ought to be, not excepting the selection and settlement of the pastor.

But as with other calls to reform, the weight was with the status quo: a practical source for liberality or practical plurality?

But times changed. James Freeman Clarke was the Unitarian first-mover when, also in 1840, he opened in Boston the Church of the Disciples on a “free seat” (voluntary donation) basis. While Universalists came down on both sides of the religious freedom this system brought, its unworkability with its final downfall across all confessions. It was unfair and discouraging to new would-be members. The occasional provision of free seats (in undesirable places) underscored the problem. It set the building up for speculation, and building bubbles bankrupted not a few congregations. And while the idea of collecting rent seems simple enough, there were also complaints that it was impossible to extract them–particularly from absentee landlords–and so money was tight. By the time in 1922, the Christian Register (May 4) published it survey of more than 200 Unitarian parishes, none had anything good to say about the pew ownership or rental, or any number of hybrid variant, systems. The voluntary system was modern, ascendant and lucrative. “Free seats” made better financial sense. Churches in the easy-going West were most likely to use the voluntary system, and churches in New England, where the practice continued the longest, were willing to try something new.

Of course, the pew-rent problem would have solved itself in time. There are usually too few attenders rather than too few pews. Amplification has made more of the meetinghouse accessible to more people. And how many times have the few first pews of a church been taking up–prime real estate–in order to make room for a piano or some other liturgical change? New occasions teach new duties.

All of this goes into our understanding of the running of a religious society; that financial responsibility, however structured, is a valid, perhaps even critical requirement, for full participation.

Ways of organizing churches, including how membership is accorded, come and go. It might surprise my long-time readers to hear that I’m not particularly taken with any given model. (I may have radical views about the relationship between the church and society, but these remain to be revealed.) All I care about is that membership standards are made deliberately, fairly, and with the goal of healthy institutions. Since unintended results may come out of good planning, there must also be a mechanism for adjustment, for the sake of equity.

But what we have is better than what we had, and to God be the glory.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Good summation. I have had a hard time explaining this to my very Catholic and observant wife, a DRE with 2000 students in her program. She was aghast at the discovery of the system and it confirmed all of her suspicions about Protestantism.

  2. Interesting history. I knew some of it, but reading it brought to mind our current practice of sometimes “selling” the naming rights to a pew. The church I am serving did it as a fundraiser when they first bought the building. It was something like $2000 to name a pew. Most have a plaque that is in memory of a loved one. One even says “for the children of the church.” Of course anyone can sit anywhere and most of the pews have no plaques. Then again, people tend to sit in pretty much the same spot week to week, but I doubt if they would pay to have their favorite spot reserved.

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