The pews at Trinity are frequently a point of interest noted by guests and tourists, specifically the fact that they have doors and are numbered. An explanation is in order.

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When the church was built it had no heat, so box pews with doors served the very practical purpose of cutting down on drafts while also helping to retain body heat and the heat from foot warmers that members carried from their homes. During the early colonial days they also served to keep stray animals out of the pews, which sometimes occurred during the summer since the church was on the outskirts of the city.

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“Constantine’s Conversion”, by Peter Paul Rubens

The numbers on the pew doors go back to the days of pew rentals, and that story is a little more involved: During most of Christian history since the conversion of Constantine in 312 A.D., churches were supported by taxes, land rents, and benefices. Freewill offerings were commonly deemed to be “alms” for helping the poor, not contributions for the basic costs of the institution. These arrangements changed with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, when most church lands in Europe were confiscated and clergy came to be supported by stipends from government.

The American colonies started with the European system, but in the years 1750 to 1791, government tax support of Protestant congregations dwindled as ecclesiastical dissent spread. By the time of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, most congregations had disconnected themselves from any state financial support. The new method of church finances became pew rentals, and this slowly spread throughout the Protestant churches. Under this system, wealthy parishioners chose the best pews, which were typically at the front of the church, and sometimes rented extra ones for the poor to use. The number on the door therefore identified your rented space. By the time of the Civil War, pew rentals were the standard method of financing.

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Civil War-era pew rental receipt from St. Mary’s Church, Alexandria, VA (1861)

Opponents of pew rentals sought better ways of financing congregations, ways that they hoped would reduce class distinctions. Some churches began advertising “all pews free”. Gradually pew rentals were abandoned in favor of weekly offerings and pledge drives. By the 1920s, pew rentals were generally abandoned in Protestant churches. Trinity was one of the last churches in the area to abolish pew rentals, having done so in the 1940s.

It should be noted that in recent decades mainline denominations have seen a decline in giving as a percentage of parishioner’s income. There is bottom line inevitability to finances because churches need contributions to continue. An inadequate income limits church programs as well as property maintenance.

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Lloyd E. Bull, Property Committee Chairperson   

Some of the material in this column was taken from the book, Plain Talk about Churches and Money.