PEW: Ecclesiastically, an enclosed seat in a church (not, in the modem sense, an open bench). The term (Old Fr. pui, puy, puye, poi, peu, "an elevated place," "seat"; Lat. podium, "balcony") in early English use meant a more or less elevated enclosure for business in a public place; this use was probably prior to its employment as the name for an enclosed seat for worshipers in a church. Indeed, the pew might be even a box in a theater. The pew is not, then, an original or primitive part of the church edifice, the floor of the structure being in early times open and unobstructed, though in the chancel there came to be seats for the clergy and choir. This tradition is continued in modem times in Roman and Greek cathedrals in Europe, which are usually without pews, portable benches or chairs being furnished instead. In early times the attitude of worshipers was standing (or kneeling), and the provision of stools or benches probably does not date back of the fourteenth century, though some English churches had stone benches along the walls and around pillars.
The earliest known examples of regular benching is probably that of the church at Soest (34 m. s.e. of Münster, Westphalia) in the early fifteenth century. The church at Swaffham (25 m. w. of Norwich), England, was in 1454 provided with pews by private benefaction, and this was almost certainly not the first instance in England. The records of St. Michael's, Cornhill, London, prove the existence of pews in that church in 1457, the doors of some of which, at least, had locks, a fact which implies private ownership. It seems certain, however, that at first only parts of the edifice were provided with pews. The shape of these does not seem to have been uniform. While the oblong pew was naturally the most common, the seat facing the altar, other pews were square with the seats placed around three or all four sides, leaving space only for the door. These latter were often private, appropriated to the use of the lord of the manor or to a family an early member of which had in some way acquired a perpetual interest. In England the right to occupy a certain pew sometimes goes with the occupancy of a certain house in the parish. The acquisition of property-right in a pew is not confined to England; in quite a number of churches in the United States pews are held by families and may figure as property in valuation of assets. But the tendency is decidedly against this exclusive right, and where such cases exist, the policy of the church is usually to redeem the pew from private ownership.
It is not certain at what period pews were made a means of income to the parish. In St. Margaret's, Westminster, the records show payment of pew rents as early as the first part of the sixteenth century. The law of England gives to every parishioner a right to a sitting in the parish church if it was built before 1818, and this right is enforceable by civil procedure. In the United States custom varies greatly. Almost general is the practise of using the pews as a means of raising revenue for church purposes. In a considerable number of churches the pew rents provide the principal means of income, pews being rented by the year. In a large number of churches, however, the feeling exists that this is a limitation upon the "freedom of the Gospel," and the sittings are all free, the income being derived from collections or pledges of free-will offerings.