Seating the Meetinghouse

Interior of First Congregational Church in Windsor, 1930. WHS collections 2018.1.279.

Across the road from the Strong-Howard House stands the First Church of Windsor. It is actually the fourth meeting house building for the congregation founded by passengers of the Mary and John, which sailed from England to Dorchester, MA in 1630. This particular meeting house was built in 1794 and remodeled in 1844.

Looking back on the church’s history, there was a peculiar practice called “seating the meetinghouse” whereby all the parishioners were assigned their seats according to their wealth, position in the community, age, sex, etc. As Diana Ross McCain explains in her article “Seating the Meetinghouse” from Early American Life magazine,

For roughly the first two centuries of New England history, a worshipper’s seat in the Congregational meetinghouse was usually assigned by a committee on the basis of its assessment of his status in the community. Where a person sat during Sabbath services, the central event in Puritan life, was a weekly pronouncement of his rank in the social pecking order.

If a man’s office was elevated, his seating in the church was duly promoted. According to The History of Ancient Windsor by Henry Reed Stiles:

The seating of the common people was a more difficult task, which taxed the wisdom and patience of the committee. The difficulty was largely owing to the facts that individuals estimated their own rank higher than the committee or their neighbors rated them.

Incomplete First Church seating list, c1730s. Widows sit in their own pews. Uriah and Obiah Loomis sat “in the crooked pew”, and other pews had labels such as “in the new pew next the front door”. WHS collections OD 6C-536.

Nineteenth-century Windsor historian, Deacon Jabez Hayden (1811-1902) noted, “It seems a little strange that it should have been thought necessary to carry these distinctions into the church—into a church which knew no distinctions among the brotherhood.” In the 1600s the men were segregated from the women while children and servants were assigned to the galleries. In Jabez Hayden’s day, the boys sat in First Church’s south gallery while the girls occupied the north gallery. Older children sat in the pews below the galleries, being promoted there by some unwritten law according to Mr. Hayden. As quoted in The History of Ancient Windsor:

I fear if I should tell of the carvings which ornamented those pews, so like the carvings to be seen in the school houses of those days, the modern boy would judge us harshly. Tithingmen [a parish office usually elected to preserve good order in the church during divine services] were a necessary provision for the well-being of the galleries yet their authority was rarely exercised!… This seating the boys by themselves was a crying evil continued through two centuries.

An early (incomplete) seating list lives at the Connecticut Historical Society, and is from 1681.

Meetinghouse seating list, 1681. Connecticut Historical Society collections.

We have in our archival collections a few different sets of seating lists and seating charts. Below is a blank chart from 1832, the back of which has pew rents on the reverse. Henry A. Rowland was the minister at the time, and accordingly, his name (presumably representing his family) occupies the pew next to the pulpit. From the notes on the back of the chart, it appears that Church neighbor John Chaffee might have owed $5 for his seat.

WHS collections 2003.37.22, gift of First Church in Windsor.

By Connie Thomas, administrative assistant, 1997. Updated by Michelle Tom, librarian/archivist, 2018.

2018-06-14T10:17:49+00:00