Project Canterbury

The House of God the Common Right of All Men.

By Everard P. Miller.

New York: J. Polhemus, 1881.

Also published as Publication No. 18 of the Free and Open Church Association.

The Church of Christ was established on earth for the help and benefit of mankind, irrespective of their rank or wealth, or even of their attitude towards God. We who believe in the divine origin of this institution hold that this was the purpose of her great Founder, in setting apart the clergy, in commanding the sacraments, in ordaining public worship. The Church was sent to man, not organized by Christians for their own convenience, and all were to be free to make use of her helps in learning the truth and in living the supernatural life of faith. And as the organic part partakes of the nature of the whole, what is true of the Church at large is true also of any Church, in that limited use of the word which confines it to a particular parish. A Church, meaning thereby not only the sacred building, but all the instrumentalities of religion, exists in a community for the benefit of that community, and is, in one sense, the property of all. On this theory the State exempts churches from the common burden of taxation. What is for the public good and the public use may legitimately be supported, indirectly, by the public. For this cause, too, godly men are willing to be assessed for the maintenance of religion. Benevolence, if no higher motive, prompts them to aid an institution which is for the good of their fellow-men. But this can only be justified on the ground that the institution is for the benefit of all. Every citizen has a right to the services of the Church, even though he be unable or unwilling to support it; for it does not exist for the small company of believers, but for all those whom Christ came to save. The stranger or the pauper, if he feel inclined to enter any house of God, to offer up there the sacrifice of prayer and praise, to hear the word preached, to participate in the communion of Christ's Body and Blood, should feel fully privileged to go in and take his place among the regular worshippers. Even the infidel may, if he will, claim and occupy a seat there. By what right? By the right of his humanity and of Christ's redemption, which knows no distinction between the rich and poor, between him who is willing to pay for church privileges and him who is not, but places all on one common footing of need. For the Church, like the Gospel it sets forth, is the free gift of God to men, and all have an equal claim on her ministrations and means of grace.

These principles are so obviously true, it may be said, that no one will contradict them, and you may wonder why one is at such pains to state them clearly. No one may contradict them in words; but are they not sadly belied by the practice of the present day? Suppose this pauper or stranger should wish to worship in one of our prominent city churches. He might be met at the door by a polite usher, who would show him to one of the least favorable of the unoccupied seats after the services had advanced sufficiently to allow the regular congregation to assemble; or he might select a place for himself, only to be requested to vacate it when its so-called owner came tardily in. If allowed to remain through the service at all, all his surroundings would give him to understand that he was there not by right, but by the courtesy of a congregation who had built and maintained this church for themselves, not for him. Here the theory is not that of the house of God's being the common privilege of God's children, but rather that of a religious club, whose members want to worship comfortably amid congenial surroundings, who pay for the exclusive title to this privilege, and who resent any intrusion of others upon it. If they extend these advantages to the stranger or outsider, it is through their kindness and generosity, and they would ridicule the idea that any man has a right to what their money has bought. Do they not own the house? Do they not support its services? And who shall say that it is any more free to the world than their own homes are? In truth, it is not God's house at all, but theirs; and if others wish to worship Christ, let them unite and form a similar association of their own.

In these contrasted descriptions there may be recognized the Free Church Idea, on the one hand, and on the other, what is commonly known as the pew system. The former would seem most consistent with the promise of the text, "Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people." The latter is so monstrous a caricature of the principles of the New Testament that it would not be tolerated a moment, had it not the support of long association and established custom. Christians sit with easy conscience in rented pews, because they do not realize the incongruity of that practice with the character of their religion, and because they have never known the better way. If we shall think over the subject, we shall be ready to confess that whatever may be said on the side of the pew system, in theory, at least, the Free Church doctrine is the right one. One fact is here worthy of notice, and it may help us to view this matter in a new light--that of all the religions the world has known, Christianity, which professes to be the freest, is the only one whose privileges are practically limited to the pew-holder, and in Christianity this custom is a novelty of modern origin. In the bright days of that ancient Paganism, whose falsity cannot blind us to its beauty, the stately temples were thrown open to the people, nor did any money qualification keep any one from feeling welcome in the sanctuary of his god. Can we imagine Solomon's Temple divided off into pews, the peculiar property of the few, while the many were admitted to the worship of Jehovah only on sufferance and through courtesy? No; every member of the nation had as much right there as the King himself. Nor did the introduction of Christianity make any change in this respect. When our religion had gained such recognition in the Empire as to be allowed to build churches to the name of Christ, any believer could go freely into any consecrated building and join in its worship, and receive that help from its ministrations his soul needed. When during the busy day he craved a few moments for devotion in the seclusion which perhaps his crowded home denied him, the open church stood ready to welcome him into its religious stillness, and when at time of public service he wished to join his fellows in prayer, he entered in with the throng, not waiting to be shown a seat, and placed himself where he would. The church was for him, as for all who needed her, and the right of the stranger or of the chance comer was as full and as undisputed as that of her highest dignitary. So through fifteen hundred years of faith. Only latterly has the evil crept in of putting up the privileges of God's house at auction, of giving its best places to the highest bidders, of allowing the absent pew-owner to exclude those who might willingly present themselves. And if to-day the community at large has lost that old sense of right and interest in the church; if it is commonly felt that the house of prayer belongs not to the people, but to certain families who have rented its sittings, and if, consequently, they have ceased to frequent its courts, being slow, as human nature always is, to accept obligations from others, much of the blame is to be laid at the door of this strange system which has grown up among us. We take pride in a thing, and help in its support, and labor for its prosperity, when we feel that it is ours, and that its failure or success is a matter personal to us. But such general interest cannot be felt in the well-being of a church which to all intents and purposes belongs only to a few Christians. Surely a system so modern in its adoption, and apparently so destructive of church-going habits among the people, needs to have much said in its defence to restrain us from sweeping it away.

And what can be said in its defence? We should be careful to avoid the error of those who, in their fanatical opposition to a system, will not hear a word in its favor, nor should we look upon every pewholder as personally guilty of the evils of this custom. We have received it as an inheritance from former generations, and though we might not adopt it if we were to organize the Church anew, yet are attached to it now, and unfavorable to change. Let us therefore candidly see what can be urged in its support. In the first place, a sort of negative reason may be given for the continuance of the pew system. It may be denied that its abolition would produce any change in the attendance at public services. These absentees stay away from very different causes than the fact that the church is not free to all. They are not religious; they have no desire to go to church; home duties keep them from coming. Should they come, they know they would be welcomed here, and be shown to seats in our midst. Were every pew open to them, and the whole building made free, things would remain much as they are now, and a half empty church would still discourage rector and people. To this the reply is, first, that it is all an assumption. How do we know that the freeing of churches would produce no alteration in the number of our worshippers? How can we say that when it is made known that all have equal rights there, our congregations would not visibly increase? Knowledge of human nature would warrant the contrary supposition, for it is a matter of common experience that men will not take as a gift that which they will gladly avail themselves of as an inherent right. And the case of other parishes certainly justifies a more sanguine expectation; for it is known that, as a rule, free churches are better attended than those where the sittings are owned or rented by individuals. But there is a better answer based on the principles laid down at the beginning of this paper. In matters of policy or expediency two views may be lawfully held; in a matter of principle, only one. Before a question of right all other considerations must give way.

Such a question is that we are now considering, and, therefore, whatever might be its consequences, it ought to be adopted, though it diminished rather than increased the number of church-goers. We have no right to hold as exclusively our own any part of God's house; and we cannot, in truth, welcome strangers to our pews, for courtesy here is out of the question. We cannot give what is not ours to give. We cannot allow others to occupy a seat at our side, for it is theirs by God's bounty, not by our politeness. Can such arguments as these be met merely by saying that we do not believe this change would produce any great effect on the number of worshippers, and therefore do not see any use in adopting it. Is it nothing to feel that we have placed the whole matter on a right basis, and symbolized to some extent in our churches the great truth that all men are equal in the sight of God?

But it may be more positively urged in defence of the pew system that it ministers to the convenience of the members of a settled congregation, and furthers their ease and comfort in worship. If the number of attendants were greater than the accommodations of the building, and the rich crowded out the poor, the argument for freeing the churches would be strong. But as long as this is not so, and the service can be made so much more comfortable by each owning his pew, why deprive us of that advantage? I will not denounce such reasoning as this as utterly selfish, for though it be so at bottom, it is often not urged from purely selfish motives. And yet does not its whole tone seem utterly out of harmony with the Scriptural descriptions of the assembly of believers: "The whole family in heaven and earth;" "Ye are all one in Christ Jesus;" "We are members one of another?" Among such a brotherhood, shall exclusiveness and the desire to keep ourselves aloof from others be found? And would the breaking up of the pew system be so utterly destructive of our convenience? Why can we not submit in our churches to the same conditions under which we go to places of public amusements or journey on the great highways of travel? Is it said that it is pleasant and beneficial for families to sit together? The Free Church system would not prevent their doing so, if they came in time to secure unoccupied seats. Is it that we become habituated to one seat, and prefer to fill it every Sunday? On the Free Church principle we have as much right to it as any one else, and have only to come early to claim it. Besides, in a long established parish, this preference would be respected by others, or rather shared by them; and as we are not anxious to take their places, so they would leave us undisturbed in ours. Or do we object to having a strange face near us, or a repulsive neighbor at our side? But, to say nothing of the inconsistency of such a feeling with the house of God, do we not run the same risk constantly in the lecture hall or on the railroad? If the proximity of the stranger is thought nothing of there, why should it be so intolerable here? And so with all these objections based on the fancied interference of the Free system with our comfort and convenience. Were they tenfold greater than they are, they should weigh nothing in the balance against a principle so manifestly Scriptural and right, and against the possible good that might be accomplished by making our worship free to all. But when we find them melt away, under the light of a candid examination, into mere prejudices, we should feel ashamed of having urged them. If the heathen could stand side by side with an unknown worshipper before the altar of his god; if the Jew could mingle with the crowd in the Temple worship; if the early Christian could be careless as to who pressed upon him in the thronged church, why should we be so very fastidious as to who sits by us during the service? We would not dare to refuse to kneel at the altar rail with those who are strange or uncongenial to us, and is it so much greater a hardship to have them occupy the same pew?

But, perhaps, the chief defence of the pew system is that it is become a necessity to the pecuniary support of our churches. Services cannot be carried on without expenses; to meet these the custom was adopted in unendowed churches of taxing each seat a certain sum. If that assessment upon the pews should be removed, there would be no funds wherewith to keep churches open at all. This is certainly a grave aspect of the question; and needs to be carefully considered by any parish before it makes its sittings free. For the present, I have but one or two remarks to make upon it. In the first place, we must remember here, as before, the main question is not, Is this system expedient? but, Is it right? Ought we to throw open our churches to all, without regard to any pecuniary considerations? When that question is once answered by our people--and there is but one answer to it--I am sure ways and means can be found for the support of religion. For God never shows us that a thing is right to do, without giving us power to do it. In the second place, the assumption that only the pew system can be financially successful is based upon a view of human nature low enough of itself to throw discredit upon it. Is it true that Christian men will not give unless they can get some quid pro quo in return; that they will not support the Church unless they can buy out and out some privilege in it? When we consider the matter, it will be found that only the Free system draws out a proportionate help from every worshipper; for, as it restores to all their privileges, it teaches all their duty. And in the third place, how were churches supported before the invention of the pew system? In those days churches were built which are now the objects of the world's wonder for extent and costliness; vast missionary enterprises were undertaken, and the Church was, if anything, too rich for her own good. Money came then not from pew rents, but from the offerings of the people. Each one laid by him in store as God had prospered him; each one gave of his ability. Is there any better way to produce a revenue than the simple plan taught by divine inspiration through the Great Apostle? Or is the selfishness of men more to be trusted than their generosity? On such props we are not taught by our holy religion to lean.

From all this we infer not only that the Free System is feasible, but that every church in this land ought to be free, and all who dwell in the neighborhood of any house of God should feel that it belongs to them; that it has part and influence in their lives; that they are welcome within its walls; that its sacraments and ministrations are their inherited birthright. How many of our churches are now looked upon, if not as very types and symbols of exclusiveness, yet as the special property of the upper classes. To abolish the pew system might not at once efface this impression, but it would be at least one step towards it. It would leave the absentee without excuse, and the invitation to come and worship could be extended with double effect. May God, whose intention in establishing the Church and in preserving it through so many vicissitudes was the effecting of his plans of good, hasten the day when every consecrated building in this land, shall with truth be called "An house of prayer for all people."

Project Canterbury