The Best Seats in the House
Finney was a social reformer, and did not shrink from fighting common practices of the church that he believed were hypocritical. Among the crusades he enlisted in was the issue of pew rents. In New York City, he became a force in what was called in his day the free church movement.
As hard as it is for us to conceive, in Finney’s time, and before, in most churches many pews were rented, and a pew tax was charged. This was a way of covering expenses, but it discriminated against the poor. Wealthier families could purchase the privilege to sit where they wanted. Poor people were thereby restricted to back-of-the-church seats, or the balcony. Poor neighborhoods could not support a local church. Our example here is from 1833; the fee is $26.05, no small amount in those days. Notice the penalty for late payment!
In other words, you could not just walk into a church to hear the good news and sit anywhere; for most seats were reserved. The system had the effect of making those more “significant” folk, who could afford the best seats in the house, the most influential and important in the congregation, and therefore, in the affairs of the church. Thus, poor people had little or no say in church matters or were simply unchurched. So much for the Bible’s teaching that God does not respect one person above another.
Finney and others attacked this despicable practice, which was common in the more socially “elevated” Presbyterianism he ministered in. These reformers wanted to see the church a place free from prejudice, where differences of class, wealth, and race did not discredit equality in Christ. The rise of great cities like New York underlined the need for the poor and minorities to be warmly accepted on equal terms in the Church ...