The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism & Architecture in Colonial South Carolina

By Louis P. Nelson | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
PULPITS, PEWS, AND POWER

In the summer of 1744, the vestry of St. John's, Colleton, included in the pages of their minutes a plan of their newly completed church (FIGS. 9.1 and 9.2). The nave of the church was organized around three aisles, two extending from the doors on the western elevation and terminating in a cross aisle that spans between doors on the northern and southern elevations. Filling the floor of the church in and around these aisles and the chancel aisle are twenty-seven pews, all of approximately the same size. The sense of uniformity among the pews was reinforced by the fact that the vestry paid carpenter Thomas Cheesman the same amount (£17) to build each of the twenty-seven pews. In 1759 the vestry of St. Helena's Parish ordered the erection of three new pews in the western end of their parish church. Like most of their counterparts, the vestry of St. Helena's insisted that the new pews “be built uniform to the others in Height and Model.”1 This drive toward uniformity among pews in St. John's, Colleton, and St. Helena's was typical for South Carolina's Anglican churches and, in fact, across the British Empire. The same could be said for pew plans and designs in Virginia, New England, and England. Even so, South Carolina is a particularly useful case study because such apparent equanimity is belied by the fact that throughout the eighteenth century, the plan of the Anglican parish church was among the most explicit representations of the sociopolitical hierarchies that governed life in the local parish.2

Unlike Virginia, where seating was often divided by gender, seating in South Carolina's Anglican churches was always by family. One of the primary purposes of recording the plan of the new church in the vestry minutes was not so much to report on its form but to record the legal owner of each pew. The vestry of St. John's, Colleton, followed the common South Carolina practice of selling pews in an effort to raise funds for the construction of the church. Following a process of subscriptions, the highest subscriber would have the first choice of pews, followed by the second highest, and so on. It was no surprise, for example, that the pews located in the very heart of the church—numbers 4, 5, 9, and 10—were owned by the wealthiest and most powerful men of the parish: John Fenwick, Hugh Hext, John Gibbs, and John Stanyarne, respectively. Those incapable of purchasing an entire pew joined together with others of similar station to secure a seat in the church. Such jointly owned pews, however, were located at the west end of the church,

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