Pews are a common sight in American Orthodox churches, especially those in the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses. I remember, as an adolescent in an Antiochian parish, learning that my fellow Orthodox in Greece or Russia or Lebanon don’t have pews in their churches.
When I asked why we had pews and the rest of Orthodoxy (for the most part) did not, I got an answer which I accepted as perfectly reasonable. The way I heard it, when the Orthodox were first getting established in America, they bought old Protestant or Roman Catholic church buildings, and just kept the pews (and organs) that came with the purchase. That, I was told, is how pews came to be in so many Orthodox parishes.
Until a couple of years ago, it had never occurred to me to question this story. But then I started to look for hard evidence, and I was rather surprised at what I found. I should stress that my research on this is far from complete. But I’ve gotten into the habit of sharing my unfinished work with the world, and I figured I’d present some of my initial findings. I’ll actually be doing this in multiple parts, because I’ve got a good bit of information to share.
Today, I’m not going to delve into the data on pews; instead, I want to focus on the underlying assumption: that most early American Orthodox churches were purchased from Protestant or Roman Catholic congregations. Is this actually true?
I decided to focus, initially, on the Greeks. I was able to find hard data on 23 early Greek parishes. The surprise? Of those 23, 14 built their own churches from the ground up, and 9 purchased existing places of worship.
I also looked at Thomas Burgess’ 1913 book Greeks in America. On page 55, Burgess lists the Greek parishes which constructed their own churches, and those which bought former Protestant churches. His numbers? 16 built their own, and 12 bought Protestant churches.
So in both cases, well over half of the early Greek parishes constructed their own churches. And, given that a number of the churches in my count were built or purchased after Burgess’ book was published, there’s not too much overlap between the two sets of numbers.
If the Greeks weren’t just buying old Protestant churches, then the old explanation isn’t sufficient, and there must be some other reason why they adopted pews. More to come.