by Mike Roberts, Church Historian.
A recent search of old Cincinnati newspapers has uncovered a picture of the church we once occupied on Plum Street. Our congregation moved into the church in 1853, selling their church on Walnut Street for $1,650. Money for the new church was obtained by the sale of land for $23,000. While the picture now gives us a likeness of the exterior of the church, we have no pictures of the interior. We do know, however, that the interior was designed to allow for individual family pews.
The use of family pews was also practiced in our original church on Walnut St. In that church, there were 126 pews built in box style. The pews were sold at prices ranging from $250 to $40. The most expensive of the pews were located at the center of the church while the cheaper pews were on the sides and back of the church. The purchase of a higher priced pew not only provided the owner with a better view and improved quality of sound, it also gave the owner higher social status. Those who occupied these high priced pews were announcing to the world that they were well off financially and at the top of the social ladder. If all pews were sold, the accrued net to the church was $15,000. Those pews not sold were offered for rent at an annual fee of 16% of the pew’s worth.
The practice of selling and renting pews dated back to at least the 1500’s in England. There, pews were sold and rented to the extent that many churches had no room for persons dropping in for a church service. It was estimated that in England as many one million persons were excluded from attending parish churches because they could not afford the pew rentals and no other space was available in the local church.
This practice came to the New World when the English colonies were formed. The famous Old North Church in Boston was, at times, completely sold out and if you did not have an interest in a pew, you could not attend church there. As our New England Universalist forefathers moved west, they brought this practice with them. When the Plum Street church was opened in 1853, there was no mention of selling pew space but there was much talk of the transfer policy of current owners to the new church. Thus, it may be presumed that the practice continued in the new church. It is known that during the building of the church, the Board voted not to put doors on the individual pews as a cost cutting measure. This decision was a portent of things to come. Not long after the completion of the church, the Board minutes are regularly dominated by statements of dire financial problems. The major cause of the problem was delinquent and unpaid pew rentals. The money derived from the pews was the church’s primary source of income and without that income, financial distress followed. At one point, the Board of Trustees proposed to put For Sale or Rent signs on 100 unoccupied pews. The practice of selling and renting pews was eventually discontinued in England in the mid-19th century and ended in America in the latter part of that century.
The Plum Street church was our home until 1888 when our congregation rented a church on McMillan St. with plans to build a new church in Walnut Hills. The Plum Street church was eventually purchased by J. G. Murdoch. He remodeled the church into a plumbing business, using part of the building for that purpose and renting out the rest. The building was destroyed by fire in 1911. The site of the church is now a surface parking lot about a half block from the Duke Energy Center.
Image: Newspaper photograph of the Plum Street building. Photo provided courtesy of Mike Roberts.