Church Etiquette for the Faithful Church Goer

Etiquette was not just practiced at the dining room table or on the streets. Church etiquette was also required and depending on the church you attended there were different customs and etiquette rules. The Ladies’ Manual noted that it was a sign of ill breeding to be late to church, and further stated:

“In visiting a church of a different belief from your own, pay the utmost respect to the services and conform in all things to the observances of the church — that is, kneel, sit and rise with the congregation. No matter how grotesquely some of the forms and observances may strike you, let no smile or contemptuous remark indicate the face while in the church.”[1]

Attending Church Services, Author's Collection

Attending church services. Author’s collection.

Although everyone was encouraged to attend church there was a special recommendation for servants. It was noted that servants should “always” be allowed, even “directed,” by their masters to go to church to prevent them from becoming “ruined.” If convenient it was also proposed that servants attend the same church as the family otherwise the servant might not go at all, “wander about,” or become an incessant “idler.” To help servants achieve the goal of attending church regularly, it was further noted that “dinner [should be] served earlier on that day than usual.”[2]

Another tip about church etiquette was that when a person entered the church house, the person’s thoughts should be “fixed upon high and holy subjects, and … [the person should show] devotion, even if … ignorant of the forms of that particular church.”[3] It was further suggested that church attendees behave appropriately by giving their undivided attention to their minister and not be someone who studies the stained glass windows or their neighbor’s bonnet. Church etiquette stated that during the “sermon, one should watch the face of the reader, or speaker, and give to the minister all the inspiration that earnest expounder may find in the face of an intelligent listener.”[4]

In the 1700 and 1800s most gentlemen wore hats, like the top hat, so one of the first things a gentleman did when entering an edifice of worship was remove his hat. This was considered “a sign of respect never to be omitted.”[5] However, if a gentleman was in a country where the head was kept covered, it was suggested the gentleman “need not fear to follow the custom of those around you.”[6]

Although men might have specific hat etiquette tips it was different for some Methodist church-going women in the late 1800s who wore their hats and bonnets high. Supposedly, attendance at Methodist church services required a ticket, and the word soon spread that ushers should “give no tickets to those who wear high heads or enormous bonnets.”[7] The Christian Advocate, a religious newspaper of the late 1800s, noted how much better it would be if women wore “simple head-coverings in the house of the Lord … [as] hats decked with flowers, feathers, bows, buckles, and gleaming hat pins makes a wall between the … souls of the people and their spiritual discernment.”[8]

Praying, Public Domain

Praying. Public domain.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Silence is golden,” and nowhere was it more important to preserve silence than when attending church. It was common knowledge people were to behave reverently, which meant being silent and practicing proper decorum by not whispering, laughing, or staring, as that was considered “irreverent, indelicate, and rude.”[9] In The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness it was noted, “if your own feelings will not prompt you to silence and reverence, pay some regard to the feelings of others.”[10] When a person behaved inappropriately it was bad form. Therefore, churchgoers were admonished to “fix your mind upon the worship … and let the impertinence pass unheeded.”[11] This quiet reverence also extended to the passing of fans or books, which were to be offered to everyone — strangers, the young or the old, male or female — and to “be offered and accepted or refused with a silent gesture.”[12]

Church etiquette also involved seating. For instance, if a person was attending a strange church, it was advised he or she wait for the sexton to provide a seat. By no means was a person to enter an occupied pew without invitation. Such a vulgar action was considered the height of rudeness. If a stranger entered the church and the sexton did not at once provide a seat, thoughtful churchgoers were advised “the pew door should be opened and the stranger silently invited to enter.”[13] If a gentleman decided to invite a woman to sit in his pew, it was suggested he “call for her early, [then] give her the most comfortable place, and be sure she has a prayer and hymn-book.”[14] Moreover, when entering an unusually crowded church and a friend offered a seat, a person was to “acknowledge [the] civility, whether accepted or declined, by a bow, and a whispered ‘thank you.'”[15]

Church Services, Public Domain

Church services. Author’s collection.

After entering the chapel, people were not to rush hastily up or down the aisles. In fact, if a man was accompanying a woman they were to “pass up the aisle [slowly] together until the pew is reached, when the former should step before the latter, open the pew door, holding it open while she enters, then follow her and close the door after him.”[16] Church goers were also advised to endeavor to be in their seats before the service began as it was disruptive to the congregation if someone came late. 

Singing by the choir was another area where church etiquette could be practiced. This was pointed out by etiquette expert Agnes H. Morton who stated:

“The signing of the choir may be good; if so, one should not listen to it with the air of a connoisseur at a grand concert. Or the singing may be very poor; that fact should not be emphasized by the scowling countenance of the critic in the pews. A mind absorbed in true devotion does not measure church signing by secular standards. The spirit may be woefully lacking in the most artistic rendition; it may be vitally present in the most humble song of worship. While we may with righteous indignation condemn the sacrilege of a spiritless or irreverent singing of the sublime service of the church, it is very bad form to sneer at the earnest and sincere work of a choir whose ‘limitations,’ in natural gifts or culture, render their work somewhat commonplace.”[17]

Church Etiquette: A Village Choir by Thomas George Webster in 1847, Courtesy of Wikipedia

“A Village Choir” by Thomas George Webster in 1847. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Church etiquette also involved donations. For instance, it was considered proper for parents who had a child baptized to donate to the clergy “if they are able, making a present to the officiating clergyman, or, through him, a donation to the poor of the neighborhood.”[18] There were also reasons to donate beyond getting a good look at the beauty Madame Récamier, who was once assigned to pass the plate among church members at her church and found herself overcome by the crush of people wanting a closer look at her. Clergymen noted that church etiquette required that when the plate was passed parishioners give “cheerfully” and they pointed out that donating was a way for church goers to learn the lesson that “it is the cheerful giver that God loves, not him that does it grudgingly, and of necessity, and because other people are looking at him.”[19]

When services were nearing their conclusion, Florence Hartley noted how people should behave. She stated do not “begin your preparations for departure, by shutting up your book, or putting on any article of dress … before the benediction.”[20] That was because the benediction was a time when heads were to be bowed and a person’s eyes downcast, if not closed. Moreover, it was stated:

“To sit and stare at a minister while he is praying is a grotesque rudeness worthy of a heathen barbarian … The incident may escape the knowledge of the well mannered … but the roving eye of some infant discovers the fact, and … gets an influential lesson in misbehavior.”[21]

Returning From Church, Public Domain

Returning from church. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] The Ladies’ Manual, 1883, p. 422.
  • [2] The Laws of Etiquette, 1836, p. 123.
  • [2] Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873, p. 183.
  • [4] Morton, Agnes H., Etiquette, 1893, p. 170.
  • [5] Harley, Cecil B., p. 183.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The Christian Advocate, Vol. 74, 1899, p. 652.
  • [8] Ibid. p. 4.
  • [9] Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, 1872, p. 154.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 155.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] The Ladies’ Manual, p. 421.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Hartley, Florence, p. 155.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 156.
  • [16] The Ladies’ Manual, p. 421. 
  • [17] Morton, Agnes H., p. 170-171.
  • [18] The Ladies’ Manual, 449.
  • [19] Newland, Henry Garrett, The Offertory and the Church Rates, 1857, p. 16.
  • [20] Hartley, Florence, p. 155.

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