Etiquette in Church

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

Etiquette was not just practiced at the dining room table or on the streets but also at church, and depending on the church you attended there were different customs and etiquette rules. One etiquette expert noted that it was a sign of ill breeding to be late to church, and noted:

“[I]n 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.”

Another book noted that no matter what church a person entered, 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.”

Attending Church Services, Author's Collection

Attending Church Services, Author’s Collection

As most gentlemen wore hats in the 1700 and 1800s, one of the first things a gentleman did when entering an edifice of worship was remove his hat, “a sign of respect never to be omitted.” 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.” There was no specific hat etiquette for church-going women, although some members of a Methodist congregation may have wished it were so during the time period when headdresses and bonnets were high. At the time, attendance at their 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.” One Christian 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.”

Praying, Public Domain

Praying, Public Domain

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Silence is golden,” and no where 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.” One book noted, “if your own feelings will not prompt you to silence and reverence, pay some regard to the feelings of others.” When a person behaved inappropriately, churchgoers were admonished to “fix your mind upon the worship … and let the impertinence pass unheeded.” 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.”

Church Services, Public Domain

Church Services, Author’s Collection

Etiquette also involved seating. For instance, if attending a strange church, it was advised the person wait for the sexton to provide him or her 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.” 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.” 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.'”

Returning From Church, Public Domain

Returning From Church, Public Domain

After entering the chapel, people were not to rush hastily up or down the aisle. 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.” Church goers were also advised to endeavor to be in their seats before the service began. When the services concluded, one etiquette book noted,  do not “begin your preparations for departure, by shutting up your book, or putting on any article of dress … before the benediction.” 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.”

References:

  • Duffey, Eliza Bisbee, The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877
  • Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873
  • Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, 1872
  • Morton, Agnes H., Etiquette, 1892
  • The Laws of Etiquette, 1836
  • “Women’s Headdress in Churches,” The Christian Advocate, Vol. 74, 1899

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