In the 1937-38
sanctuary remodel at
Shadyside Sanctuary 1890
In moving to the north
side of the chancel, the pulpit became more substantial in size,
reaffirming the high place of preaching in the church, while emphasizing
the distinct and complementary roles of Word and Sacrament in Christian
“preacher snuffer” mentioned by Dr. Barnes is more conventionally
known as a sounding board. Before
the twentieth century, sounding boards were to reflect the preacher’s
voice to improve acoustics. At
Shadyside, its role is visual, helping define and emphasize the space set
apart for proclaiming God’s Word. Dr.
Barnes also alludes to a danger in leaving this space to preach.
Of course the danger is not being snuffed by the sounding board,
but the risk of calling personal attention to the preacher rather than the
proclamation. Many ministers
today are willing to take that risk in an effort to preach more
intimately. At Shadyside, both
the spirit and the architecture discourage such forays.
it is not only a modern practice. Hugh
Thomson Kerr, Shadyside’s fifth pastor, notes (in his book Preaching
in the Early Church) that in the fourth century, John Chrysostom
“…spoke often from the ambo or pulpit, but frequently came down to the
reader’s desk among the people.” This
was not to get attention for himself, but to get attention at all.
Dr. Kerr points out, “It was not easy to preach in those days.
People were restless and the congregation seemed always on the
move…Some left before or in the midst of the sermon.
Some gossiped at the back of the of the church…”
Surely, this was not a problem for Dr. Kerr, who doubtless had
considerable influence on the design of Shadyside’s pulpit, installed
during his pastorate.
The detailing of the pulpit was just as carefully designed as the size, shape and location. Carved symbols in the limestone “barrel” and wooden sounding board speak of the many ways our lives can be lived in Christ. Other pages on this website expand on these features.
Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh
James F. White, the prolific writer on architecture for worship claims,
If we trace
back the Christian use of a pulpit for preaching the Word, we do not make
it back to the time of Christ. Indeed,
in the case of Jesus, we find in Luke 4:
custom, one stood to read the scriptures, and sat to teach from them.
Certainly, teaching and preaching are not synonymous.
In this case, however, since Jesus is the Word of God, we may
assume that his teaching was, in fact, proclamation of the Word.
In fact, the scripture he reads
(and claims to embody) speaks of an
anointing to proclamation, “…to tell the good news…to announce
release to the prisoners…to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Ruins of synagogue, Galilee, 1st C BC, Photo Credit: Center for Theology, Science and Culture
Testament book of Nehemiah says that the priest, Ezra, “…stood
upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose,” according
to the King James Version. This
is not likely a structure arranged for a single speaker, as we commonly
picture a pulpit, because thirteen others stood beside Ezra.
Other translations describe the structure as a platform or podium.
four hundred years later, though, Jesus sat to explicate the scriptures.
This custom seems to have carried into the earliest structures that
were used (occasionally or exclusively) for Christian worship:
homes typically had a seat of honor at a table, a natural place from which
a Disciple, apostle or prophet would preach.
Chancel, Early Christian Basilica
congregations grew, a model for their churches was the basilica.
It was a Roman civic building with a raised platform at one end of
a long room. Upon the platform was a seat of authority (e.g., for a judge)
that was chosen by churches as an appropriate location for preaching.
It became the cathedra,
the bishop’s throne. The
Roman basilica sometimes had one or more extensions of the platform into
the long room. Advocates of an
issue spoke from these places, called ambos.
Christians adopted the ambo for reading of scripture. This
practice may have grown out of the Jewish use of a bimah (raised platform)
for scripture reading in the synagogues and in the Women’s Court of the
the earliest churches, separate rooms were used for the various components
of worship. At first,
catechumens and later the laity were excluded from the room in which the priests celebrated the
mass (the chancel
The ambo platform in the nave (where the congregation worshiped)
became elevated for visibility and hearing the preacher.
Perhaps as a matter of safety, eventually a railing enclosed the
platform. Pulpits became
progressively elevated, not only for the benefit of those on the nave
floor, but for those in the galleries.
Pulpit, S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy 6th C
Photo Credit sjmcdonough
to Richard Kieckherer, “Around the twelfth century, the relatively small
ambo can sometimes be distinguished from the more massive and often
elaborately carved pulpit…Pulpits became more common in the thirteenth
and following centuries, when preaching was increasingly important…”
(Theology in Stone)
The pulpit placement was sometimes a considerable distance from the
chancel. If the church
included side aisles, the pulpit might mount on one of the columns.
Seating was not provided in church naves before the fourteenth
century, so the congregation was free to move to the appropriate
liturgical center. When pews
came into use, columns often obstructed line of sight to the pulpit and
Left: The Church of St Stephen & St Tathan, Caerwent, Wales, 16th C Photo Credit: e cathedra
Right: Church of the Abbey, Melk, Austria 18th C Photo Credit: Martin Haesemeyer
the pulpit increasingly became the architectural focus in churches, other
liturgical functions migrated to it. “Triple
Decker” pulpits, had a reading desk below the preaching position to
conduct other parts of worship, and a clerk’s table below the desk.
In many meetinghouse churches, the baptismal font became a bowl
that appeared on a shelf of the pulpit, only when that sacrament was
celebrated. In some cases,
even the communion table became a mere extension of the pulpit.
St Mary's Church, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England, Pulpit 1778 Photo Credit: ramson
unifying trend was countered by Christopher Wren’s seventeenth century
Church of St James-the-Less, Philadelphia 1846
Modeled on St Michael's, Longstanton, Cambridgeshire, England 13th C
the past 150 years, churches have chosen from among all the preaching
positions described here, except the bishop’s seat.
For a time, Protestant churches, where preaching became a nearly
exclusive focus of worship, had their pastors speak from what is
accurately described as a stage. In
some cases, a massive central pulpit was installed.
In others, the pulpit shrank to lectern size and in some cases
became merely a stand to hold the minister’s notes.
By the late twentieth century, contemporary worship came to be led
by a worship team from what literally is a stage. The
last vestige of the pulpit, the note stand, disappeared into the
teleprompter. Perhaps it would
be not unfamiliar to Ezra, who preached from a platform, with a
thirteen-member worship team of his own, seemingly without
Fifth Ave Presbyterian Church, NYC, Central Pulpit 1875 Photo Credit: scalleja
in the face of these changes, formal, reverential, Reformed worship never
died out and in fact is enjoying renewed appreciation.
At Shadyside, where honoring God through excellence in this form of
liturgy is the tradition, the pulpit – beloved of pastors and
parishioners alike – seems the best and only “piece of geography”
from which to preach Jesus Christ, the Word of God.