“And Ezra the scribe stood upon a platform of wood, which they had made for the purpose …” – Nehemiah8:4
Solomon constructed a “brazen scaffold” before the altar, but Nehemiah’s “platform of wood” seems a more fitting antecedent to the dais and lectern situated at various locations in present-day churches. That’s an opinion the King James translators obviously shared, since they translated “platform of wood” as pulpit.
Since most churches met in homes the first century or two,there wasn’t much call for elevated platforms, although undoubtedly the early church may have adopted any number of pieces of furniture to hold the scriptures or elements of communion, etc. No, it wasn’t until we started building churches specifically dedicated to worship that we could start dividing from one another over furniture.
“How many legs does a table have?” asked the old visiting German Reformed elder. I sensed a trap, but seeing no way out, I replied “four.”
“Ah, and how many legs does that have?” he asked, pointing to our communion table, which as it turns out, sat box-like on the floor.
“None,” I said.
“So, is it a table, or an altar?” he asked, although it was an entirely rhetorical question to which he expected no answer. Ever since, when I look at that table, I can’t get it out of my head that we’ve got ourselves an altar, right there at the front of our Reformed church.
I share that so that you can see how, intentionally or otherwise, we are all apparently making statements we may not intend. The importance we attach to where the pulpit sits, how elevated it is, (and whether, for example, it is allowed or forbidden to make announcements from it), are all things apparently worth fighting over.
As usual, those who profess to be least concerned with adornments in church buildings, and who cling tenaciously to the “regulative principle of worship,” can argue the most vehemently. Presbyterians, for example, made quite a fuss about putting the pulpit front and center in the church building, to stress the centrality of preaching. Most Reformed and evangelical churches adopted this layout and, whether implicitly or explicitly, the rationale for it. That the pulpit was pushing the communion table or “altar” to the side was also a statement.
Basically, the great divide seemed to be between those who, on the one hand, saw communion as a symbol of the Atonement, and a visible preaching of the Gospel; and on the other, those who saw communion as mostly about the Incarnation. The former stressed the subjective self-examination, the latter the objective benefits of partaking.
The Church of Scotland used to be adamant about the centrality of the pulpit, but in the last 100+ years or so, churches are shuttling the pulpit off to the side. Presumably, this has been divisive although, perhaps, not rising to the level of acrimony reached when a Baptist church proposes padding the pews.
I was particularly interested in precisely what is permissible to be uttered from the elevated dais in different iterations of Protestantism. In our church, we’re careful to conclude the announcements before the worship service begins. We’re careful to do this because we’re pretty sure if there was a detailed worship service recorded in the New Testament, that’s how they would have done it. But we’re pikers compared to St. Andrew’s Church, Slaidburn, Lancashire, which has a three-level pulpit. On the bottom, any old soul can read announcements, but the center level is for reading “the gospel,” while the top is reserved for the sermon. According to the Internet, which is always right about religion, the only remaining triple-decker pulpit in America is reputed to be at Trinity Church, in Newport, Rhode Island.
We read about something called an ambo, which was sort of a movable lectern. It became stationary somewhere about the 6th century, and by the 12th century it was replaced most places by what we call a pulpit. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:
The ambo was the immediate predecessor of the present pulpit. In the first Christian era the bishop preached from his cathedra; a survival of this is retained in the French and German words for pulpit, chaire and predigtstuhl. The other German wordkanzel recalls the position of the ambo at the choir-screen (cancelli). Durandus clearly distinguishes the pulpit from the cancelli and stalli of the choir. The pulpit characterized as part of the church furniture by its independent position and use, is found separated from the choir and pushed forward in the central part of the nave beyond the choir for singers, as indicated by a large circle in the building plan of St. Gall (820). The analogia, or reading desks for the Epistle and Gospel, remained at the sides of the choir, and were used for the same purpose as the ambo, which, as belonging to the choir, was considered a part of the cancelli and was chiefly used for reading or singing parts of the liturgy.
Just when it became customary to use the ambo mainly for the sermon, which gave it a new importance and affected its position, is not known.
The English came up with a pulpit on wheels that could be moved around depending on the “church calendar,” while the whole thing got wrapped up with the question of where to put the choir, or choirs. Some thought the choir belonged in the back and out of sight. Others were fine with the choir up front and facing outward, while still others were scandalized by such a prospect and insisted that the choir be divided and the two halves sit facing each other across a liturgical no-man’s land behind the pulpit, but not necessarily behind the altar. But we digress…
Pulpits like those of the present time were built in Italy as early as the thirteenth century. The pulpit at Pisa, completed by Niccola Pisano in 1260, is an unattached structure resting on seven columns, which opened the way to a new development for Italian sculpture. In addition to what is palpably borrowed from antiquity, e.g. the Virgin as Juno, there are figures taken entirely from the life of the time. Instead of the mosaic, six bas-reliefs surround the breastwork: the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation in the Temple, Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment; they present the main contents of the doctrine of Salvation. Between the trefoiled arches of the columns over the capitals, in the spandrels, are symbolical representations of the virtues and figures of the prophets. An allegorical meaning should also be attributed to the lion, griffin, and dog, which, together with three figures of men, ornament the seventh or middle column, and to the lions that carry three of the supports, or stand guard on the steps.
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I marveled the first time I saw the huge lions that carry the pulpit upon their backs at the national Dutch Reformed Church in Capetown, South Africa, as well as when I gazed upon the pulpit sticking out of the wall at John Hus’s Bethlehem Square church in Prague. And who wouldn’t be in awe of those Hungarian Reformed Church elevated gazebos from which the gospel has proclaimed these many centuries. Having recently stepped down from active service as an elder after 38 years, I had to laugh to myself thinking back how often the most animated debates were about remodeling the bathroom, or choosing the color of the carpet. And hardly a Sunday goes by that I don’t think about how to take a saw to that “altar” up front and turn it into a proper table.
Wayne C. Johnson is the editor of Leben Magazine. He is a founding member of the board of governors of City Seminary of Sacramento. He is president of the Wayne Johnson Agency, a public affairs firm, as well as CEO of Gateway Media, a digital advertising agency. He graduated with a degree in European History from Purdue University.