At a planning meeting the weekend prior to Tuesday, February 5th, the vestry and leadership of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama decided to remove a pew dedicated to Jefferson Davis.
The action follows similar action by St. Paul’s Episcopal in Richmond, Christ Episcopal in Alexandria, the National Cathedral, and at what was known as Robert E. Lee Memorial in Lexington, Virginia.
Episcopal News Service reports:
“In teaching a Sunday school class this past fall, I became aware of the pew’s dedication not occurring until 1925,” said [The Rev. Robert] Wisnewski, who has served at St. John’s since 1995. That detail was the first loose thread that led to the unraveling of the story of the Jefferson Davis pew.
Wiesnewski’s February 5th statement to the congregation of St. John’s follows:
The Jefferson Davis Pew and Plaque
At our planning retreat this past weekend, I asked the Vestry to consider some information regarding the Jefferson Davis Pew. Most of this information, while not itself new, was not formerly known by the group and had a striking effect on us all. Here is a summary of what we considered.
The plaque which memorializes the Jefferson Davis Pew states that he was a communicant of St. John’s while his family was in Montgomery when he was first elected President of the Confederacy. The Davis family was in Montgomery for three months. Jefferson Davis was not Confirmed as an Episcopalian until he went to Richmond. His wife was an Episcopalian. We have no way of knowing how many times he or his family attended, perhaps only a few times or perhaps as many as a dozen times. Since Davis was not Confirmed, it is probable that he never received Holy Communion here and technically was not a communicant.
The pew was not recognized formally or dedicated to Davis’ memory until 1925. At the dedication of the pew, on Pentecost Sunday, a controversial politician and outspoken proponent of segregation from Tennessee, John Trotwood Moore, addressed the congregation. Moore had gained national attention by filibustering in Congress against an anti-lynching bill. Lynchings had become so frequent in the 1920s that Congress sought a way to outlaw them. Moore stood for lynching.
At the dedication of the pew in 1925, the pew itself was not in place. Sometime between 1900 and 1925 the original pews in the nave were replaced with new ones. Most probably they were installed in 1906 when the chancel was expanded to its current dimensions. One of the original pews was put back in by 1934 but not before 1925 as shown in photographs in our archives. The lore that the pew had been in place since the beginning of the Civil War and always known as the Jefferson Davis Pew is not true.
Confederate monuments and symbols have increasingly been used by groups that promote white supremacy and are now, to many people of all races, seen to represent insensitivity, hatred, and even evil. The mission of our parish is diametrically opposed to what these symbols have come to mean.
After discussion of this information, the Vestry of St. John’s voted to remove the Jefferson Davis Pew and Plaque from our worship space and place them in our archives. This was not done to rewrite our history or to dishonor our forebears but we agreed that the current Vestry would not take any action to install a Jefferson Davis Pew were it not already in place. As such action would be troublesome, to continue to allow the pew to be in our worship space would be troublesome.
St. John’s prides itself in being a spiritual home for all people and a place where politics takes a back seat to the nurture of our souls. Our worship space is sacred and should direct our hearts to the love of God without distraction. Even if the actions which brought about the Jefferson Davis Pew in 1925 were only to memorialize an historical fact, and that appears improbable, the continuance of its presence presents a political statement. Davis was a political figure, not a church figure, nor even a member of the parish. Acting to remove the pew and plaque is the correction of a political act and hopefully will help us all to focus more completely on the love of Christ for all people.
The pew and plaque have now been removed and placed in our parish archives. We believe not to do so would serve only to distract us all from our stated mission “To Worship God and Make Disciples for Jesus Christ.” Some may view this as an unnecessary action. Others may believe this decision should have been made long ago. I ask you all to trust the wisdom of your elected leaders and support their action which I believe to be courageous and spirit-filled. I am very proud of this Vestry and their decision. Your leadership wants our congregation to grow numerically and spiritually and we want always to be welcoming to all who may come our way.
Your Senior Warden Bill Eskridge, your Junior Warden Jimmy McLemore, and I are available to you if you have any questions or wish to discuss any of this further. We are committed to the well-being of each and every member of our parish and ask for your prayers as we seek to serve Christ and St. John’s Church.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.