Amen Corner drew a record number of responses—more than 20 in all. Some respondents provided brief answers, others wrote treatises. I’ve been further stumped by how to judiciously prune the sheer quantity of observations and opinions.
I hate to do this, but because of space limitations, this Stumper has to be a two-parter.
In this first installment, we’ll start with a general definition of “amen corner.” Then I’ll tell you about my visit to an Older Order Mennonite church, where amen corners are still in use.
We’ll take a look at some of the experiences of readers worshipping in different denominations, and then next week, we’ll investigate the secular uses of the term.
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Before we begin, I want to point out that the information shared in this column is entirely anecdotal. This was by design: I specifically asked that respondents not go to the Internet to pass on information I could easily find myself. Furthermore, I chose not to make follow-up calls or solicit information beyond what was offered to me. We can find much that is valuable and true in gathering and gleaning our “answer” from the fresh diversity of local, personal experience.
This approach didn’t come without some teasing about “playing by my rules,” though.
“I not only resisted the temptation to Google, I denied myself the dictionary and bookshelf,” wrote teacher, pastor and Duke divinity school graduate Michael Sullivan.
As usual, I was delighted to hear from readers who have been stumped by other Stumpers, and this time, venture that they “know the answer.” And it was fun to hear from those who engaged with my question to the point of sending out mass email queries or calling relatives and friends to hear what they have to say.
A General Definition
For the most part, those who were familiar with amen corners as a functioning space in the church were of the Mennonite faith or speaking from experience within the Mennonite faith. According to these folks, the amen corners denote the 2 to 4 benches running perpendicular to the normal pews at the front of the church, sometimes on either side of the pulpit. The benches are normally occupied by the elderly—men on one side, women on the other.
These areas were called amen corners because these special congregants offered some form of verbal affirmation during the minister’s sermon. By scriptural decree, usually only men were allowed such a privelege.
Judith K. Breeden, daughter of a pastor who ministered within several denominations, contributed a concise explanation of this tradition: “By saying ‘amen,’ they were indicating they liked what he was saying, agreed with what he was saying, needed to hear what he was saying, or were just praising the Lord. This not only encouraged the minister, but also helped keep the congregation ‘spiritually engaged.’”
There is also evidence that not just a simple “amen” came from the amen corner.
“In some of the conservative churches, all preachers on the pulpit pew are expected to give ‘testimony’ or affirmation to the sermon after it was delivered,” wrote Glenn Bauer, speaking of the Mennonite tradition. He also ventured the opinion, which was also confirmed by an Old Older Mennonite source, that post-sermon testimonies were often solicited from members seated in this area, whether ordained or not.
Besides being a place of hierarchical ranking, there were many of the opinion that the amen corner seating arrangement caters to the physical limitations of its inhabitants. (Readers of a venerable age, please be not offended by the following sentences.)
It is posited that because of the proximity of the pews to the pulpit, those in the amen corner would not have to strain to hear the sermon. Furthermore, the short benches offered easy access to the aisle and/or anteroom, thereby creating minimal disturbance should an exit be required.
“Some people were reluctant to sit there because when you moved to that section, it was like admitting to the congregation that you were in the ‘old age’ bracket,” said Nancy Showalter, as she recalled her childhood worshipping in a conservative Mennonite church in Indiana.
For some respondents, the occupants of the amen corners, easily viewed from the pews, became a memorable part of the worship experience
Glenn Baer sent a nostalgic description of the “little Mennonite country church” he attended as a child in Marion, Pa.
The Amen corners for men and women—in their usual place on either side of the pulpit—were always occupied by the elderly. On the men’s side, only the deacon occupied it and without fail he faithfully dozed through the entire sermon. Of course it was conspicuous because he was seated facing the pulpit from the side and everyone had a direct view of Bro Charley Shank sleeping throughout the sermon.
On the ladies side, there were only two or three occupying the front pew of the amen corner. They had their stools upon which to rest their feet and their private cushions…. The Reifsnyder sisters (both single) sat there and the preacher’s wife and Little Lizzie, a relative.
Janet Miller said her aunt used her seat in amen corner to keep careful watch on her little niece.
A North Fork area native, Janet spends part of the year in Florida. She says she often refers to the south and north wings of her church in Sarasota as the amen corners and that although none of her fellow congregants use the term with much regularity, they all know what she’s talking about.
“For the older ones, it’s kind of a term of their childhood,” she said.
In the progressive Mennonite tradition, amen corners seem to be a thing of the past. This is not to say that there are no modern progressive Mennonite churches with amen corners. There very well could be, but I did not hear from any member who currently attended such a church with a functioning amen corner.
An Old Order Church
I did, however, hear from two members of an Old Order group, who called to make sure I knew that amen corners exist in local Old Order churches.
“We joke and call the corner that the women sit in the ‘awomen’ corner,” said my source.
She was very curious about the origin of the phrase. Neither of the reasons I shared with her about the amen corner made sense.
She said elderly members could actually hear better if they sat in front of the pulpit. And with the exception of the hymn-singing, only ministers speak during the service, she said.
She then extended an invitation to attend an Old Order service so I could see the amen corners for myself.
This I did, with much interest and feeling very honored.
The three Old Order churches in the area are all of similar design, my new friend told me as we took our seats.
I was particularly interested to see that because of the anterooms on either side of the pulpit, the amen corners were no closer to the pulpit than any of the other pews. That clarified my friend’s point that elderly members could hear just as well—and perhaps even better—seated in front of the pulpit, rather than to the side.
Clearly, though, the separate seating arrangement reinforces the elders’ leadership role in the congregation
In conversation afterwards, I did hear some oral history that male elders seated in the amen corner might be called on to offer testimony or even a sermon, by necessity (if not enough ministers) or by choice.
In Other Denominations
Janet Beahm offered information from the Brethren and Methodist traditions. She remembered reading about “amen pews” in a history about Mountain Valley United Methodist Church. The church formerly housed United Brethren in Christ (1854-1946) and Evangelical United Brethren (1946-1968) congregations before merging with the United Methodist Church in 1968.
Amen pews are two short benches on either side of the pulpit where “older and more devout members” participated in the service by affirming the pastor’s words.
Janet, who is 69 and has worshipped there all her life, says she has no memory of this feature.
Brent Hockema affirmed what several readers with Baptist connections had already told me. A pastor at Smith Creek Regular Baptist Church, Brent has “never known an amen corner in any Baptist church I have attended…”
That includes nine churches in various states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Florida and Virginia, as well as preaching visits in many other churches.
“…That doesn’t mean some Baptist churches don’t have one,” he said. “I just have no experience with it.”
Phyllis Miller, 71, grew up attending Spring Creek Nazarene Church, where her mother was one of the founders.
“I always associated amen corner with people who say ‘amen’ while the pastor is preaching to show their agreement,” she said. “They don’t necessarily sit in a corner. I suppose at one time, they did. Now you hear them called ‘amen section,’ which is more like a group of people seated anywhere in the church. These people say ‘amen’ to encourage your pastor, like ‘You’re on target’ or ‘you’re right on line.’”
William Simmons, of Timberville, (more commonly known, he says, as “Willy” or “Crazy Willy”), called in to say the same thing.
“I don’t know much about an amen corner, but there’s an amen section,” he said. This phrase doesn’t describe a specific area of the church, but instead denotes members of the congregation, sitting wherever they please, who sometimes vocalize their agreement with the speaker.
“You hear amen section used in jokes more than anything else,” said Crazy Willy, sounding quite sane to me.
Amy M. Quach shared her inter-denominational experiences. She currently attends Grace Covenant Church. But she’s also attended a Nazarene church, a Brethren church and three different Baptist churches, as well as services in African-American churches. Whether spontaneous affirmation within services is acceptable or even permitted depends on the denomination’s tradition and the church leadership, she says.
For example, in many African-American churches, “there is no corner,” she says. “EVERYONE says amen all the time during such services.”
Grace Covenant Church is contemporary in style of worship and very upbeat. “Again, there is no amen corner. If there is something that you agree with, you have the freedom of saying “Amen” whenever you want to... and no one will look at you weird,” she wrote in an email.
Michael Sullivan also referenced the African-American church, where there is a significant relationship between the location of one’s seat; one’s role, status, place, authority in the congregation; and the tradition of “talking back” to the minister. He suggested that the tradition of “amen corner” could be rooted in the black church and “become mainstream by adoption… either congregationally or through various revival movements.”
Part II will continue next week with a discussion of amen corner as a place of contrition and the various secular uses of the term.