We’re going to talk about the pulpit. The word pulpit comes directly from the Latin; pulpitum means “platform” or “staging.” One of the earliest references to the pulpit comes from an epistle (a letter) from Cyprian, around AD 250.
Cyprian recounts an event that happened in a church: “When this man, beloved brethren, came to us with such condescension of the Lord, illustrious by the testimony and wonder of the very man who had persecuted him, what else behoved to be done except that he should be placed on the pulpit, that is on the tribunal of the church; that, resting on the loftiness of a higher station, and conspicuous to the whole people for the brightness of his honor, he should read the precepts and gospel of the Lord, which he so bravely and faithfully follows? Let the voice that has confessed the Lord daily be heard in those things which the Lord spoke.”
Let’s unpack this. A gentleman who had been persecuted came into the church and was taken up to the pulpit. It was purposefully elevated so that it could be seen by all the people. It was also a place where the Word of God could be publicly read for the people of God. The “precepts” would be the law; this is probably a reference to the Old Testament. And the “gospel of the Lord” is a reference to the New Testament.
That is one of the earliest references to the pulpit. As we move through church history, we find pulpits in constructions of early churches, especially in the 300s and 400s. But in the medieval era, the pulpit gets set aside for the altar. And it becomes all about the Mass.
So when you go into some of these great European cathedrals, as well as cathedrals in the United States and elsewhere, you see that at the center of those cathedrals, your eyes are drawn to an elevated platform. But what is on that elevated platform is an altar. Off to the side, there’s a lectern, or two lecterns on either side; the text might be read from one and a homily given from another.
The Reformers, of course, changed all that. They restored the pulpit back to its central place. If you think of a nave as a rectangle, many of the Reformers did not have the pulpit placed at the beginning of the rectangle. It would not appear on one of the shorter ends where it could face the whole rectangle, but it would be placed somewhere in the middle of the long side of the rectangle. And the pulpit was usually built into the side of one of the pillars or the columns that would support the massive structure, with its ceiling and roof that stretched up into the heavens. You would literally have to ascend into the pulpit, climbing steps that sometimes were circular around a pillar. And you would enter into the pulpit. As in Cyprian’s quote, you were on a raised platform above the people so you could be seen and heard.
But the pulpit also represented the idea that people come into church to literally sit under, or stand under, as was the case in some of those Reformed churches, the teaching of the Word of God, and hear the Word preached from a pulpit. The pulpit is a crucial thing in the history of the church. And you can find it in a church near you.