The podium at Horizons Christian Fellowship Church in Harrisonburg is located in the front of the room, on stage, and is made of wood. It is around 4 feet tall and a little over a foot and a half wide. There is a wood carving on the front of the podium, but it appears to only be for design rather than have any religious significance. The podium also has a raised and inclined structure on top for the speaker to put notes or anything else on, while still being able to see it clearly without hunching over the podium. The room is catered around the stage, which holds the podium. The space arrangement purposely elevates the speaker above the audience. This allows the speaker to be clearly visible from any seat in the room.
This particular podium has a specific history, as described by the pastor of Horizons Christian Fellowship Church, Ronny Breen:
“It came from a green shed in Highland County. The shed was owned by the ministry that I worked at called Youth Development Inc., a ministry that has been around for fifty seven years. I was cleaning the shed out in 2005 and discovered it under a bunch of tarps. I don’t know where it came from or how it got there. We used it in the Upper Room Headwaters Lodge from 2006 until 2011. Headwaters Lodge is where Youth Development Inc. calls its homebase. It is a Christian youth camp in the wilderness of Highland County. In 2011, we moved the podium down to Horizon Christian Fellowship where it has been ever since” (Breen).
Though the history of this specific podium does not seem very meaningful, pulpits have a unique and interesting origination. The origin of pulpits can be traced back to a primary source from 250 AD, Epistle XXIII, written by a man named Cyprian during the early foundation of the Christian church. This text explains that those who God calls to speak to others about himself should do so from a place where they can be heard and seen by all by placing oneself elevated on a pulpit in front of a congregation (Cyprian). The pulpit is a part of God’s will for the way his word should be proclaimed. He envisioned this “highly elevated place” for Ezra, a Jewish scribe and priest, to stand upon and share the truth of God with people (Embry). In the book of Nehemiah it talks about how “this pulpit of wood” was “made for the purpose”(Embry). It was designed and thought out by God as this way to elevate the words of the speaker and to ensure all the people in the crowd could see and hear him, and though divine, the meaning is still very practical.
In and outside of religious spaces, podiums communicate authority. Whether located in churches, classrooms, political arenas, or other various spaces, podiums provide a space for an authoritative speaker to deliver an authoritative message. The way that the space around a podium is able to capture the attention of an audience communicates both the authority of the person standing behind a podium, and also the respect that the audience has for that person and the message they are speaking.
However, the authority of podiums and pulpits within religious spaces has been restricted over the past sixty years due to a tax law which mandates that organizations which hold tax-exempt status may not influence legislation nor advocate for political candidates. This law was put in place in 1954 and has been nicknamed “The Johnson Amendment,” as it was Lyndon B. Johnson’s proposal to make this change to the existing Internal Revenue Code (Stanley, 246). Many pastors believe that this law is limiting their First Amendment Right to free speech, desiring to discuss politics with their congregation and endorse candidates, while other pastors firmly believe that politics are no matter for a pastor to influence for their congregation (Tuttle).
This amendment has received lots of recent attention after President Trump announced his intention to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” calling freedom of religion a “sacred right” that he intends to protect (Beckwith). Regardless of what the future may entail for the Johnson Amendment, we can use its impact on the authority of church pulpits to better understand the inevitable scrambling of religious spaces and secular spaces.
Preaching politics and endorsing candidates from behind the pulpit communicates the message that religious beliefs should be involved in every aspect of life; that faith should influence actions, decisions, and even political beliefs. Talking about politics in a house of worship brings secular matters into the religious atmosphere. Churches being regulated by federal law brings religious matters into the political atmosphere. Regardless of society’s desires to keep the church and state separated, a complete detachment seems impossible.
What was once considered an extremely sacred space for sermons and was very limited in who was welcome to speak into the object has shifted in modern society. The evolution of pulpits throughout the history of the church has overall become more relaxed and casual in its presentation and is much more a piece of furniture used to speak into than a set aside object with reverence that is used to entail.
The grandness of the designs of pulpits have declined, as seen in this pulpit from Horizons Christian Fellowship Church which does not embody the same eloquent carvings or fixtures on the item as would have been seen in the early church. This is primarily because of practicality and shifts in the overall thinking of divine power in the church. The practicality of the object is merged with divinity, as the object still encompasses the same overarching idea of how the object is to be used.
By Anna Aldridge, Erin Christian, and Grace Nemeth
We would like to say a special thank you to the pastor of Horizons Christian Fellowship Church, Ronny Breen, who provided extensive knowledge about the object itself and helped arrange times for us to observe and photograph the podium. We would also like to thank Kevin Hegg, Director of Digital Projects at James Madison University’s Innovation Services, for his continual assistance in the logistics of the technology involved in the assignment. We could not have completed this assignment without their assistance.
Beckwith, Ryan. “National Prayer Breakfast: Donald Trump Transcript.” Time. February 02, 2017.
Breen, Ronny. “Where did the podium come from?” Telephone interview by author. April 9, 2017.
Cyprian. “Epistle XXIII”. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2005.
Embrey, Gaylon. “The Pulpit.” The Pulpit. Accessed March 23, 2017.
Ross, David. “Britain Express.” Passionate About British Heritage. Accessed April 20, 2017.
Stanley, Eric W. “LBJ, The IRS, and Churches: The Unconstitutionality of the Johnson Amendment in Light of Recent Supreme Court Precedent.” Regent University Law Review 24. 2012. 246.
Tuttle, Robert W. “Pastors To Protest IRS Rules on Political Advocacy.” Interview by Jesse Merriam. Pew Research Center . September 19, 2008.