Friday, December 2, 2011

The Parson Said Amen

Who knows why out of the blue phrases of music suddenly come into the head years after the last memory? At some point during the morning on Thursday an old hymn popped into my head, one from the 1963 Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field, and there I stood cutting up fruit at the kitchen counter amazed that this song would come pouring out after a lifetime of sleeping in some back corner of my brain…

‘I build a chapel / You build a chapel / Oh, we build a chapel / Amen, Amen, Amen…’

And it stuck with me for most of the day. But one thing usually leads to another and after several hours of that spinning around in my head, I began to wonder about the word ‘amen’ and how it has been, in one language or another such a common utterance over the ages to so many people worldwide.

Most sources tell us that ‘amen’ comes from Hebrew as used in the Old Testament of the Bible and carries the meaning of ‘so be it.’ It appears numerous times in the Old Testament, and in even more in the Greek New Testament, where is was a favorite of the Gospel writers. ‘Amen’ is also common to Muslims, where it has the same meaning as the Hebrew when used in the Koran. Some have drawn a link all the way back to the Egyptians in 2500 BC and their god Amun (sometimes spelled Amen) and meaning ‘the hidden one,’ but there is little support for this theory. In present times we sometimes hear a person say, “Amen to that!” which in a vernacular sense means ‘that’s right,’ clearly consistent with the original ‘so be it.’

Going somewhat beyond ‘amen’ and looking at the origin of other words common to the church and clergy, the benches for sitting in a church have an interesting history. To use a term from the 1960s, a ‘pew’ was considered at one time to be analogous with ‘the front of the bus.’ Colonial America carried forward the European tradition of cordoning off a place in churches for Christian families of prominence to appreciate the sermon without having to mix with families or individuals of a lesser status. The segregated rows were called ‘pews’ coming from the Latin podium and the French puie for ‘raised place.’ Over the years a greater sense of democracy prevailed and the pews became the rows of seats for all worshipers.

The title ‘Reverend’ comes from the Latin reverendus meaning ‘worthy of respect’ and was first applied to clergymen in seventeenth century England. The townspeople bestowed the title on their local minister in respect of his spiritual leadership.

‘Pastor’ is from the Latin word for ‘shepherd’ and stems from a man’s work as the shepherd of his local flock. Of course, it goes back to Christ calling himself the ‘Good Shepherd’ in John 10:11.

‘Parson’ is the result of a heavy New England accent for the term ‘the town person.’ The most educated person in the area was customarily the local minister who lived in town. When anyone needed information that was considered book learning, the person most likely to know the answer was the minister living in town, or in the pronunciation of a New Englander, the parson.


  1. Don't know if this is historical, but it is true from my early childhood. The pews in the front of the church were called the "Amen" pews. Perhaps that is because those regular members of the church would sit there and say "Amen" when they agreed with the preacher's sermon. Those sitting in the back were often those who wandered in and weren't necessarily members of the church. As far as I can remember, though, we young people sat together in the back so we could pass notes and giggle.

  2. Perfect example of what makes Scriblets so enjoyable: from a song from a good film (Poitier outstanding) to an historical overview of some common terms associated with religion. Am reminded of the title of James Baldwin's play, 'The Amen Corner.'


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America