settings icon
share icon

What is a mourner’s bench?

mourner’s bench

Joy is at the heart of salvation (Psalm 13:5). Yet mourning over sin is an important part of repentance, which, with faith, is central to responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21). Related to mourning or sorrow over sin, the apostle Paul taught that there are two different kinds of sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10). The first kind is godly, purposeful, and leads to repentance and salvation. The second kind of sorrow is worldly and pointless and leads to death. The mourner’s bench is intended to evoke the first kind of sorrow by giving a person a special place to sit and sorrow over his or her sin.

Mourner’s benches are commonly found in church sanctuaries and tent meetings. They vary in shape and size, ranging from conventional designs like long seats accommodating three to five people, to a row of chairs. Strategically placed near the front of the congregation, these benches aim to focus a mourner on God’s presence and ensure that clergy and other spiritual leaders are readily available to counsel and pray with those sitting there.

Another distinct design of a mourner’s bench consists of a row-length wooden seat, usually elevated a few feet off the ground and running parallel to the altar at the front of the sanctuary or tent. This type of long bench, designed for kneeling at rather than sitting on, accommodates several people on both sides, enabling people to be near other mourners for support.

Those who advocate using a mourning bench believe it helps people to obey the Bible’s instructions about sorrowing over their transgressions. For example, James 4:9 tells people to be miserable over their sin: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (ESV, cf. Isaiah 22:12). Job adds that sorrowing over sin has a larger purpose—turning away from transgression: “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Importantly, David conveys that those who undertake the challenging task of mourning are giving God an acceptable offering: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

Mourning benches gained popularity during the Second Great Awakening in the United States (1790—1840). Many preachers and evangelists at that time believed mourning benches were effective in encouraging people to acknowledge their sin and respond to the gospel message in faith. Charles Finney (1792—1875), a prominent 19th-century Christian minister, is the historical figure most associated with the mourner’s bench. Finney, who preferred the term anxious bench to emphasize conviction of sin, used the seat to prompt an immediate action in response to the gospel. Churches with a mourner’s bench often have roots in the revival meetings that popularized it, such as churches associated with the Holiness Movement.

Some Christians avoid the use of a mourner’s bench in the church, arguing that it could lead to exploiting a person’s feelings and even result in disingenuous conversions. Critics further contend that emotional individuals sitting near the front of the sanctuary could distract other worshipers. According to this perspective, mournful introspection should be a private matter between an individual and God, rather than be a public spectacle for others to observe.

Though sin separates people from God (Romans 6:23), Jesus promises God’s presence and compassion to those who genuinely sorrow over their transgressions: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Sorrow over one’s sin is the first step toward repentance, leading to transformative change. For some Christians, both historically and today, a mourner’s bench has played an important role in their conversion to Christianity and in their pursuit of Christlikeness.

Return to:

Questions about the Church

What is a mourner’s bench?
Subscribe to the

Question of the Week

Get our Question of the Week delivered right to your inbox!

Follow Us: Facebook icon Twitter icon YouTube icon Pinterest icon Instagram icon
© Copyright 2002-2024 Got Questions Ministries. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy
This page last updated: May 2, 2024