A Diet of Public Worship in the Time of Knox.
"What I have been to my country, albeit this unthankful age will not know, yet the ages to come will be compelled to bear witness to the truth." -- JOHN KNOX.

A diet of worship on a Sabbath day in Scotland in the days of Knox, or in the period immediately succeeding his death, had for the people of that time a profound interest. It was a period of storm and upheaval, and the Church, with its worship and teaching, was the centre around which, in large measure, the struggles of the age gathered; and although for us these struggles are simple history, and the subjects of debate are, many of them, forever laid aside, still it is of interest to learn how a service in connection with the public worship of the day proceeded in this formative period of Presbyterian practice, when order and method were less matters of indifference than they are now.

Happily we are not left without abundant material for forming an accurate picture of a Sabbath-day service at that time, for in addition to the explicit directions contained in the Book of Common Order, there have come down to us descriptions of public worship by participants therein.

As early as seven o'clock a bell was rung to warn the people of the approach of the hour of worship, and this was followed an hour later by another bell, which summoned the congregation to the place of prayer. It was a congregation of all classes, for in Scotland the Reformed doctrine made its way among the great and the lowly alike. Writing in 1641, a refutation of the charge made in England against the Scotch that they "had no certain rule or direction for their public worship, but that every man, following his extemporary fancy, did preach or pray what seemed good in his own eyes," Alexander Henderson thus describes in his reply the congregation in a Scotch Church: "When so many of all sorts, men and women, masters and servants, young and old, as shall meet together, are assembled, the public worship beginneth." In the early days of Presbyterianism the rich and the poor met together, realizing that the Lord was the Maker of them both.

The congregation assembled in a Church building that was plain in its interior, the plainness being emphasized, and at times rendered unsightly, by reason of the removal of the statues and pictures which in pre-Reformation times had decorated the walls and pillars. The building was, however, as required by the Book of Discipline, rendered comfortable and suitable for purposes of worship. It was ordered, "lest that the Word of God and ministration of the Sacraments by unseemliness of the place come into contempt," there should be made "such preparation within as appertaineth as well to the majesty of the Word of God as unto the ease and commodity of the people." Such wise words indicate on the part of our Scottish ancestors an appreciation in their day of what is all too often even in these happier and more enlightened times, forgotten -- the importance of having a Church building in keeping with the greatness of the cause to which it has been dedicated, and at the same time suitable and convenient for the purposes of public worship. The narrowness which would forbid beauty and artistic decoration and the pride which would sacrifice comfort and convenience for the sake of appearance, were both avoided. At one end of the building stood a pulpit, beside it, or within it, a basin or font for use in the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism, and in the part where formerly the altar had stood, tables were placed for use in the observance of the Lord's Supper; at the end of the Church opposite to the pulpit was placed a stool of repentance, an article frequently in use in an age when Church discipline was vigorously administered. Pews were as yet unknown; some churches had permanent desks or benches, to be occupied by men holding public positions, or by prominent members of influential guilds, the rest of the people stood throughout the service, or sat upon stools which they brought with them to the Church.

The members of the congregation on entering the Church were expected to engage reverently in silent prayer, and at the hour appointed, the Reader from his desk called upon all present to join in the Public Worship of God; he then proceeded to read the Prayer prescribed in the Book of Common Order, or, if he so desired, to offer one similar thereto in intent; in either case the prayer was a general confession, and was followed by a Psalm or Psalms announced by the Reader and sung by the whole congregation and ending with the Gloria Patri. Next came the reading of the Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments, the reading being continuous through whatever books had been selected. This ended that part of public worship which was conducted by the Reader, and occupied in all about one hour.

On the second ringing of the bell, the minister entered the pulpit, knelt in silent devotion, and then led the people in prayer "as the Spirit moved his heart;" this finished, he proceeded to the sermon, to which the people listened either standing or sitting, as opportunity afforded, with their heads covered, and occasionally, if moved thereto, giving vent to their feelings by expressions of applause or disapproval. After the sermon the minister led the congregation in prayer for blessing upon the Word preached and for the general estate of Christ's Church: if the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed were employed in the service (but this was optional with the minister) they were repeated by the minister alone at the close of this prayer, and embodied in it; a Psalm was sung by the congregation and the Benediction was pronounced, or rather, the Blessing was invoked, for the petitions were framed as supplications: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with us all: So be it."

Such was the course of an ordinary diet of worship. If a marriage was to be celebrated the parties presented themselves in Church before the sermon; the ceremony having been performed, the parties remained, according to regulation, until the close of the public worship. If the Sacrament of Baptism was to be administered the infant was presented for the ordinance at the close of the sermon by the father, who was attended by one or more sponsors. When the Lord's Supper was observed (which in some congregations was monthly) the tables were spread in that part of the Church which had formerly been the chancel, and as many communicants as could conveniently do so sat down together with the minister. These, when the tables had been served, gave place to others.

The services throughout were marked by simplicity, reverence and freedom from strict and unbending forms; liberty characterized their every part, and room was left for the exercise of the guiding Spirit of God, in a measure not enjoyed by Churches tied to the use of a prescribed worship; at the same time there was a recognized order and a reverent devotion in all parts of the worship which many non-liturgical Churches of this day may well covet. It was a service simple yet impressive, voluntary yet orderly, regulated and yet untrammeled.

chapter iii knoxs book of
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