It would be a grave misunderstanding of Old School Presbyterianism (OSP) to think that it is essentially a reaction against contemporary theological movements in the church, or simply a conservative theological position that maintains that when it comes to the doctrine and practice of the church, older is always better. Rather in OSP theology the commanding principle is not is it antique?, but rather is it simple and biblical? Therefore Old School Presbyterianism would reject the slogan Older is Better, in favor of Biblical is Best. This principle is also at the heart of true reformation. The original Reformation of the 16th century was not simply trying to correct some doctrinal and moral abuses that had become commonplace in the church of Rome, the Reformation was a striving to return the church to the only authoritative source for all of our theology and practice – the Word of God.
Naturally there was considerable resistance to this reform movement, not only within the Roman church, but also within the Reformed churches themselves. In many places, men were content to cast off the yoke of Rome and correct many of the moral and doctrinal abuses, but did not want to part with the established traditions of the church. For instance, in England for over a hundred years, the Puritan party in the English church argued for a thorough-going reformation that would finally do away with all the man-made rites, ceremonies, traditions, and church government that had continued. For instance the Reformer John A’Lasco in a letter to Cranmer summed up the critical question regarding worship as “whether in the pubic worship which God himself established in his Church with definite ceremonies, anything else can be used concerning which God has not prescribed nothing at all?” A’Lasco’s own answer to that question was “Nothing ought to be added to public worship concerning which God has given no command.” But having that answer and being able to implement it in the church were different things entirely, and Calvin himself lamented, “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word.”
The love of traditions, as well as ecclesiastical and civil Politics prevented many churches from pursuing the kind of complete reform that the Reformers desired and that included the churches in Scotland, England, and even Calvin’s Geneva. It was not until what is sometimes referred to as the Second Reformation in the 17th century that the kind of thorough-going reformation that the Puritans desired was able to be implemented in the Reformed churches. Indeed from an Old School Perspective, the government and worship of the Presbyterian church hearkens back not to the transitional worship of the 16th century, but the more thoroughgoing reformation of the 17th.
So to appeal in the modern day to the transitional Reformed worship of the 16th century with its vestigial liturgies and ceremonies, and say that these traditional ceremonies and rites of the church are Presbyterian and Reformed is to miss the historical reality that gave rise to them and the political situation that preserved them. Later, when they were done away with, Puritans and Presbyterians certainly did not miss their going as they equated them with the “shadowy” ceremonies of the Old Testament. As Thomas Watson was to put it in speaking in favor of worship without these ceremonies that were still so popular in the Anglican church “To worship him without ceremonies. The ceremonies of the law, which God himself ordained, are now abrogated, and out of date. Christ the substance being come, the shadows fly away; and therefore the apostle calls the legal ceremonies carnal rites. Heb 9: 10. If we may not use those Jewish ceremonies which God once appointed, then not those which he never appointed.”
So how then did these rites and ceremonies, that had disappeared from Presbyterianism between the 17th and mid-19th century reappear in the Episcoterian worship I mentioned in this post? I examined that question in another essay that I wrote on the reintroduction of Holy Days and the church calendar that I published separately. Here is the section detailing how Presbyterians turned away from the simple New Testament worship they had practiced for two centuries and readopted the “shadows” that had preceded the reformation:
Historically Presbyterians had rejected written liturgies, the Westminster divines had made a conscious decision not to create a formal liturgy that would restrict their freedom in worship and for which they saw no warrant in Scripture, but they decided instead to write a simple directory that would give guidance to ministers in preparing their worship. The colonial Presbyterians had inherited the same distrust of liturgies as their Puritan forbears, but their distrust went even further. In 1729 when the American Presbyterians decided to formally adopt the Westminster Standards, they did not officially adopt the Directory for Publick Worship, which had been considered an integral part of the Standards by the Puritans who framed it. This was because of the hostility of many American Presbyters to any document that smacked of usurping the role of Scripture in guiding and shaping their worship. As a result the Adopting Act framed by the Synod of 1729 only “recommended” the directory to its members. In 1786 when the Presbyterian church of the newly formed Untied States again adopted the Westminster Standards as their Creedal statement they opted to “receive” the the Directory as “in substance agreeable to the institutions of the New Testament”.17
This was an important distinction, for of all the documents produced by the Westminster Assembly only the Directory contained an explicit repudiation of the practice of observing Holy Days. As we have seen, Holy Days are clearly inconsistent with the idea of biblical worship as it is abundantly set forth in the Confession, but in later years the concept that biblical worship was only that which was explicitly authorized in scripture (this concept is often referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship) was to come under attack within the Presbyterian church.
Until the mid 1800s, both the Regulative Principle and tradition were usually enough to ensure that the Church Year had no place in the Presbyterian Church. In 1837 the Presbyterian Church in the United States had split into two separate camps, the “New” and “Old” school. The issues that had caused the split had to do with the feelings of ministers in either wing towards Calvinism and the traditional polity and practice of the Presbyterian church. The New School, which had been profoundly influenced by the sweeping revivals of the 18th and early 19th centuries, tended to believe that evangelistic considerations outweighed issues like strict adherence to Confessional standards. Their worship tended to be less constrained by the Regulative Principle and more inclined to incorporate elements that were to be found in the Protestant traditions that did not descend from Puritanism, or which had moved further away from their roots. Despite this tendency towards adopting new methods, the New School does not seem to have initially been any more eager than their more conservative counterparts to incorporate the observation of the Church Year into their worship. Before that could happen there was to be a more thoroughgoing revolution in Presbyterian attitudes towards worship.
In 1855 a book that began to change the way Presbyterians of both the Old and New Schools thought about worship was published by a Presbyterian minister by the name of Charles Baird. Baird had been heavily influenced by the history of the continental Reformed churches, and in particular he began to discover that the Reformed tradition outside of England and Scotland had a rich tradition of using liturgies. His book Eutaxia, or the Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches, was the result of his discoveries. By examining of the liturgies used by the likes of Calvin, Knox, and the Huguenots, Baird was able to construct an argument for the reintroduction of liturgical worship into the Presbyterian Church.
While Baird did not advocate a reintroduction of the Church Year in Eutaxia, and his comments on the subject where limited to an observation that even Calvin had observed Christmas on a few occasions, his work paved the way for two important developments. The first was a reassessment of the use of liturgies in Presbyterianism and the second was the opening of a window in which the practices of Reformed churches that had pursued a less thoroughgoing reformation of Worship than the Scots and English Puritans might be introduced. Both played on the growing distaste of some within the Presbyterian church for purely extempore worship.
Baird’s book was to create an opportunity for other Presbyterians who wanted to “improve” Presbyterian worship by making it more liturgical, and in many cases, directly tied in to the Church year. One such individual was a Presbyterian elder and businessman by the name of Benjamin Bartis Comegys. Comegys had no sympathy whatsoever for the older Puritan view of worship. His views were highly colored by his romanticism and attachment to all things Medieval. His sympathies lay so thoroughly in the Anglican camp that one friend commented “A stranger visiting his library would probably conclude that it’s owner was a clergyman of the Church of England, as few clergymen in this country, even those of the Episcopal Church, possessed so complete a liturgical library.”18
This combination of Romanticism and sympathy for high-church Anglicanism led Comegys to an almost total rejection of the Regulative Principle of Worship and in particular the Puritan rejection of Holy Days. Consequently, he endeavored to see Holy Days restored, and while he agreed that these Holy Days had no warrant in scripture, he pointed out that the Presbyterian Church had been gradually introducing other innovations that did not square with the regulative principle and that “no bad effects have followed.” From this he concluded that the average layman (and presumably himself) could not “see why other changes may not be adopted.”19
Comegys even went so far as to say that preaching was not the primary element in Sunday worship: “The grand object of the church service was prayer and praise” he hoped therefore to make Presbyterianism into “a people who express their devotions in well-ordered prayer and praise.”20 To this end Comegys published An Order of Worship with Forms of Prayer for Divine Service in 1885 and then A Presbyterian Prayer Book for Public Worship. His stated intention was to “create a public opinion which will not be startled” by the move away from traditional Presbyterian Worship according to the Regulative Principle to a more expressly liturgical and Anglican model. Both books had an impact on American Presbyterian practice that was so deep that one need not hesitate in concluding Comegys achieved his stated intention. Needless to say both of Comegy’s books included mention of the Church Year. But as yet, there was no official Book of Common Worship that would officially tie the Presbyterian Church to the observation of Holy Days.
The stage had been set for the creation of such a book by the publication of several smaller books of “forms” of worship by the Denominational press – the Presbyterian Board of Publication. The advantage of creating a book of forms for worship over a set liturgy was that it seemed to tie in better with the Presbyterian practice of not forcibly determining exactly how worship should proceed. The first of these books was A. A. Hodge’s Manual of Forms published in 1877. Hodge’s manual was really quite conservative and certainly did not advocate the observance of the Church year in any way. The second of these was Forms for Special Occasions by ex-moderator of the General assembly, Herrick Johnson. Johnson’s book published in 1889 wasn’t that much more radical than Hodge’s work, but it did take another step closer to a set liturgy by including liturgical diction in prayer.
While Hodge and Johnson were cautiously moving towards a more expressly liturgical format in worship, by producing books that were safe enough for the denomination to publish, private individuals like Comegys were producing other volumes that moved considerably more quickly. Eventually these two streams were to merge in the production of an official Book of Common Worship. An important agency that was to pave the way for this was the Church Service Society formed in 1897 by two influential American Pastors – Henry Van Dyke, pastor of the prestigious Brick Presbyterian Church of New York City and Louis Benson an influential Philadelphian and pastor of another prestigious church in the suburbs of that city. Both had worked extensively to privately produce liturgical materials that included the observation of the Church Year.
The effect of forming the Church Service Society was to create an organization that unified the various men fighting for the institution of a standardized Presbyterian Liturgy. Most of these men were gentlemen of “pastoral, esthetic, and literary inclinations”21 and not the foremost theologians of Presbyterianism. One author observed that this was because “most of Presbyterianism’s theologians were too busy fighting in the opening engagements of the fundamentalist-modernist war and defending scholastic Calvinism to take an active part in what became a significant movement”22
While the organization stated their commitment to the Presbyterian Standards in their “Statement of Principles” it seems clear that with individuals such as Comegys on board, this commitment was to a very broad definition of these Standards in regard to worship. The group did no more than survey the practices of churches and the way in which ministers were trained concerning worship, but the effects of the surveys themselves were far reaching. They stirred the Church into concerted action on the issue of worship and led several Presbyteries, most notably that of New York, to comprehensively examine the issue themselves.
The fruits of this examination where to quickly become apparent. In 1903 both New York and Denver Presbyteries overtured the General Assembly to produce forms for public worship. With Henry Van Dyke acting as the chairman of the all-important Committee on Bills and Overtures, the committee quickly resolved to answer the two overtures favorably and appointed a committee to consider the preparation of a simple common book of worship for voluntary usage in Presbyterian churches. This measure too was approved and eventually resulted in the publication in 1906 of the Book of Common Worship. While the General Assembly stressed that the use of this book was strictly voluntary and not officially recommended (the title page simply stated “Prepared by the Committee of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for Voluntary Use”) it had far reaching effects – it was, after all, an official publication of the denomination. More importantly, as far as the question we are considering was concerned, it contained prayers for Good Friday, Easter, Advent, and Christmas. Barely 71 years since Samuel Miller had declared that “Presbyterians do not observe Holy Days” the denomination had boldly proclaimed that this was no longer true.
The 1906 edition of the Book of Common worship was eventually replaced twenty-two years later by the edition of 1932. The 1932 edition continued the advance towards a liturgical format and included even more emphasis on the Church year, with prayers provided for Lent, Palm Sunday, Pentecost, and All Saints’ Day. The 1932 edition was also the first edition to be officially accepted by the Southern Presbyterian Church. This was even more startling in light of the fact that in 1899 the Southern General Assembly had declared:
“There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, rather the contrary (see Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed Faith, conducive to will worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”23
Apparently the intervening 33 years and the obvious influence of the 1906 edition of the Book of Common Worship had made a world of difference in Southern Presbyterian Attitudes. It is important to note however, that the original declaration of the 1899 General Assembly was never repealed.
As the Book of Common Worship continued to be revised, subsequent editions indicated that Presbyterians continued to become more and more comfortable with the observance of Holy Days. The 1946 edition included prayers for Maundy Thursday, Ascension Day, Trinity Sunday, and thirteen Sundays after Trinity.
By 1955, when Northern Presbyterians were once again considering another revision of the Book of Common Worship, it had become painfully obvious that the Directory of Worship of 1788, which was still technically in force, had little or nothing to do with the actual worship of Presbyterians. Indeed it was questionable whether the Presbyterian practice could even claim to follow the Regulative Principle of Worship outlined in chapter twenty-one of the Westminster Confession, especially now that the gap between Presbyterian and Anglican worship was rapidly closing. The solution, of course, was to revise the Directory for Worship of 1788 and to produce a modern edition that would finally put an end to the need to give lip service to the principles that had guided the worship of the Puritans. Accordingly, the new Directory, published in 1961, stated that worship should draw its order and content not only from Scripture but also from the historical experience and resources of the Christianity. At last the Northern Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) had altered its theological foundations to allow for what they had already been officially practicing for over 55 years.
17 Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America, (Richmond, John Knox Press, 1967), 17
19 Ibid. 103
20 Ibid. 104
21 Ibid. 121
22 Ibid. 121
23 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern Presbyterians), Deliverance on Christmas and Easter (1899).