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 Chu
ch, 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


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


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.