Knox's Book Of Common Order

"The Book of Common Order is best described as a discretionary


The Book of Common Order makes no reference to the reading of Scripture

as a part of public worship, nor does it, after the fashion of many

similar books, contain a table of Scriptures to be read during the

year. This omission however, is amended by an ordinance found in the

First Book of Discipl
ne prepared by Knox in 1561, and adopted by the

General Assembly of that year, by which it is declared to be:

"A thing most expedient and necessary that every Kirk have a Bible in

English, and that the people be commanded to convene and hear the plain

reading and interpretation of the Scripture as the Kirk shall appoint."

It was further enjoined by the same authority and at the same time that:

"Each Book of the Bible should be begun and read through in order to

the end, and that there should be no skipping and divigation from place

to place of Scripture, be it in reading or be it in preaching."

It is evident, therefore, that it was the purpose of Knox that the

whole of Holy Scripture should be publicly read for edification, and

that it should be read as God's message to men and not as an exercise

subordinate to the preaching, or intended merely to throw light upon

the subject of the discourse.

In connection with the reading of Scripture and of the Prayers, mention

is made, in this same Book of Discipline, of an Order of Church

officers who filled an important place in the Church of that time. It

was ordained that where "no ministers could be had presently" the

Common Prayers and Scriptures should be read by the most suitable

persons that could be selected. These suitable persons came to be

known as "Readers," and they form a distinct class of ecclesiastical

officers in the Reformation Church of Scotland. The need of such an

Order was evident, for the Church found great difficulty in securing

men of the requisite gifts and graces for the office of the ministry.

The Readers therefore, formed an important and numerous order in the

Church for many years, numbering at one time no less than seven

hundred, while at the same time there was less than half that number of

ordained ministers. These men were not allowed to preach or to

administer the sacraments, and they formed only a temporary order

required by the exigencies of the times, as is evident from the fact

that the General Assembly of 1581, in the hope that all parishes would

soon be supplied with ordained ministers, forbade any further

appointment of Readers.

In the mind of Knox, these men were the successors to the lectors of

the early Church, and corresponded in Scotland to the docteurs of the

Swiss Reformed Church, a Church whose organization he regarded as but

little less than perfect. Although they conducted a part of the

service in parishes where ministers regularly preached, yet in the

original idea of the office the intention was that they should conduct

public worship, in its departments of prayer and praise and reading of

the Scriptures, only in parishes where a minister could not be secured.

It is necessary to understand their office and their position in the

Church, inasmuch as the existence of such an order has a bearing upon

our appreciation of the form of public worship at this time adopted in


In the exercise of public prayer the greatest freedom was granted the

minister by the Book of Common Order. Calvin had prescribed a form of

confession, the uniform use of which he required, but the general

confession with which the service of the Book of Common Order opened,

was governed by this rubric:

"When the congregation is assembled at the hour appointed, the Minister

useth this confession, or like in effect, exhorting the people

diligently to examine themselves, following in their hearts the tenor

of his words."

Similar liberty was also allowed the minister in the prayer which

followed the singing of the Psalms and preceded the sermon; the rubric

governing this directed that:

"This done, the people sing a Psalm all together in a plain tune; which

ended, the Minister prayeth for the assistance of God's Holy Spirit as

the same shall move his heart, and so proceedeth to the sermon, using

after the sermon this prayer following, or such like."

And finally, as governing the whole order of worship, it is added:

"It shall not be necessary for the Minister daily to repeat all these

things before mentioned, but, beginning with some manner of confession,

to proceed to the sermon, which ended he either useth the prayer for

all estates before mentioned or else prayeth as the Spirit of God shall

move his heart, framing the same according to the time and matter

which he hath entreated of. And if there shall be at any time any

present plague, famine, pestilence, war, or such like, which be evident

tokens of God's wrath, as it is our part to acknowledge our sins to be

the occasion thereof, so are we appointed by the Scriptures to give

ourselves to mourning, fasting and prayer as the means to turn away

God's heavy displeasure. Therefore it shall be convenient that the

Minister at such time do not only admonish the people thereof, but also

use some Form of Prayer, according as the present necessity requireth,

to the which he may appoint, by a common consent, some several day

after the sermon, weekly to be observed."

The liberty allowed to the minister in this so important part of public

worship is evident, and although many prayers are added as suitable for

particular times and occasions, and some, which are described as of

common use under certain circumstances and by particular churches, yet

none of them are prescribed as the only prayers proper for any

particular season or occasion.

Even in the administration of the Lord's Supper, the directions which

accompany the prayer which precedes the distribution of the bread and

wine allows a similar latitude to the Minister.

"Then he taketh bread and giveth thanks, either in these words

following or like in effect."

The student of the life of the great Scottish Reformer does not need to

be told that the framer of the Book of Common Order was not himself

bound by any particular form of prayer in public worship. On the

occasion of his memorable sermon after the death of the Regent Moray,

his prayer at its close was the passionate outburst of a burdened soul,

impossible to one restricted by prescribed forms, while his prayer,

which is still preserved, on the occasion of a national thanksgiving,

is an illustration of the perhaps not excellent way in which, in this

exercise, he was accustomed to combine devotion and practical politics;

a part of it ran thus:

"And seeing that nothing is more odious in Thy presence, O Lord, than

is ingratitude and violation of an oath and covenant made in Thy Name:

and seeing that Thou hast made our confederates of England the

instruments by whom we are now set at liberty, to whom we in Thy Name

have promised mutual faith again; let us never fall to that unkindness,

O Lord, that either we declare ourselves unthankful unto them, or

profaners of Thy Holy Name."

It is not surprising that one who allowed himself such liberty in

public prayer should lay no binding forms upon his brethren in the


It remains only to be said, with regard to the restrictions of the Book

of Common Order, that so far from providing any fixed form of prayer

for uniform, use, even the Lord's Prayer was not imposed in any part of

public worship. It is added, together with the Creed, to the form of

prayer called "A Prayer for the Whole Estate of Christ's Church," but

this prayer is governed by the general rubric already quoted, which

permits such variation as the minister, moved by the Spirit of God,

shall deem desirable. There is nothing to show that it was expected

that the Lord's Prayer should be used as an invariable part of public


With these facts before us, whatever our judgment may be of the wisdom

of Knox and of the Church of his day in the matter of a regulated

service, we cannot close our eyes to the evident conclusion that the

Reformer was wholly opposed to the bondage of form in prayer. In this

part of public worship he claimed for himself, and exercised under the

guidance of the Spirit of God, the greatest freedom; and consistent

with this position he never sought to impose as a part of regular

public worship, the repetition by the minister of even that form of

prayer which of all others has for its use Divine authority. To

whatever in worship the Book of Common Order may lend its countenance,

it assuredly gives no support to the imposition upon worshippers of

prescribed forms of prayer.

Side by side with that part of public worship already considered there

has always been associated the exercise of Praise.

Although the Scottish Church conformed most closely to the Churches of

France and Switzerland, yet it was impossible that it should not, to

some degree, be influenced by the spirit of the German Reformation.

This influence was especially marked in that which was a special

characteristic of the German Church, a love for sacred song and a

delight in the same on the part of the people.

The Book of Common Order contained, as has been mentioned, in its early

editions, the complete Psalter, and to this were added, subsequently, a

few Scripture Hymns, together with the Doxology Gloria Patri in

different metres, so that it could be sung at the end of every Psalm.

This Doxology appears in Hart's edition of the Book of Common Order of

1611, in six different metres, under the general head of "Conclusions,"

and was evidently used regularly at the close of the Psalms sung in

public worship. It was not until the beginning of the seventeenth

century that there began to arise criticisms of the custom of singing

the Doxology, and it would, therefore, appear that during the formative

period of the Scottish Church, which we are considering, it was

regularly used, and occasioned no objection and aroused no opposition.

The Hymns which were printed with the Psalter were few in number, and

were chiefly free paraphrases of sections of Scripture. They are "The

Ten Commandments," "The Lord's Prayer," "Veni Creator," "The Song of

Simeon called Nunc Dimittis," "The Twelve Articles of the Christian

Faith," and "The Song of Blessed Marie called Magnificat." The

purpose of the Hymns appears to have been the memorizing of Scripture

and important doctrinal truths, and there is no evidence that they were

employed in public worship, although a place was not denied them in the

Book of Common Order; in the Order for Public Worship mention is made

of Psalms only, and in all the accounts, which have come down to us in

correspondence or history, of the public services of that time, the

people are invariably spoken of as joining in a Psalm, while even in

the public processions, which were common on occasions of national

rejoicing or thanksgiving, Psalms only are mentioned as being sung by

the people.

The singing was usually led by the Reader, but there is occasional

mention in the records of the time of the "Uptaker" of the Psalms, who

evidently performed the duties of a Precentor.

The Sacraments.--In the Confession of Faith, which forms the first part

of the Book of Common Order, it is clearly stated that there are two

Sacraments only in the Christian Church, and that these are Baptism and

The Lord's Supper. No subject in connection with the practice of the

Church created more discussion in Reformation times than the methods

which were to be followed in the administration of the Sacraments. The

spirit of the Scottish reformers is indicated in the following

sentence, which governed this matter:

"Neither must we in the administration of these Sacraments follow man's

fancy, but as Christ himself hath ordained so must they be ministered,

and by such as by ordinary vocation are thereunto called."

In accordance with this general regulation the Book of Common Order

prescribes in detail "The Manner of the Administration of the Lord's


The words of the opening rubric are as follows:

"The day when the Lord's Supper is ministered, which is commonly used

once a month, or so oft as the Congregation shall think expedient, the

Minister useth to say as follows:"

Here follow the words of institution of the Supper from St. Paul's

Epistle to the Corinthians, after which is added an exhortation in

which flagrant sinners are warned not to draw near to the holy table,

and timid saints are encouraged in wise and helpful words to approach

with repentance and faith. This is the address which in later times

came to be known as "Fencing the Table." There are no words to

indicate that any variation from the prescribed address was encouraged.

The address being finished

"The Minister comes down from the Pulpit and sitteth at the Table,

every man and woman in likewise taking their place as occasion best

serveth: Then he taketh Bread and giveth thanks either in these words

following or like in effect."

This prayer is wholly one of praise and thanksgiving, there being an

evident purpose in the omission of any invocation of the Holy Spirit

and of words that might be regarded as a consecration of the bread and

wine, and in the strict adherence to the example of our Lord, Who,

"when He had given thanks, took bread."

The manner of communing is then described:

"This done, the Minister breaketh the bread and delivereth it to the

people, to distribute and divide the same among themselves, according

to our Saviour Christ's commandment, and likewise giveth the cup:

During the which time some place of the Scriptures is read which doth

lively set forth the death of Christ, to the intent that our eyes and

senses may not only be occupied in these outward signs of bread and

wine, which are called the visible word, but that our hearts and minds

also may be fully fixed in the contemplation of the Lord's death, which

is by this Holy Sacrament represented. And after this action is done

he giveth thanks, saying:"

The prayer of thanksgiving which follows is the only one in connection

with this service for which no alternative was allowed the minister.

An appropriate Psalm of thanksgiving followed the prayer, the Blessing

was invoked and the congregation dispersed.

The Communion, as is evident from the rubric quoted above, was received

while the congregation was seated, and this practice the Presbyterians

adhered to and defended as against the Episcopal practice of kneeling

at this service, regarding the latter attitude as liable to be

interpreted as a rendering to the Sacrament of homage and adoration

which should be reserved for God alone.

The service, it is evident, was marked by simplicity and by in almost

total absence of prescribed form. In a note "to the reader," the

author of the Book of Common Order explains that the object throughout

is to set forth simply and effectively those signs which Christ hath

ordained "to our spiritual use and comfort."

How often this Sacrament was to be observed was left to the judgment of

individual congregations, but frequent celebration was recommended.

Calvin thought it proper that the Lord's Supper should be celebrated

monthly, but finding the people opposed to such frequent celebration he

considered it unwise to insist upon his own views. With his opinions

on this matter, those of Knox were quite in harmony.

The Sacrament of Baptism was likewise characterized in its

administration by similar simplicity, and yet it is evident that, in

this more than in any other part of public worship, the minister was

restricted to the forms provided both in prayer and in address.

The rubrics which govern the two prayers of the service and the address

to the parents, make no mention of alternate or similar forms being

permitted. In this the Book of Common Order differs from the Book of

Geneva, which allowed the minister liberty in these parts of the

service. There would seem, therefore, to be an evident intention on

the part of the Scottish reformers in thus departing from their custom

in other parts of worship. It may be that inasmuch as Baptism is the

Sacrament of admission into the Church, it was deemed advisable that

for the instruction of those seeking membership therein, either for

themselves or for their children, the form of sound doctrine set forth

at such a time should not be varied even in the manner of statement.

The Sacrament was administered in the Church "on the day appointed to

Common Prayer and preaching," instruction being given that the child

should there be accompanied by the father and godfather; Knox himself

had, as godfather to one of his sons, Whittingham, who had been his

chief assistant in compiling the Book of Common Order, and who had also

been his helper and fellow-worker at Geneva. The opinion of the Swiss

reformers, as well as that of their Scotch followers, was in favor of

the presence of sponsors in addition to the parents at the baptism of

children. The parent having professed his desire to have his child

baptized in the Christian faith, was addressed by the minister, and

called upon to profess his own faith and his purpose to instruct his

child in the same. Having repeated the Creed, the minister proceeded

to expound the same as setting forth the sum of Christian doctrine, a

prescribed prayer followed, the child was baptized, and the prayer of

thanksgiving, also prescribed, closed the service.

The Book of Common Order required that marriages should be celebrated

in the Church and on the Lord's Day:

"The parties assemble at the beginning of the sermon and the Minister

at time convenient saith as followeth:"

In the forms of exhortation and admonition to the contracting parties

no liberty to vary the address is allowed the minister, but in the one

prayer which formed a part of the service, viz., the blessing at the

close of the ceremony it is ordered:

"The Minister commendeth them to God in this or such like sort."

The service ended with the singing of an appropriate Psalm.

In the service for burial of the dead it was ordered by the First Book

of Discipline that neither singing, prayer, nor preaching should be

engaged in, and this "on account of prevailing superstition." In this

matter, however, permission was granted to congregations to use their

discretion; Knox, we know, preached a sermon after the burial of the

Regent Moray, and the directions in the Book of Common Order clearly

leave much to be determined by the circumstances of the case:

"The corpse is reverently brought to the grave accompanied with the

Congregation without any further ceremonies: which being buried, the

Minister, if he be present and required, goeth to the Church, if it be

not far off, and maketh some comfortable exhortation to the people

touching death and resurrection; then blesseth the people and so

dismisseth them."

This is but one of many instances that show that the early reformers

accorded to the Church, in matters not absolutely essential to the

preservation of sound doctrine and Scriptural practice, the greatest

liberty. With regard to the administration of the Sacraments and the

public worship of God, they laid down well-defined regulations and

outlines to which conformity was required; in matters that might be

looked upon as simply edifying and profitable, liberty was allowed to

ministers and congregations to determine according to their discretion,

as Knox himself declared with respect to exercises of worship at


"We are not so precise but that we are content that particular Kirks

use them in that behalf, with the consent of the ministry of the same

as they will answer to God and Assembly of the Universal Kirk gathered

within the realm."

We have thus presented in brief outline the contents of the Book of

Common Order, commonly used in Scotland from 1562 to 1645, in so far as

its regulations refer to public worship and the administration of the

Sacraments. The book is itself so simple and clear in its statements

that it is not difficult to discover the spirit of its compilers, and

their understanding of what was required for the seemly and Scriptural

observance of the different parts of Divine worship. The results of

our survey may be summed up in a few words.

The Scottish Church gave a prominent place to prayer, to the reading of

Holy Scripture, and to praise, in the public worship of God on the

Lord's Day. Not in any sense do these exercises seem to have been

regarded as subordinate in importance to the preaching of the Word; the

congregations assembled for Divine worship, of which preaching was one

important part. But even where there was no preaching, the people

nevertheless came together for Divine worship, in which they were led,

in the absence of any minister, by persons duly appointed for that


The service in public worship was not in any of its departments a

responsive one. The only audible part shared by the people was in the

praise; they did not respond in prayer even to the extent of uttering

an audible "Amen," nor did they join audibly in any general confession,

in a declaration of faith as contained in the Apostles' Creed or in any

other formulary, nor did they even repeat with the minister the Lord's

Prayer when that model of prayer given by Christ to His disciples was

used in public worship.

Liberty under the guidance of the Holy Spirit marked the minister's use

of the forms provided, and the privilege of extempore prayer was

sacredly guarded, the example of Knox, as well as his precept,

encouraging his brethren in the ministry to cultivate free and

unrestricted prayer to God. In this matter the Church declared her

belief in the Holy Ghost and in His presence with her, believing that

those who were divinely called to the work of the ministry were by the

Spirit of God duly equipped for the performance of the important duties

of that office. Although forms of prayer were provided, these appear

to have been intended mainly for the use of the Readers, who were not

duly ordained to the ministerial office, and for the guidance of



Readers enjoyed a degree of liberty in this matter, a liberty which

they exercised, as is evident from an Order of Assembly passed in the

reign of James forbidding Readers to offer extemporary prayers, but

requiring them to use the forms prescribed.

Lastly, in the administration of the Sacraments honor was put upon them

by the care that was observed in their public, reverent and frequent

observance. Simplicity marked all the service connected with these

holy ordinances, while, at the same time, whatever might appear to

unduly exalt them to an unscriptural position in the thoughts of men,

was carefully avoided, as well in the prayers and exhortations used as

in the manner of administration. The Sacraments were regarded as helps

to the spiritual life of God's elect, as "medicine for the spiritually

sick," and were never represented as holy mysteries into which only

certain of God's children should penetrate.

If these conclusions are just, it is very evident that those who to-day

advocate the introduction into Presbyterian worship of responses and

prescribed forms can find no support for such a practice, however they

might limit it, in Knox's Book of Common Order, or in the practice of

our Scottish ancestors in this so virile and vigorous period of the

Church's history. Just as little support, too, can those find who

would impose upon the ministry of the Church the use of set forms from

which no deviation is to be allowed either in the conduct of public

worship or in the administration of the Sacraments. The most that can

be argued from this ancient regulation of worship, which is much more

accurately described as a Directory rather than as a Liturgy, is the

desirability of a uniform order of service for the whole Church, of a

due proportion of attention to each part of worship, and of the

conformity by all ministers to a uniform method in the administration

of the Sacraments. The Book of Common Order clearly indicates the

conviction of the Scottish reformers that all things in connection with

the worship of God should be done "in seemly form and according to

order," and it quite as clearly indicates their purpose to acknowledge

and rely upon the operation of the free Spirit of God, in the exercise

of that worship and in the performance of the public ordinances in the