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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

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.

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