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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 Discipline 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

Next: A Diet Of Public Worship In The Time Of Knox

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