Puritan Worship in the Post-Reformation Period

A number of Protestant churches trace their descent from the Puritan heritage. In their worship, these groups share a commitment to a common principle: worship must be ordered according to the Word of God alone. Puritan worship is also characterized by covenant theology and an emphasis on prayer.

The American Puritans provide a seemingly inexhaustible mine from which historians continue to quarry their writings. Any attempt, therefore, to provide an overview of Puritan thought and practice in so short a space will be found wanting. Our emphasis, then, will be to highlight a few themes which characterize the Puritan outlook, and which are played out in their corporate worship activities.

The reasons for the establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII were more political and personal than theological. The Thirty-Nine Articles, which form the stated doctrinal confession of the Church of England, were drawn up by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1532–1553. Puritans affirmed the Reformed content of the Articles, but they did not tolerate the way in which the English faith was practiced in the churches.

To the Puritans, the English Reformers had not gone far enough. The Puritans sought to reform the Reformation, or, more specifically, to carry the Reformation further, to fully purify the church of what they regarded as the malignant influence of Roman Catholic tradition. The English Puritans were a varied group, rather than a well-defined religious bloc. An entire spectrum of Puritan attitudes has been noted, ranging from those with moderate reforming intentions, who desired to remain within the Church of England, to those of more radical bent who separated themselves from what they perceived to be dead orthodoxy (at best) or, in some cases, apostasy. The label “Puritan” was originally applied derisively, mocking the scrupulous attitude of these reformers. The Puritans, as the epithet implies, sought a pure church, free from either secular or “popish” influence, beholden only to the Scriptures.

Some American Puritans, known to us as the Pilgrims, are of the latter variety—the separatists. Others retained official ties to the English church but were no less zealous in their desire for change. Sincere and pious, the American Puritans came to the colonies to worship God apart from the forced constraints of the established hierarchy. Their hard-line Calvinism would not allow them to accept and work within the more broadly conceived English system. Areas of concern that directly affected liturgical practice include:

Sola Scriptura. Understanding this Reformation tenet in its most literal fashion, the Puritans sought to use the Bible as their only source and guide in both worship and daily life. For them, the thorough study and application of the Scriptures was the cornerstone of life. In Puritan worship we can see this belief exhibited in the extended portions of the Bible read aloud at each service, interspersed with illuminating commentary from a deacon, and in lengthy sermons which were the focus of the Puritan liturgy.

Further, the influence of Scripture on the liturgical practices of the Puritans is evident in their rejection of the “popish” and human traditions remaining in Anglican practice. The drab garb of everyday life befits the minister rather than ornate vestments; metrical psalms sung by the congregation replaced chanting. Puritan worship stressed both head and heart knowledge of the Word: truth imparted in worship was lived out in daily life. Congregants took copious notes on the sermon, and the head of the household frequently quizzed his children and servants to ascertain their attentiveness to the sermon—their spiritual well-being was his responsibility.

Covenant Theology. The doctrine of election, as developed by Calvin, states that God elects persons through no merit, work, or choice on their part, and covenants with them to be their God. While the Thirty-Nine Articles affirmed this understanding the English church of the seventeenth century did not uphold it in practice. Similar to the children of Israel in the Old Testament, with whom many parallels were made, the Puritans viewed themselves as a holy people, set apart by and for God: a people for his name. This covenant is evidenced in two directions: between God and man, both individually and corporately, in God’s redemptive and providential action; and among the individual members of the covenant community, in their mutual commitment to one another.

Ecclesiology. The church is comprised of those persons who have been elected by God to the covenant community. The question then arises: How can one determine who has, and who has not, been elected? First, an individual must have had a definite conversion experience—a work of saving grace—which imparts a confirming knowledge of one’s salvation. Second, the veracity of this new life in an individual is confirmed through the witness of the community through observation of an individual’s life. One cannot be saved by good works or pious acts, but such evidence will surely follow in the life of one who is truly of the elect.

In worship, this aspect of covenant theology became most apparent in the administration of the sacraments, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The word “sacrament” itself, although employed by the Puritans, is problematic. No divine grace is mediated in the sacraments, but rather they are “seals” of the Lord’s covenant. They are the marks whereby God identifies his covenant with his people through visible, tangible means.

Baptism. The Puritans practiced infant baptism. Although not believing that any grace was mediated through this activity, they recognized that baptism denotes the parents’ membership in the community and their commitment to nurturing the child in the ways of God. Important as well is the trust that God has also predestined these infants to eternal election. Baptism, then, is both a sign of commitment and a step of faith on the part of the parents regarding the future of the child. In order for the child to become a fully participating member of the community in adulthood, evidence of election would have to be demonstrated as he or she matured.

The Lord’s Supper. Limited only to members of the covenant community, the Lord’s Supper provides the means of continuing identification with that community. Before the Sunday on which the sacrament was observed, members had to examine themselves, make amends for any wrongs, make apologies for offenses, and ask forgiveness for any sins. Both the bread and the cup were given to eligible communicants, served first by the minister to the deacons, then by the deacons to the members.

Prayer. One last aspect of worship which must be noted is that of prayer. Prayers often continued for lengthy periods of time, even hours, with the congregation standing. While spoken by the minister, the prayers should be considered an aspect of worship in which the congregation actively participated. Although we have no record of any audible response given by the congregation to the prayers, their participation came through the substance of the prayers: in them, the needs and burdens of the people were lifted to God. Prior to the service prayer requests were given to the minister who, presumably, elaborated according to his knowledge of the persons or situations involved.

We must not harbor the impression of Puritan worship as a dry, staid affair. Sober attitudes, lengthy, content-oriented sermons, and extended prayers, while incongruous in our fast-paced twentieth-century world, provided a means of touching and reaching the religious needs of the people of the early seventeenth century. Indeed, the Puritan vision did sustain serious blows in the last half of the century; these developments are beyond our discussion here. Yet, for a few brief, shining decades, the Puritans began to realize their dream of establishing a truly Christian community on earth. Their legacy has left an indelible mark on American worship and religious life in the centuries since.

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