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History of the Genevan Liturgy

History of the Genevan Liturgy1

By Bard Thompson2

Edited by Glen Clary

The first Reformer to arrive on the Genevan scene was the fiery Frenchman, William Farel, a fearless campaigner for the Word of God. As soon as he had gotten the Reformation underway (c. 1534), Farel replaced the Roman Mass by a liturgy, called La Maniere et fasson, which he had written some years before.3 His simple, wordy, but ardent services constituted the first evangelical book of worship in the French language. It was Farel who persuaded the retiring young Calvin to quit the scholar’s cell and get his hands into the difficult business of transforming Geneva into an evangelical community. Working side by side, they used the plain services of La Maniere when they conducted worship.

In April of 1538, the two ministers were expelled from Geneva, having exceeded the patience of the magistrates by their program for a disciplined community. Calvin spent his exile in Strassburg, where he enjoyed the Christian wisdom of Martin Bucer, the Reformer of that city, whose influence upon the Reformed churches has never been fully appreciated. While he lived among the Germans of Strassburg, Calvin was pastor of a congregation of French refugees. For their sake, he appropriated Bucer’s German liturgy; and when he had gotten it cast into French, he revised it measurably and used it to lead his people in worship. That was the original edition of The Form of Prayers. We ought not say, as many scholars do, that it was a mere copy of the German rite of Strassburg. Actually, Calvin kept the best of Farel’s primitive liturgy and contributed much of his own spirit as he refashioned the words of Bucer.

Calvin was recalled to Geneva in 1541. In place of Farel’s liturgy, he introduced The Form of Prayers, which he had brought along from Strassburg. Though the magistrates were glad enough to have him back, they could not accept some of the liturgical ideas which were written deeply into that liturgy. Chief of these was Calvin’s lifelong insistence upon having the Lord’s Supper every Sunday: “It was not instituted by Jesus for making a commemoration two or three times a year … Christians should use it as often as they are assembled.” The magistrates feared of such an innovation; they would not even entertain Calvin’s concession of having the Supper once a month, but insisted upon the schedule of quarterly Communion which had been proposed by Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich. Even by the end of the sixteenth century, the Zwinglian method prevailed over a large segment of Protestantism and brought about the flattening-out of Reformed worship, which came more and more to be dominated by the sermon. The Genevan liturgy stood opposed to that drift. Despite the scruples of the magistrates, it remained a unified service of Word and Sacrament; on those days when the Lord’s Supper was not celebrated, the portions of the liturgy pertaining to the Supper were simply omitted. But Communion Sunday or not, the whole service was conducted from the Lord’s Table, except when the Minister mounted the pulpit to proclaim the Word of God. The two great symbols of Reformed worship—pulpit and Table—were thereby drawn together in common expression of the God who speaks and gives to His people. The essential response of those who worshiped was to bear and receive His gracious gifts.

The Form of Prayers was the most authentic expression of the way of worship among the early Calvinists. Indeed, it was the inspiration for all the great Reformed liturgies of the Reformation age. Therefore it drew together in a fellowship of worship the Huguenots of France, the Presbyterians of Scotland, the Dutch Reformed congregations, and the German Reformed people (whose modern American representative is the United Church of Christ, through the Evangelical and Reformed branch). We should not assume, however, that all of these services were exactly alike. The Calvinists placed no particular premium upon a similarity of forms. What they really held in common was a body of ideas about the meaning of Christian worship.

What were some of those ideas? First, the Calvinists agreed with Luther that a true Reformation could never be brought about by sheer human power, least of all by sudden and drastic changes in the life of the churches. It could only be accomplished by the proclamation of God’s Word among men. Luther, in fact, was very reluctant to impose a program of radical reforms upon the people, lest they become confused and bitter. He preferred to purify and reinterpret many of the old practices which Christians had been accustomed to see, hear and do in church. At just that point, the Reformed theologians tended to exceed Luther’s prudence. They argued that if the Gospel were to be given a really clear and authentic expression in worship, then it would be necessary to abandon the Mass, without attempting to fix it up, and to find new forms which would express the Gospel with the utmost simplicity, precision and power. Therefore, the Reformed liturgies had something of a radical character. They were meant to be profoundly simple. They did a lot of teaching, explaining and exhorting in an effort to edify and be precise. They rejected all things which were deemed unscriptural, ambiguous, or sentimental. They permitted no bric-a-brac to confuse the Gospel or complicate the essential need of the worshiper to meet God in His Word. Theological integrity was their hall mark. Calvin believed that his liturgy conformed “to the custom of the ancient church,” not to the custom of the Medieval church.

The second idea has been alluded to several times. Our spiritual forebears went to church not to rush into words or to give God gifts, but to hear the Good News of forgiveness and sonship, and to receive that great gift with thanksgiving and joy. They conceived it to be God who spoke in worship, provided His Holy Spirit was in the midst of the congregation, making His Word real, alive and effective in the hearts of men. Therefore, in essence, a Reformed liturgy was the fervent prayer of the people to hear the Word of God and to participate in the Communion of His Son, and a heartfelt response of praise and supplication by those who had heard and received, whose faith became articulate so that they could not contain the joy and wonder of it all.

Now, by modern practice, some things may seem strange about Calvin’s liturgy. What, for instance, is the meaning of that grisly list of sinners (on p. 7) who are told to stay away from the Lord’s Table? Calvin’s whole liturgy rested on the assumption that a true Christian community would be a disciplined community. And that idea, in turn, arose from his conviction that the Christian life was one of profound obedience to the will of God. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper was reserved for those “people who are distinguished by sincerity of faith and holiness of life.” Our Lord did not intend to give the benefits of His Table to any except His disciples, to any “except they belong to His household of faith.” The unfaithful, who were strangers to Christ, and the sinners, whose conduct made it plain that they did not belong to Him either, had no place at the fellowship meal; they must be excommunicated, excluded from the communion, fenced from the Table, lest the holy sacrament of our union with Christ and with one another become soiled and meaningless. Thus, the critical issue of the Christian life was precisely one’s fitness to go to the Lord’s Table.

Calvin also handled the elements of bread and wine differently. He much preferred the use of common household bread, because it was more primitive and less likely to foster superstition. Grape juice, had it been invented, would scarcely have been the vogue in Geneva. Never was it the custom in the Reformed churches to prepare the Communion Table before worship or apart from the Word which “ought to resound in our ears as soon as the elements meet our eyes.” Fearful of idolatry, Calvin did not have the bread and wine brought to the Table until it was time for the Words of Institution and the Communion Exhortation, through which the very commands and promises of Christ could be added to the elements, giving them their true meaning. That, said Calvin, is the “Word which seasons the elements” and makes the sacrament valid. But we ought not suppose that the elements are thereby changed. We, the people, are the ones who are consecrated by this “lively preaching of the promises of Christ.” He does not address the bread, commanding it to become His body; He speaks to us, calling upon our faith and promising us the communion of His body and blood.

Neither did Calvin believe that the ministers should be the last to receive the elements, as a gracious host would do at his own banquet. Christ Himself is both, the Host and the Food of this spiritual feast; and the ministers, who are leaders of Christians, should be the first to partake of it.


  1. This short treatise on the Genevan Liturgy was published at the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the Presbyterian Church held on November 18, 1959 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
  1. Bard Thompson received his Ph.D. in church history from Columbia University in 1953 and was ordained as a minister in the Evangelical Reformed Church, which later merged with the Congregational Christian Churches forming the United Church of Christ. At the time this article was written, Thompson was Professor of Church History at Vanderbilt University. He was also preparing a book on Reformed worship, which he published under the title Liturgies of the Western Church (1961). In 1965, he joined Drew University as professor of church history and served as dean of the graduate school from 1969–1986. Bard Thompson passed away in 1987 at 62 years of age.
  1. For a detailed history of the Genevan liturgies, see Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, pp. 183–224.


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