History of Knox Liturgy

History of Knox Liturgy[1]

By Bard Thompson[2]

Edited by Glen Clary

Upon the death of Edward VI in 1553, Mary Tudor brought back the Roman religion to England; and a number of influential Protestants found it expedient to flee the realm. Two hundred of those exiles took refuge in the German city of Frankfort-on-the-Main in June of 1554. They were a divided company. Some were “prayer book men” or “Anglicans”, who, while thoroughly evangelical in their sympathies, were deeply attached to the English Prayer Book of 1552. If a further revision of worship had to be made, they wanted it to be along Anglican lines, and no mere translation of Calvin.

Opposed to them were the “Calvinists”, who were intent upon following the Reformer of Geneva in worship as in doctrine. John Knox was called to minister unto this divided congregation in September, 1554; but only “at the commandment of Mr. Calvin” did he venture to accept that difficult assignment. Although he had spoken favorably of the English Prayer Book aforetimes, Knox was now convinced that it contained many “things superstitious, impure, unclean and unperfect.”[3]

At first the Frankfort congregation used an “interim” service which was Calvinistic. Soon the proposal was made that William Huycke’s English translation of Calvin’s Genevan liturgy should be introduced for permanent use, since it was “moste godly and fardeste off from superstition.”[4] When that suggestion did not meet with swift approval, still another was proposed: that both the English Prayer Book and the Genevan order should be set aside, and an entirely new liturgy devised.

Thus, in January of 1555, Knox and four associates—all of whom were of the “Calvinist” persuasion—commenced to work, using Huycke’s translation and, we may be sure, the sober Genevan edition of Calvin’s own liturgy. Out of the labors of these men came the first version of the service being used in this celebration. But inasmuch as it savored of Geneva and therefore displeased the “Anglicans”, the manuscript was not well received; indeed it was left quite unused. The troubles at Frankfort grew daily more vexing.

Finally, Knox and Whittingham (“Calvinists”) and Parry and Lever (“Anglicans”) succeeded in bringing out a “Liturgy of Compromise” which was modeled after the English Prayer Book and accepted by the whole congregation in February of 1555. Peace endured for a short season. But in March a fresh contingent of Anglicans arrived from England; and in no time they accomplished the downfall of John Knox.

Knox repaired to Geneva. In October, he was joined there by certain of his collaborators from Frankfort. That little group, augmented by some twenty of their countrymen already in the city, proceeded to organize an English congregation at the Church of Marie la Nove. They drew their liturgy almost entirely from the unused manuscript which the committee of “Calvinists” had prepared at Frankfort, adding a collection of fifty metrical psalms and a translation of Calvin’s catechism. On February 10, 1556, The Forme of Prayers appeared from John Crespin’s press.[5]

The English congregation at Geneva, which was the inspiration of the Scottish reform after 1560, existed four years, enrolled 180 souls, and provided Knox the happiest days of his ministry. But Mary Tudor succumbed, and as early as 1559 the exiles at Geneva began to return to Elizabethan England; they carried along their liturgy which was soon taken up by Englishmen of “puritan” leanings. Knox alone was unwelcome there, on account of his ill-timed tract, First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which was aimed, of course, against Catholic Mary, but landed instead upon Elizabeth.[6]

So he returned to Scotland, full of zeal to reform the Kirk according to the measure of Geneva, which he pronounced “the maist perfyt schoole of Chryst that ever was in the erth since the dayis of the Apostillis.”[7] Among his first accomplishments was the introduction of Genevan worship in place of the English Prayer Book, which the Protestants of Scotland had been accustomed to use. Thus, The Forme of Prayers (or The Book of Common Order, as it came to be called) was required for the administration of the sacraments in 1562, and for all other liturgical purposes in 1564. It served the Scottish Kirk for some eighty years, till the appearance of the Westminster Directory in 1645.

The spirit of the liturgy was wholly Reformed. The Scottish minister enjoyed a large measure of freedom, that “as Gods holy spirite moveth his harte,” he might now and then frame his own prayers. Nevertheless he was expected to honor the liturgy, which belonged, after all, to the whole people and was specifically called the “common order”. Schools were founded for literacy, that the Bible might be opened to everyman and the liturgy enjoyed by all. Moreover, every means was taken to make worship itself a corporate action. The vernacular was used and loudly spoken, so that everyone could participate by the direct medium of speech. And inasmuch as the people were no longer dependent upon the ceremonial to follow the service, only the simplest and most useful forms were retained. Even those symbols which had been hallowed by time and usage were cast out of the churches if they were apt to mislead the people. It was wrong to preach one thing and symbolize another; it was right to say plainly what one meant.

The ministers diminished the distinction between clergy and laity by discarding the priestly vestments and wearing none but the preaching habit. The Scriptures were also translated; and every church was admonished to “have a Bibill in Inglische,” which was expounded daily in the large towns, that even those who did not read could benefit.[8] Psalms were cast into metrical forms and set to common tunes in order to give the people themselves a voice in worship. A complete Scottish Psalter appeared in The Book of Common Order of 1564.

Calvin conducted the Sunday service from the Communion table, entering the pulpit only to preach the sermon. He followed that procedure because of his staunch belief that the proclamation of God’s Word ought normally to be followed by the administration of the Lord’s Supper.[9] In Scotland, however, the Sunday service seems to have been read from the pulpit, perhaps for acoustical reasons. Nevertheless, the pulpit and “the holy table”—together—were the most prominent furnishings in the Scottish churches.[10] What did they mean? They were the instruments of the gracious heavenly Father who speaks and gives to His people, and invites them, before all else, to hear His Word of judgment and reconciliation, and to receive His gifts of forgiveness and sonship. In that, chiefly, lies the meaning of worship according to the Reformed tradition.

That principle also governed the manner in which the minister used the Scriptures in preaching. Knox doubted that anything was less appropriate of a Christian minister than he presume to control God’s way among men by parceling out the Scriptures in bits and snatches, or by preaching a sermon in which God’s own Word was buried beneath a heap of human commentary. He insisted therefore that, in preaching, the Scriptures should be expounded book by book, chapter by chapter, in a continuous and orderly fashion. And all of this, in turn, rested finally upon Knox’s conception of preaching, which was rather unlike the one to which we have become accustomed.

The sermon was not the preacher’s prerogative, to be used by him alone for winning souls or for promoting right-living through the oncoming week. It was most of all the Word of God, made real, alive and effective in the hearts of men through the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. It is this Word which awakens our faith. And when we give expression to our faith, true worship occurs.

When we hear the message of God’s judgment and mercy, we are convicted on our sins and desire to make confession of the same. When, through the same Word, the forgiveness of God becomes real to us, we cannot but express our praise and thanks. And when the Word draws us into relationship with all sorts and conditions of men, we are bound to make prayers for our brethren in need. It is this continuous relationship between hearing and response which gives the Reformed liturgy its basic character.

A rubric (direction) in Knox’s Genevan liturgy called for a monthly celebration of the Holy Communion. Although that rubric remained unchanged in the Scottish editions of the liturgy, it was soon overcome by the first Book of Discipline (1560) which declared that “four tymes in the year” was “sufficient” for the Lord’s Supper. And since care was to be taken to avoid “the superstition of tymes” (that is, the church year), the first Sundays in March, June, September and December were arbitrarily appointed.[11]

This drift away from the teaching of Calvin, who heartily desired a weekly Communion, was caused by the shortage of ministers in Scotland and by the popular reluctance to receive the sacrament so often. At least it did not derive from a so-called “memorial” view of the Lord’s Supper. “We utterly damn,” stated the first Scots Confession, “the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs.”[12] The liturgy itself expressed rather clearly the Scottish view of Holy Communion: “We spiritually eate the fleshe of Christ, and drinke his bloude; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us.”

The first part of the Communion Exhortation was not taken from Calvin, but from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who prepared it for the English Prayer Book. Nevertheless, the distinctive features of Calvin’s practice prevailed even in this section of The Forme of Prayers. According to the warning of St. Paul, all who worshiped were exhorted to examine themselves before they presumed to approach the Lord’s table, and the unworthy were told to refrain entirely. The liturgy was built upon the promise that a true Christian congregation would be a disciplined congregation which lived in obedience to the will of God.

Accordingly, the Holy Communion was reserved for those who were distinguished by sincerity of faith and holiness of life. The unfaithful, who were strangers to Christ, and the callous sinners, whose conduct made it plain that they did not belong to Him either, had no place at His Communion; they were to be excommunicated, “fenced from the table,” lest the sacrament be soiled and they be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. The critical issue of the Christian life was precisely one’s fitness to receive the sacrament.

Knox administered the Communion after a fashion which he deemed to be consonant with the New Testament. The table was never prepared before worship, apart from the Word, which (as Calvin said) “ought to resound in our ears as soon as the elements meet our eyes.”[13] Therefore the bread and wine were not brought to the table until the sermon had been preached and it came time for the Words of Institution to be read; for by these means the commands and promises, which our Lord made concerning His Supper, could be added to the elements, giving them, their proper meaning and their reality.

It was the practice in some parts of Scotland to lock the church doors after the sermon, so that none might receive the sacrament apart from the Word. That custom underscores the point that we the people, rather than the elements, are thereby “consecrated”. The Word is not addressed to the bread and wine, as if to change them; it is addressed to us, that (as Knox put it) “Christe might witnes unto owr faithe … with His owne mowthe,” promising us the Communion of His body and blood.[14]

The communicants came forward and sat down around the table, which was ample in size and usually arranged in a U or T shape in the chancel or on the floor of the nave. First the minister broke the bread—a symbolic action, called the Fraction, which the Scots deemed to be a quite distinct feature of the Lord’s Supper. Then he passed the bread and wine to the communicants on either side of him, and they in turn “divided” the elements among themselves.

Thus, the holy table was appointed for the whole family of God. By sitting down together and by serving the elements to one another, the people were able to realize their fellowship and mutual priesthood in the Body of Christ. Pew Communion was the way of the English Nonconformists; and the Scots did not hesitate to brand it a “mangling of the sacrament”—until, alas, a Glasgow divine introduced it to the Scottish Kirk in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.[15]


[1] Editor: This short treatise on the liturgy of John Knox was published at the fourth centenary of the Church of Scotland celebrated at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee on October 27, 1960. For a detailed treatment of Knox’s liturgy, see Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 285–307.

[2] Editor: 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.

[3] For the source of this quote, see The Works of John Knox, 41.

[4] See The Works of John Knox20.

[5] See http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/GBO_ch04.htm

[6] See http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/firblast.htm

[7] See See British Reformers: Writings of John Knox, 454.

[8] See British Reformers: Writings of John Knox, 454.

[9] Editor: As far as I know, Calvin never states that this is the reason he led the service from the communion table.

[10] Editor: Since the Scottish Presbyterians practiced table communion—in which the members of the church actually sat at a table to receive the elements—they did not ordinary have communion tables set up in the worship assembly except for those Sundays when they were observing communion.

[11] See http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/bod_ch03.htm#SEC09

[12] See http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/ScotConf.htm#CH21

[13] Editor: I have not been able to find the source of this quote. Thompson also cites it here and in Liturgies of the Western Church (p. 192), but he does not provide the source.

[14] See http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/GBO_ch04.htm#SEC11

[15] Editor: Thompson is referring to Thomas Chalmers. On the history of table communion versus pew communion, see Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield’s article “The Posture of the Recipients at the Lord’s Supper: A Footnote to the History of Reformed Usages” in Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901–1930) Vol. 11, No. 6 (June, 1922), pp. 217–34.

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