The Old Ship Meetinghouse, built in 1681 (Hingham, Massachusetts). It is the only remaining 17th c. Puritan meetinghouse in the US and the oldest church in continuous ecclesiastical use in the US (now a Unitarian Universalist church).

Princeton historian Horton Davies (1916-2005):

A stranger entering any Puritan meeting-house would first notice the bareness and simplicity of the architecture and of the furnishings.

Probably the only decoration on the walls of the building would be text from the Scriptures.

Apart from the pews, the only other articles of furniture would be the high central pulpit and the Communion-table immediately below it.

On the cushion on the ledger of the pulpit would be seen the Bible. Its dominating, central position was no accident: it testified to the authority of the Bible in the worship, doctrine and government of Puritan Churches.

The impression of unadorned simplicity would be maintained at the worship.

The minister would ascend to the pulpit, dressed in a grave black gown, its somberness relieved only by the white of the Genevan bands he wore.

The service would commence with the call to worship, consisting of sentences selected from the Scriptures.

Then the stranger would kneel or stand, according to the practice of the congregation where he was worshiping, during the prayer of confession.

He would then join in a metrical psalm of praise.

The minister with then read a chapter from the Old Testament, perhaps pausing here and there to explain some obscure verse.

The stranger might then join in another metrical psalm, or he would hear a new testament lection immediately after the previous reading.

If you were in an Independent church he would then hear the minister lead a prayer of intercession. At its conclusion the whole assembly would ascent with a vocal ‘Amen’.

If you were in a Presbyterian church, this item would be postponed until after the sermon, and it would conclude with all saying the Lord’s Prayer aloud.

He would then notice the shuffling of the congregation as they settle down to listen comfortably to a lengthy sermon, while the minister adjusted the hour-glass. The sermon would be an exposition of a text or a longer passage of Scripture. It would begin with a simple exposition of Scripture, it would continue by controverting any errors which the Scripture condemned, it would conclude with the statement of the advantages of the acceptance of this particular doctrine. The preacher would deliver his conclusion with passionate and perhaps even vehement pleading. The stranger’s general impression of the sermon would be that both reason and conscience had been satisfied, and that the preacher had, in the name of God, struck for a decision. The peroration of the sermon would be the climax of the whole service. The service would then end with another metrical psalm and the pronouncing of the Blessing by the minister. . . .

In each service he would clearly have understood that the way of worship was not simply the manner in which the particular assembly of Christians wished to worship God, but rather that it was the kind of worship that God himself demanded in his Word. The lengthy readings from the Scriptures, the Baptismal formula taken from the Scriptures, the words of Institution and of Delivery taken from the Scriptures, the Biblical phraseology of the prayers, the careful way in which the sermon elucidated the Scriptures, and the metrical versions of the psalms used in praise, would all have contributed to produce this impression. In fact, it was the Biblical basis of Puritan worship that accounted for the liturgical agreement amongst the Puritans.

—Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (orig., 1948; reprint: Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 246-47.

See also, “What Did It Looks and Sound Like in Jonathan Edwards’s New England?” by Doug Sweeney. (Davies’s description applies to both England and New England in both the 17th and 18th centuries, while Sweeney is more specifically focused on 18th century New England.)

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13 thoughts on “What Would It Have Been Like to Attend a Puritan Worship Service?”

  1. Michael Krause says:

    “In each service he would clearly have understood that the way of worship was not simply the manner in which the particular assembly of Christians wished to worship God, but rather that it was the kind of worship the God himself a demanded in his Word.”

    This doesn’t seem to follow. It was certainly worship filled with the scriptures. But nowhere do the scriptures demand this particular form of worship. Is the author calling us back to this liturgy and aesthetics as a “biblical” form of worship?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Davies is pointing to the Puritan desire to structure public worship in accordance with the regulative principle and sola Scriptura. He thinks there were some inconsistencies and that they went too far, but here, I think, he is mainly trying to help us get inside their mindset with their desire for a pure worship that did not include elements that could not be seen in Scripture or justified from Scripture.

    2. Mikhael says:

      Yes there is a Holy Covenantal pattern found in worship, it is based on a gospel logic or cycles- 1. Call, 2. Confession, 3. Consecration, 4. Closing. In addition there is a Holy dalog that takes place within Worship. God speaks (through the minister) and we respond. So for a small example of a short order of worship, God calls us to Worship with the ‘Call of Worship’ we respond in Praise by Singing of Psalm. God tells us how we have broken His laws (Reading of the law) and we respond with a Confession of Sin and God responds with an Pardon and we respond with a Psalm of Praise. God then gives us His edicts and precepts through the sermon and then we again respond with a singing of a Psalm. God offers us a covenantal meal whereby He seals to us the Word that was preached and we partake and God then gives us His blessing through the Benediction.

      This is known as the Dialogical Principle of Worship which goes along with the Regulative Principle of Worship. They go together like a glove and an essence of Puritan Worship.

  2. Blake says:

    This is why you will see some Presbyterians who believe in singing only the Psalms in worship. And by that I mean they would say singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” or “My Lord, I Did Not Choose You” in a worship service would be sin.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Tis true, but to be fair, that’s a pretty small minority of Presbyterians. Most seem to hold to “inclusive Psalmody” (let’s have more of it) than “exclusive Psalmody” (let’s have nothing else).

      1. It may be a small minority today, but for three centuries it was the united position of the Presbyterian (and many Congregationalist) churches.

      2. Mikhael says:

        Yes, and I am one of those Exclusive Psalmodist.. In addition to what Rev. Glaser said “for three centuries it was the united position of the Presbyterian”, it was also the confirmed view of the Early Church that stated such a position in at least two Council decrees.

  3. While we are not privileged to own a meetinghouse or ascend a ‘tower of the flock’ ‘pulpit of wood’ ‘above all the people’, and I own but do not use a ‘gown and bands’, Hope Assembly continues to seek to worship in this Puritan simplicity. We have never felt any need for more on the Lord’s Day, and it has nourished our souls for 26years. I was happy to find such worship among the Strict Baptists of England and Wales when I began my life as a Minister of the Gospel. I could only wish it were prevalent today. The Christian Television Association in Britain has produced a TV movie on CH Spurgeon’s life available on Youtube. You can get a little taste of such worship in it. I wish my Reformed Baptist brethren were as keen to follow CHS’ example in that area, as they are in many others. Every blessing to you in every good word and work you undertake for our faithful Saviour Jesus. JPB.

  4. Rob Tevis says:

    It is easy to throw stones at those of the past, but this seems… arrogant. They claimed that theirs were the “biblical” way. Where its the celebration with new songs (Psalm 96:1 )? They had a communion table… when was the LORD’s supper taken (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)? Biblically, it should have been taken “often”. Why was the sermon an exposition of doctrine and not Scripture? These were the same puritans who Propaganda a few years ago called out (… right? Where is the preacher’s call to justice? Why did they lift up the Bible as their focal point (worshipping God with their minds) instead of the cross (worshipping God with your whole being)?

    With all of this, thank you for making me think through biblical worship.

  5. As an interesting aside, on a visit to Plimoth Plantation ( a few years back, I was impressed by the detailed knowledge of the actors (who only spoke as if they were actually in 1627). The ‘Strangers’ (non Christian servants who came with the colonists) were exceptioinally helpful. The complained that on the Sabbath (which they pronounced with scorn) the men would come into their quarters with poles to poke them awake and force them to dress and attend the worship service. I asked what they thought of the service, and I young lady immediately complained: “Aye, Elder Brewster doth speak far too long”

  6. Tony says:

    Sounds pretty stark and sterile. But what’s missing above all is…what about the Lord’s Table? “Blessed are those called to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” “Unless you eat of the Flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His Blood, you shall not have life within you.” Can anyone please explain how Protestant fundamentalists always insist they take the Bible literally as their final authority–yet somehow John 6 is only symbolic?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Tony, a quick response: the ellipses I used cuts out Davies’ discussion of the Supper because the quote was getting a little long and the Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists handled it a bit differently. With regard to your question (and the label “protestant fundamentalists” is a bit pejorative!), protestants seek to understand the original intention of the author, not determining meaning in advance by labels like “literal.” When Jesus is holding the bread and saying “this is my body,” Protestants do not understand this to be a literal extension of his body. Also, note that many Protestants (including Calvin and Luther) do not regard the elements as “only symbolic.”

    2. Mikhael says:

      Tony, the Lord Supper is the Communion Element in the Puritan worship and listed above as “the words of Institution”. The Reformed camp is split into two types of Lord Supper views. The Reformed or Calvinist view (one I hold to) is that we actually partake of the actual substance of the body and blood of Christ, albeit in Heaven. In other words, during the worship service we ascend to heaven, to sit in the heavenly with all the saints of all the ages as well as with all the angels and worship God. We then and there partake of the Actual, real substance of the body and blood of Christ. So while our bodies consume only bread and wine, our souls consume Christ, in totality whereby He feeds, strengthens and nourishes us. This is known as the Heavenly Presence of Christ in the Supper. Most Puritans in the Presbyterian tradition held to this view, while the Congregational puritans tended to side with the Zwinglian view.

      The other camp is the Swiss Reformed camp, commonly known as the Zwinglian camp. Calvin had very strong words against the Zwinglian view of the Lord Supper. But in this camp, the Supper is a mere memorial, an empty mental remembrance. This would be the majority view today in Evangelicalism.

      Anyway, Calvin believed that Word and Sacrament must go together and are inseparable. In other words, the sacrament cannot be done without the Word and the Word should not be preached without the sacrament. The Sacrament seals the Word that was just preached to the believer. So Calvin believed in Weekly Lord Supper, although he was not able to get his way in Geneva. The magistrates did not allow it, and it happened monthly and he waited for a time of future reformation when the sacrament was restored weekly. Therefore, most Puritans continued the traditional monthly pattern as passed down from Geneva.

      So the Lord Supper view is not monolithic in the Puritan world… I side with Calvin and the Presbyterian Puritans.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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