Two 19th Century Presbyterians on the Liturgical Calendar: Miller and Van Rensselaer

The observance of the liturgical calendar was a relatively late development in mainstream American Presbyterianism. Julius Melton, in his valuable study Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787, notes that the transition from the Puritan understanding of worship which kept one holy day, the Sabbath, fifty-two times per year, which characterized early American Presbyterianism, to the acceptance of the liturgical calendar, was largely effected in the late 19th century by the efforts of minister Henry Van Dyke, Jr. (1852-1933) and ruling elder Benjamin Bartis Comegys (1819-1900).

But even through the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Southern Presbyterian Church, for example, was noted for its rejection of holy days such as Christmas and Easter. Morton Smith writes:

As the PCUS came into being, it sought to live by these principles [that is, regulative principle of worship articulated in the 108th and 109th questions and answers of the Westminster Larger Catechism] very strictly. That this is the case may be illustrated with regard to the matter of the Church calendar, and the observance of special days, such as, Christmas and Easter. The 58th question of the Shorter Catechism, commenting on the Fourth Commandment, says: “The fourth commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as He hath appointed in His Word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to Himself.” The Assembly of 1899 was asked by an overture to make a “pronounced and explicit deliverance” against the recognition of “Christmas and Easter as religious days.” The following answer was given: “There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, rather the contrary (see Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, condusive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Generally speaking, this would seem to exclude any church calendar other than the regular Sabbath days of the week (How the Gold is Become Dim: The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. as Reflected in Its Assembly Actions, pp. 98-99).

Smith goes on to say such days did not become entrenched in the PCUS until the mid-twentieth century. Ernest Trice Thompson also speaks to this issue:

There was, however, no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church. (Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 2, p. 434).

Thompson further attributes the shift in practice with respect to the calendar to the introduction of Christmas festivities in Sunday Schools, that is, “Christmas tree jollifications,” as they were described by one writer in an 1883 issue of the Southern Presbyterian.

The 20th century Presbyterian embrace of the liturgical calendar is well documented. But to better understand the early American Presbyterian rationale for limiting the church calendar to the weekly Sabbath only, the writings of Samuel Miller and Cortlandt Van Rensselaer may serve as useful resources.

In 1836, Samuel Miller wrote a classic treatise titled Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ. Later a chapter from this work was extracted by the Presbyterian Board of Publication titled “The Worship of the Presbyterian Church.” Both works are available to read at Log College Press here. A significant portion deals with the church calendar: Section II — Presbyterians Do Not Observe Holy Days. Miller lays the groundwork for this by stating the principle for which the Presbyterian Church historically stood in regards to its worship:

A fundamental principle of the Presbyterian Church, in forming her "Directory for the worship of God' is, that here, as in every thing else, Holy Scripture is the only safe guide. One of the earliest practical errors which gained ground in the Christian community, was the adoption of the principle that the ministers of religion might lawfully add, at their pleasure, to the rites and ceremonies of the Church.

Miller goes on to list a number of reasons to explain why Presbyterians do not observe holy days apart from the Christian Sabbath, beginning thus:

Our reasons for entertaining this opinion, are the following:

1. We are persuaded that there is no scriptural warrant for such observances, either from precept or example. There is no hint in the New Testament that such days were either observed or recommended by the Apostles, or by any of the churches in their time. The mention of Easter, in Acts xii. 4, has no application to this subject. Herod was a Jew, not a Christian; and, of course, had no desire to honour a Christian solemnity. The real meaning of the passage is, — as the slightest inspection of the original will satisfy every intelligent reader; "intending after the passover to bring him forth to the people."

2. We believe that the Scriptures not only do not warrant the observance of such days, but that they positively discountenance it. Let any one impartially weigh Colossians ii. 16; and also, Galatians iv. 9, 10, 11; and then say whether these passages do not evidently indicate, that the inspired Apostle disapproved of the observance of such days.

3. The observance of Fasts and Festivals, by divine direction, under the Old Testament economy, makes nothing in favour of such observances under the New Testament dispensation. That economy was no longer binding, or even lawful, after the New Testament Church was set up. It were just as reasonable to plead for the present use of the Passover, the incense, and the burnt offerings of the Old economy, which were confessedly done away by the coming of Christ, as to argue in favour of human inventions, bearing some resemblance to them, as binding in the Christian Church.

Miller proceeds to review the history of the introduction of these festivals into the Christian Church. Following this, he makes a strong assertion and concludes:

7. The observance of uncommanded holy-days is ever found to interfere with the due sanctification of the Lord's day. Adding to the appointments of God is superstition. And superstition has ever been found unfriendly to genuine obedience.

If the foregoing allegations be in any measure well founded; if there be no warrant in God's word for any observances of this kind; if, on the contrary, the Scriptures positively discourage them; if the history of their introduction and increase mark an unhallowed origin; if, when we once open the door to such human inventions, no one can say how or when it may be closed; and if the observance of days, not appointed of God, has ever been found to exert an unfriendly influence on the sanctification of that holy-day which God has appointed, surely we need no further proof that it is wise to discard them from our ecclesiastical system.

In 1842, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, founder of the Presbyterian Historical Society and head of the Presbyterian Board of Education, wrote a “New Year’s Gift” in response to New Jersey Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane’s pamphlet “The Rector’s Christmas Offering,” an exposition of the liturgical calendar. This response, Man’s Feasts and Fasts in God’s Church, is a very thorough examination of all the types of festivals endorsed by the Episcopal Church and others (“twenty-eight festivals and nearly one hundred fasts — all holy days of the Church,” divided into several categories by Van Rensselaer), from the perspective of the historic Presbyterian position. This too is available to read at Log College Press here. Van Rensselaer would go on to preach at Bishop Doane’s funeral, but his critique of the liturgical calendar endorsed by Doane is scathing. After 31 pages, he concludes:

I have thus examined the Bishop's ten reasons; and though they are almost equal in number to the Apostles, I have found nothing else apostolic about them. No proof whatever is even attempted from Scripture. This looks as if there was very little Bible in these ceremonies.

These works by Miller and Van Rensselaer ably articulate the historic Presbyterian objections to the introduction of the extra-Biblical liturgical calendar. To fully understand the position of the early American Presbyterian Church in opposition to the church calendar, take time to read the writings of these men for yourself.