Book Highlight: Presbyterian Worship in America by Julius Melton

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

From time to time, we hope to highlight books from our Secondary Sources page — which is intended to serve as a wealth of secondary resources on American Presbyterianism — which are of particular meaning and interest.

For this writer, one such book is Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns in Worship Since 1787 by the Rev. Dr. Julius Wemyss Melton, Jr. (1933-2017). First published as the product of his doctoral dissertation research at Princeton University in 1967, and later expanded in 2001 with an additional chapter which was first published in 1984 as part of a festschrift to honor his mentor, Horton Davies (John E. Booty, ed., The Divine Drama in History and Liturgy: Essays in Honor of Horton Davies on His Retirement From Princeton University), this book has served me as a valuable resource for the study of how Presbyterian worship in America has changed since the founding of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA).

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, the author received his B.A. from Mississippi College (1955); a B.D. (1958) and Th.M. (1959) from Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia; and master’s (1962) and Ph.D. (1966) degrees in religion from Princeton University; and has worked and taught at places such Southwestern (now Rhodes College) at Memphis, Tennessee, the University of Geneva, and Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. He has been involved in both academic and ecclesiastical work, laboring in many capacities for his presbytery and denomination (PCUSA). He was a contributor to Donald K. McKim, ed., Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (1992). He was also a dear friend of this writer’s family.


Presbyterian Worship in America is the single most important book known to this writer on the broad topic which is of deep interest to many. To answer the question of how mainline Presbyterians at the turn of the 19th century (that is, circa 1800) worshiped, and why their forms of worship have changed so dramatically two centuries later, there is no other individual volume that so helpfully connects the dots. The scholarly research performed by Dr. Melton is a goldmine for those who wish to dig further. His end notes are full of citations to valuable primary material. It was from the first chapter that this writer first learned of Samuel Miller’s 1796 Sketch of the Early History of the First Presbyterian Church, which was reprinted in 1937, a rare copy of which I located at the Princeton Theological Seminary and later uploaded to Log College Press. Perhaps it was this very copy that Dr. Melton consulted in his own research.

The list of worship sub-topics that is covered by this volume is extensive, including holidays, musical instruments, liturgies, psalms and hymns, offerings, sacraments, responsive readings, preaching, Sabbath observance, and so much more. The additional chapter mentioned above, which is focused on trends in American Presbyterian worship of the 20th century, perhaps inspired by a similar chart comparing liturgies found in Horton Davies’ The Worship of the English Puritans, contains a chart comparing the orders of worship found in five American Presbyterian books of worship dating from 1906, 1932, 1946, 1970 and 1983.

Over many years of study, this is the book that has helped this writer more than any other individual work to better understand how things historically were done in worship, and why certain aspects of worship changed over the years. It is commended to the student of early American Presbyterian church history as a most useful resource, and it can be purchased at our Secondary Sources page here.