Samuel Miller Defends the Puritans and Pilgrims on Christmas

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In December of 1825, Samuel Miller had occasion to write to the editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser. The paper had made a point of defending the observance of Christmas, which in that era was a significant break from Protestant practice in America, and chose to criticize the Puritans for their opposition to it as well. Miller was serving as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) at the time. His father, John Miller, though a Presbyterian by conviction had joined the Old South Church (Congregational) in Boston, Massachusetts under the ministry of the Rev. Joseph Sewall, son of the Puritan Samuel Sewall. Christmas observance in Massachusetts was banned from 1659 to 1681, but did not become popular in New England until the mid-nineteenth century (it was made a federal public holiday in 1870). Miller, “one of the descendants of those venerable men” (as he describes himself), took upon the task of writing a letter in response to the paper in defense of the views and practices of the Puritans and Pilgrims who opposed Christmas. He signed his letter using a pseudonym, “Biblicus.” He begins thus:

As you have, in your paper of yesterday, availed yourself of your editorial privilege, to plead in behalf of the religious observance of Christmas, and undertaken, moreover, to “condemn the error” of the Puritans in refusing to observe this festival themselves (for in no other sense, that I know of did they ever “prohibit” the observance of it),* will you allow a subscriber to your paper, and one of the descendants of those venerable men, to say a word in their vindication? No controversy on this subject is intended; and if I know how to pen these few lines in such a manner as to preclude the possibility of any further discussion, I should be glad to do it. I assure you, sir, it makes no part of my present plan to “condemn,” or even to find the least fault with, those who think it their duty to observe Christmas, and other holy days. “Let every one be fully persuaded in his own mind.” I venerate and love many who are of that opinion, though I cannot think with them. But you, surely, will not deny me the privilege of saying a word, the only object of which is to alleviate, if not to advert, the sentence which you have passed against a body of men “of whom the world was not worthy,” and whose example I wish many were as willing to follow as to praise.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts were known for their opposition to the observance of this extra-Biblical holy day. William Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation:

And herewith I shall end this year [1621]. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of waight. One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr [William Bradford] caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; somepitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.

Miller then laid out the main reasons why the Pilgrims and Puritans were opposed, on Biblical grounds, to the observance of Christmas:

The “Pilgrims,” then, for themselves only, refused to observe Christmas, and other holy days, for the following reasons.

I. They thought that no warrant for any such observance was to be found in Scripture. They believed that every institution of this nature, pertaining to the Old Testament economy, was abolished at the coming of Christ; that no similar days were appointed in their place; that neither the Savior nor his inspired Apostles gave the least countenance, either by precept or example, to the sanctification of any other day than the Sabbath.

II. They considered the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. They denied that the Church, or any member of it had a right to institute new rites or ceremonies. They were persuaded that the Lord Jesus Christ alone was the Supreme Head and King of the Church; and had no doubt that He, and those Apostles whom He inspired by his own Spirit, were as competent judges of what was proper, and for the edification of the Church, as any individual or body of individuals have been since; and, of course, that for uninspired, and therefore fallible men, to undertake to add to the number of Christ's appointments, is a measure, to say the least, of very questionable propriety.

III. They were confident that, for a long time after the death of the Apostles, no stated festival or Fast Days whatever were observed in the Church. Justin Martyr, who wrote a little after the middle of the second century, and who gives a particular account of the institutions and habits of the Christians, gives no hint of any day being kept holy, excepting the first day of the week, or the Christian Sabbath. Before the time of Origen, who flourished about the middle of the third century, the Christians had introduced several holy-days, partly to gratify the converts from Paganism; who, on coming into the Church, wished to have some substitute for the Pagan festivals which which [sic] they had abandoned. But even at this time, the observance of Christmas was unknown. — Origen give a list of the holy-days observed at the time in which he wrote; but says nothing about a festival for Christ's nativity; from which Lord Chancellor King, in his “inquiry into the Primitive Church within the first three hundred years after Christ,” confidently infers that no such festival was observed till after the time of Origen. Indeed the Christians during the first three centuries, differed so widely concerning the month and day of the Savior's birth; some placing it in April, others in May, etc. that there is an utter improbability, on this ground alone, that they commemorated the event by an ecclesiastical festival.

IV. The Puritans attached no little importance to another consideration. Supposing, (what they could not admit) that the church possesses the power to institute observances, which Christ and his Apostles never knew: supposing that [“]teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” or in other words, adopting “human inventions in the worship of God,” could be justified; what limit they asked, could be set to this power? How far may it be carried? When the door to uncommanded observances is once opened, by whom or when will it be effectually closed? You, and a few others, Mr. Editor, might think two or three well-adjusted church festivals, besides fifty-two Sundays in the year quite sufficient. The Protestant Episcopal Church, however, in this country, has appointed about thirty stated festivals, besides a still larger number of Fast-days. The Church of England has a greater number, it is believed, both of fasts and festivals. The Church of Rome, from whom the Church of England selected her list, observes a far greater number than either. In favor of every one of these days, serious, respectable men have something very plausible to say; and have actually uttered very contemptuous, and even indignant things against plain, simple-minded Protestants, who could not easily allow such a mass of superstition. Is it any wonder, then, that the Puritans, perceiving the tendency in all churches to go to extremes in multiplying such observances, whenever they began to be introduced; and knowing that there was no way to prevent this, but by shutting them out altogether: deliberately preferred the latter as the safer course? — and truly, if there be no Bible warrant for festivals; — no solid warrant for them in the practice of the Christian Church for the first 300 years, and, above all, none for Christmas; if the whole business of bringing institutions into the Church for which there is no Divine authority, be unlawful and of dangerous tendency; and if, whenever the practice has been admitted, it has been almost always abused, that is, carried much further than it ought to have been, I cannot help thinking that the Puritans had at least plausible, if not conclusive, reasons for taking the course which they did.

The editor added a rejoinder to Miller’s letter, arguing that Puritan Massachusetts had indeed made the observation of Christmas illegal, but did not attempt to justify its observance on Biblical grounds.

Take time to read what Miller wrote in this letter here, as well as elsewhere in Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ and The Worship of the Presbyterian Church, on the subject of holy days. In his words, “Presbyterians do not observe holy days [excepting the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day].”

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.