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.

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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.

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.

Has God Given Rules for the Government of His Church and for Worship?

B.B. Warfield addresses a fundamental question about whether God has given rules for how His church is to governed and how He is to be approached in worship in an address titled "The Mystery of Godliness" in Faith and Life, pp. 375-378. Taking I Tim. 8:16 for his text ("And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness"), Warfield responds to the idea that God has given no such direction. 

It is of the more importance that we should note this, that there is a disposition abroad to treat all matters of the ordering of public worship and even of the organization of the Church as of little importance. We even hear it said about us with wearisome iteration that the New Testament has no rules to give, no specific laws to lay down, in such matters. Matters of church government and modes of worship, we are told, are merely external things, of no sort of significance; and the Church has been left free to find its own best modes of organization and worship, varying, doubtless, in the passage of time and in the Church's own pas sage from people to people of diverse characters and predilections. No countenance is lent to such sentiments by the passage before us; or, indeed, by these Pastoral Epistles, the very place of which in the Canon is a standing rebuke to them; or, in fine, by anything in the New Testament. 

On the contrary, you will observe, Paul's point of view is precisely the opposite one. He takes his start from the inestimable importance of the Gospel. Thence he argues to the importance of the Church which has been established in the world, so to speak, as the organ of the Gospel — the pillar and buttress on which its purity and its completeness rest. Thence again he argues to the proper organization and ordering of the Church that it may properly perform its high functions. And, accordingly, he gives minute prescriptions for the proper organization and ordering of the Church — prescribing the offices that it should have and the proper men for these offices, and descending even into the details of the public services. His position, compressed into a nutshell, is simply this: the function of the Church as guardian of the truth, that glorious truth which is the Gospel, is so high and important that it cannot be left to accident or to human caprice how this Church should be organized and its work ordered. Accordingly, he, the inspired Apostle — "an Apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Saviour and Christ, our Hope" — has prescribed in great detail, touching both organization and order, how it is necessary that men should conduct themselves in the household of God — which is nothing other than the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. In other words, it is God's Church, not man's, and God has created and now sustains it for a function; and He has not neglected to order it for the best performance of this function.

To imagine that it is of little importance how the Church shall be organized and ordered, then, is manifestly to contradict the Apostle. To con tend that no organization is prescribed for it is to deny the total validity of the minute directions laid down in these epistles. Nay, this whole point of view is as irrational as it is unbiblical. One might as well say that it makes no difference how a machine is put together — how, for example, a typewriter is disposed in its several parts, — because, forsooth, the typewriter does not exist for itself, but for the manuscript which is produced by or rather through it. Of course the Church does not exist for itself — that is, for the beauty of its organization, the symmetry of its parts, the majesty of its services; it exists for its "product" and for the "truth" which has been committed to it and of which it is the support and stay in the world. But just on that account, not less but more, is it necessary that it be properly organized and equipped and administered — that it may function properly. Beware how you tamper with any machine, lest you mar or destroy its product; beware how you tamper with or are indifferent to the Divine organization and ordering of the Church, lest you thereby mar its efficiency or destroy its power, as the pillar and ground of the truth. Surely you can trust God to know how it is best to organize His Church so that it may perform its functions in the world. And surely you must assert that His ordering of the Church, which is His, is necessary if not for the "esse," certainly for the "bene esse" of the Church.