American colonial Presbyterians, highly suspicious of Roman Catholic and Anglican practices, were, on the whole, “low church” in their worship. The First and Second Great Awakenings— with their emphasis on preaching, reading the Scriptures, Psalm singing and long, pastoral prayers—influenced them. When Presbyterians organized a General Assembly in the 1780’s, they considered and adopted a Directory for the Worship of God (1788). At that time they considered discretionary prayers, but eliminated them for a book of directions only.
Charles Baird and his family lived under this Directory in the early years of the nineteenth century. Baird was Princeton born. His father, Robert, was a Presbyterian minister. Robert, with his French spouse and family, spent much time in Europe, living in Paris and Geneva and visiting other places. The senior Baird promoted a revival of religion among Europeans. Son Charles studied at Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.) and at New York University, where he was recognized as a brilliant student. After brief service as chaplain at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, he returned to America and finally settled down as pastor in Rye, N.Y. During this time he published a history of the Huguenots, with whom he had been acquainted in Europe. He gave faces to those from the old world who had immigrated to this country. With this background he was able to help Presbyterians appreciate the richness of their heritage.
In his Eutaxia, he expressed appreciation of Presbyterians dedicated to God’s worship “decently and in order.” He confronted the denomination’s low church heritage from colonial times. It had deplored certain practices. In the 1780’s, persons who casually went in and out of services were criticized. Those who did not sing were a matter of concern, as were those who stood up, turned around, slept, whispered, or laughed during worship. As did the early Puritans, Presbyterians tended to demean the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as representing the “rags of popery”, as an “ill-mumbled mass-book”, as “belching the crudities of Popery.”
Baird introduced them to a rich and plentiful literature of Reformed public devotion. He set out to remind his coreligionists of the Reformed liturgical heritage—taking advantage of some contemporary denominational weariness with extemporaneous practices. He came out for a “discretionary Ritual … leaving freedom of variation that he found in Reformed practices used in Europe even before the Westminster Assembly in the 1600s.
In Geneva, for example, John Calvin’s liturgical worship, which preceded the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, indeed, belonged rightly to the congregation, not to the minister who simply lent his individual voice to the devotion of God. In his reforms, Calvin left the cross in the church, replaced the altar with the pulpit from which prayers and Bible were read and the sermon preached. He replaced Roman vestments with a plain black robe and cap. He introduced congregational singing of the Psalms in French along with the use of the Lord’s Prayer. Moreover, Genevans celebrated Christmas, Good Friday, Ascension Day, and Whitsunday, generally ignored by Presbyterians. Calvin’s prayer “For Rulers” might be modified for use today:
Heavenly Father! Who has bidden us pray for those in authority over us: We entreat thee to bless all princes and governors, they servants, to whom thou hast committed the administration of justice; and especially ***. May it please thee to grant them daily increase of thy good Spirit, that with true faith acknowledging Jesus Christ, they Son our Savior, to be King of kings and Lord of lords, unto whom they hast given all power in heaven and earth: they may seek to serve thee and exalt thy rule in their dominions. May they govern their subjects, the creatures of thy hand and the sheep of thy pasture, in a manner well-pleasing in thy sight; So that as well here as throughout all the earth, thy people, being kept in peace and quiet, may serve thee in all godliness and honesty; and we, being delivered from the fear of our enemies, may pass the time of our life in thy praise.
French Huguenots, facing a hostile population, drew upon Geneva’s forms for a liturgy, but one “bathed with the blood of martyrs,” as Baird put it.
In his study, Baird also reminded readers of Scot Reformer John Knox, who spent time as an exile in Europe. Knox reaffirmed Calvin’s view. Ceremonies should be grounded in those found in the Bible, and approved by New Testament norms. He provided a Book of Common Order (1556) for his followers, structuring worship practices, including the Sacraments of the Supper and Baptism, with prayers for public and private use. They included this plea for the church:
… we make our requests unto thee, O Heavenly Father, for all such as are afflicted with any kind of cross of tribulation, as war, plague, sickness, poverty, imprisonment, persecution, banishment, or any other kind of thy chastisements, whether it be grief of body or unquietness of mind; that it would please thee to give them full deliverance out of all their troubles. And finally, O Lord God, most merciful Father, we humbly beseech thee to show thy great mercies upon those our brethren who are persecuted, cast in prison, and daily condemned to death, for the testimony of thy truth: and though they be utterly destitute of all man’s aid, yet let thy sweet comfort never depart from them, but so inflame their hearts with the Holy Spirit, that they may boldly and cheerfully abide such trials as thy godly wisdom shall appoint; so that at length, as well as by their death as by their life, the kingdom of thy Son JESUS CHRIST may increase and shine through all the world; ….
Knox included in his service the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, and the confession of the Apostle’s Creed.
Puritan Richard Baxter, a non-conformist, turned from the Anglican worship book. He also adopted a Reformed liturgy, and composed services and prayers to assist in worship. Baxter’s work led to the Directory, which was produced by the Westminster Divines in the 1640s. Baird concluded his survey with references to the development of the American Directory produced in the debates of the 1780’s as they organized the General Assembly. The Rev. John Rodgers of New York’s First Presbyterian Church was a major player in its development. He drew upon this rich Reformed past as well as practices of the Lutherans and Anglicans, indicating an ecumenical spirit in the New World. The prayer for the gathering of the congregations included these words:
Admit us, we beseech, with humble boldness to enter into the holiest, by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he hath consecrated for us through the veil. Instruct us from thy word. May we read it with wise and understanding hearts. Prepare us for singing thy praises: may we make melody in our hearts, and offer up an acceptable service. Teach us to pray; inspire us with a spirit of devotion; enable us to exercise faith in all parts of Divine worship. And let all be done to the glory of the Father; and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and graciously accept us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The church finally adopted a Directory devoid of prayers such as those produced by the committee in 1788. The denomination lived under a Directory until the end of the nineteenth century.
After Baird, Presbyterians began to pay more attention to public worship. Led by Henry Van Dyke, among others, the PC(USA) prepared and finally adopted a Book of Common Worship in 1906. Van Dyke, a longtime pastor and professor of English at Princeton, was forced to place conspicuously on the title page this reassurance to “low churchers”: For Voluntary Use. Despite this leeway, opponents dismissed this effort to improve public devotion to God as “hypnotic” ritualism, and as a “bad weed of formalism,” Despite these complaints, Charles Baird’s Eutaxia bore fruit and broadened Presbyterian awareness of its own past. Baird’s challenge eventually led to, in our own time, the enrichment of Presbyterian worship by liturgies of the whole Christian family. Even our contemporary mega-churches could profit from Baird’s insights.
JAMES H. SMYLIE is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary – PSCE in Richmond, Va.