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Presbyterian worship documents worship practices in Presbyterian churches; in this case, the practises of the many churches descended from the Scottish Presbyterian church at the time of the Reformation.


Theology of Worship

Historically, the driving principle in the development of the standards of Presbyterian worship is the Regulative principle of worship, which specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.[1]

In addition to those detailed in the History section below, Presbyterians also historically have held the following Worship positions:



Worship at the time of the Reformation

At the start of the Scottish Reformation in 1560 there was no Reformed standard for worship in Scotland, so the shape the Church initially took was dependent on local Protestant patrons.[2 ]

Writing from exile in Geneva, John Knox described in detail what should be done at weekly worship in a 'Letter of Wholesome Councell' dated 1556. Protestant preachers fleeing Marian persecutions in England brought with them Edward VI's second Book of Common Prayer (of 1552), which was commended by the Lords of the Congregation. Knox too initially supported it (indeed reportedly, he had influenced aspects of it). However, before leaving Geneva and with the encouragement of John Calvin, he had written his own 'Book of Common Order' and it was this that was printed and approved by the General Assembly of 1562. Enlarged, it was reprinted with the Confession and the Psalms in metre in 1564, and it remained the standard until replaced with the Westminster Directory in 1643.[2 ]

The Regulative principle of worship (see Theology of Worship, above) saw many of the previous practices (inherited from the Roman Catholic church) cast aside. Two major points which might be unusual by today's standards were:

  • Exclusive psalmody: the doctrine that, in worship, only the Psalms (from the Bible) were to be sung; singing other words was only to be done outside the worship service[3]
  • A cappella singing: the doctrine that no instruments were to be used in worship other than the human voice

Both of these were introduced, at least partly, to prevent the singing of hymns to Mary and the Saints.

Introduction of Continuous Singing

In early times the common method of singing in Presbyterian worship, was lining out, where a precentor read or sang one line and the congregation repeated it after them. The Directory of Public Worship,[4] says this:

That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.

It appears from the wording that this was a practical measure in 1650, not a doctrinal position. Lining out was used by other denominations as well for the practical reasons that many people were not sufficiently literate or because of a lack of hymnals.

From around 1720 onwards, many advocated the introduction of continuous (or regular) singing [5]. Continuous singing was introduced into many Presbyterian churches worldwide, even those that consider themselves to be following the traditional Presbyterian line on worship; there are some, who still practise lining out, such as the Steelites.

Introduction of Hymns

In this context, "hymns" means hymns that are not part of the Bible; the word "hymn" is used in the Bible, but it is claimed by advocates of exclusive psalmody that this refers to a specific type of psalm. [6]

After singing psalms for 200 years, in 1861 the Church of Scotland first formally adopted hymns, with the Free Church of Scotland doing the same in 1872.[7] Hymns and other extra-biblical words are now widely used in Presbyterian circles; the details vary from denomination to denomination.

Introduction of Instruments

In the early nineteenth century, the Revd R. William Ritchie of St. Andrew's Church, Glasgow, attempted to introduce an organ into his church, but was informed by the Presbytery of Glasgow that "the use of organs in the public worship of God is contrary to the law of the land and constitution of our Established Church."[8]

In 1863, the Revd Robert Lee introduced a harmonium into worship at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Lee defended instrumental music at the 1864 General Assembly, who declared that "such innovations should only be put down when they interfered with the peace of the Church and harmony of congregations". A pipe organ was subsequently installed in Greyfriars, and first used in 1865.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI, paragraph I
  2. ^ a b J.H.S. Burleigh. A Church History of Scotland. p. p160–163.  
  3. ^ Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI, paragraph V
  4. ^ Of the Singing of Psalms, Directory of Public Worship
  5. ^ The Regular Singing Controversy: The Case Against Lining-Out, Linda R. Ruggles
  6. ^ Psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs, Rev. Ronald Hanko (PRCA)
  7. ^ Sing the Lord's Song! Part 7, John W. Keddie
  8. ^
  9. ^ Laurence James Moore, Sing to the Lord a New Song: A Study of Changing Musical Practices in the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 1861 - 1901. Available at


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