The Roots of Puritan Worship

Editors Note: This is the first post in a short-run series on Puritan Worship. 


I'd like to take you on a journey back through time to a Christian worship service in the Middle Ages. The year is 1413; we enter a large cathedral where the bishop is about to celebrate the Roman mass. Before us is a highly decorated altar, and at the center of attention is a cross with an image of Christ dying in agony. The bishop is robed in ornate vestments marking him as a special priest unto God. He enters the chancel of the church, the holy place set apart by a screen so that the people may not draw near. Aided by the intercession of Mary, the saints, and the angels, this priest has been authorized to apply Christ’s saving power through seven sacraments or sacred rituals of the church.

At the center of Rome’s sacramental system is the mass, the ceremonial observance based on the Lord’s Supper. The bishop performs the rituals of the mass by reciting prescribed prayers, bowing, kissing the altar, sprinkling holy water, making the sign of the cross, and chanting—a ceremony more complex than the Day of Atonement ritual performed by the Hebrew priests under the Old Covenant.[1] At its climax, the bread and wine are said to be changed in their essence, though not in their “accidence” or appearance. The priest then offers them up to God as the very body and blood of Christ. Though much Scripture is woven into the mass, it is spoken in Latin, and the common people can not understand it.

Worship in medieval Europe was a feast for the senses, but for many people it was a famine for the soul.

Now let's leap forward in history 230 years to 1643, still over three and a half centuries ago. We come to a Puritan worship service in New England. As we approach the building, we notice that the meeting house is remarkably plain, empty of images and visible art, yet clean, orderly, and attractive. There is no altar in the center of the far side of the meetinghouse, but instead, a high pulpit for the preacher. A table is placed before it at communion seasons to hold the elements for the Lord’s Supper.

The minister opens the service with a prayer. He reads a passage from the English Bible and offers a brief exposition of its meaning. The congregation sings metrical versions of biblical psalms from the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America (1640). Then the minister prays briefly for the help of the Holy Spirit and preaches a richly biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical sermon. The sermon lasts for nearly an hour. Some people write notes as they listen. After the sermon, the minister prays again, praising God, asking for His grace, and praying for world missions. Throughout his prayer, his words and thoughts echo the Bible. The congregation then sings more psalms. If they take the Lord’s Supper, they do so with great simplicity, following the institution of the Supper by Christ and aiming at spiritual fellowship with the crucified and risen Christ. They sing another psalm. The minister concludes the service with a benediction. The people will gather again in the afternoon for a service similar in order and length.[2]

Our visits to a medieval service of 1413 and a Puritan service of 1643 reveal that huge changes have taken place. The Puritans reestablished the biblical basis for worship, engaged the common people in the praise of God, greatly simplified the service, made the Word of God central and pervasive, and emphasized spiritual and heartfelt devotion as opposed to ritual and set forms.[3]

What happened that explains this massive change in worship? It was the Reformation of the sixteenth century. But beforw we can look more closely at Puritan worship, we must consider its historical context and roots in the Evangelical Reformation.

The Roots of Puritan Worship

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the German monk by whom God ignited the Reformation, sought to bring the church under the Holy Scriptures. He cut back the seven sacraments to two, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[4] Luther taught that “true spiritual worship” is the “bowing of the heart” to God; in its essence, worship is faith.[5] He saw that worship was not man’s work to win God’s favor, but rather man’s trusting response to God’s promise in Jesus Christ. He put preaching of the Bible at the center of worship, translated the service into the language of the people, engaged the congregation in singing God’s praises, and transformed the mass from an atoning sacrifice into a thankful reception of Christ’s grace.[6] However, Luther remained rather traditional and conservative in his reforms of worship, seeking to take “the middle course” of removing gross idolatry but allowing human additions to worship if the church still found them helpful.[7] Luther’s view shaped the Church of England through men like Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), author of the Book of Common Prayer that shaped English worship for centuries.

Though the Lutheran arm of the Reformation retained some man-made rituals and images from medieval worship, the Reformed arm pursued a more consistently biblical approach to worship. John Calvin (1509–1564), the great Reformer of Geneva, Switzerland, believed that worship is the soul of a righteous life; it is one of the twin pillars of Christianity, the other being the gospel of Jesus Christ.[8] He said, “We are not to seek from men the doctrine of the true worship of God, for the Lord has faithfully and fully instructed us how he is to be worshiped.” He based this upon the sufficiency of Christ to be our whole wisdom, as taught in Colossians 2. Like Paul, Calvin condemned “self-made religion” (or “will worship,” Col. 2:23, KJV). Adding human traditions to or making innovations in public worship creates spiritual bondage.[9] This subjection of worship to the law and gospel of Christ is characteristic of Reformed worship.

Puritan worship, at its core, is Reformed worship.[10] Malcolm Watts, in his book, What Is a Reformed Church,writes, “‘Reformed worship’ is worship that is conducted strictly according to God’s written Word, which is ‘the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.’”[11] William Perkins (1558–1602), one of the fathers of the Puritan movement, gave this definition of worship: “The worship or service of God is, when upon the right knowledge of God, we freely give him the honor that is proper to him, in our hearts according to his own will.”[12]

Puritan worship aimed to fulfill the mandate of Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” In tracing out the principles of Puritan worship, I will present its foundation, its rule, its songs, and its spirit.

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1. On the ceremony of the medieval mass, see Roger E. Reynolds, “Mass, Liturgy of the,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Joseph R. Strayer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982–1984), 7:181–97.

2. On the New England Puritan worship service in the 1640’s see Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 99, 103–126. In England, Puritan worship would often have incorporated more elements from the Book of Common Prayer, except where those elements were deemed unbiblical or superstitious.

3. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 111–28.

4. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 36:124. On the church’s lack of authority to create a promise or sacrament without its divine institution in the Holy Scriptures, see Luther’s Works, 36:107, 289.

5. Martin Luther, The Adoration of the Sacrament, in Luther’s Works, 36:293.

6. Martin Luther, The German Mass, in Luther’s Works, 53:63–64, 68; Helmar Junghans, “Luther on the Reform of Worship,” in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 212, 220–21.

7. Ulrich S. Leupold, introduction to Luther’s Works, 53:xiv; Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, in Luther’s Works, 40:130.

8. Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.11; The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry Beveridge (London: W. H. Dalton, 1843), 7. See Carlos M. N. Eire, War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 198–200.

9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.10.8.

10. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 663–66.

11. Malcolm Watts, What Is a Reformed Church? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 46. He is quoting the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 2).

12. William Perkins, A Warning against the Idolatry of the Last Times. And an Instruction Touching Religious, or Diuine Worship (London: Iohn Legat, 1601), 176. Since I am citing the latter portion of Perkins’s work, henceforth it will be cited as Diuine Worship.


Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.


Related Links

Worship: The Chief End of Man (Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology 2019)

"Worship and the Christian's True Identity" by Jonathan Cruse

The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology


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