The Puritans vs. liturgy

Peter Leithart notes Horton Davies’ summary of the English Puritans’ scaling back of Calvin’s Reformed structure of worship services. They celebrated monthly rather than weekly communion and dropped written liturgies, the Apostles’ Creed, absolution, confirmation, and confession. Leithart’s post concludes: “Davies attributes this to the Puritan “fear and detestation of the Roman Church” that led them to ignore “the customs of the primitive Church” and even of “the Reformed Church on the Continent.”

This might help to explain the general American evangelical allergy to liturgy. Not only is there an association of liturgy with Catholicism, but the Puritans and their successors have had a major cultural influence in the US. Doug Wilson has recently been making the point that many interpreters have throughout our history: Americans have an essentially Puritan “DNA.” (You can see what he’s talking about here, especially in the posts “An American Reformation,” “Repent Like an American,” and “Four Kinds of Puritan.”)



  1. Leithart wrote: Davies attributes this to the Puritan “fear and detestation of the Roman Church” that led them to ignore “the customs of the primitive Church” and even of “the Reformed Church on the Continent.”

    Is it just me or does that make it sound like they were motivated by irrational negative emotions toward Rome rather than well reasoned principles (albeit accompanied by negative emotions)? Were they so unprincipled and unjustified? Was it merely the Roman Church that they rebelled against?

    I imagine it is complex and I’m not knowledgeable enough to answer those questions myself, but hopefully they are fair questions.

    One common thread that I see is removing other men from our relationship with God. I would imagine Puritans were rebelling against the abuse of the powers of formal absolution, confession, etc. — maybe not their meaning, but the control usurped by men. Rome was stereotypical of that principle, but being a principle, it’s not limited to Rome.

    Such independence does seem American. Wilson’s articles offer an interesting and reasonable perspective, though I’m not quite sure what to do with them. It is fascinating that we may retain predilections born of reasons forgotten.

  2. Speculating on how people arrive at their conclusions is always risky. Given the extreme anti-Catholicism expressed by the early Protestant settlers, there could be something to his argument. That said, I’m skeptical. I think it is more of a natural progression away from historical Christianity and faith guided by Tradition toward the Christian faith of private interpretation, hopefully based on the Bible. Focusing on liturgy misses the point, IMO. Besides, as Frank Viola and Barna point out in Pagan Christianity, the Puritans still kept to a fairly rigorous liturgy, now matter how dumbed down it may have been compared to earlier times. Luther started the progression, but it was only a matter of time before a fair number of individuals would claim the mantle for themselves and reject all post-apostolic Christianity as pagan. Freed from the guidance of Tradition and historical Christian practice, people can interpret the Bible in pretty much any way they want (e.g., saying the Bible is supportive of homosexuality). One could argue that Viola and Barna are so extreme in their fear and detestation of the Catholic Church that they reject even the disciples of the apostles, but I think that would be the same mistake Leithart is making. In practice, I’ve yet to meet a single Protestant who didn’t reject major teachings of the disciples of the apostles when pushed, no matter how much they claim the Church wasn’t corrupted until Constantine.

    I view the church like the family tree of a monosexually reproducing species. Every time there is a disagreement that results in schism: the parent gives birth to one or more children (called churches or denominations). At one point, there was just one being in the species. After the year 1000, there were a few species (and only two that most people remember). After the introduction of the printing press and the rise of literacy, though, more people began taking on the function of Biblical interpreter for themselves and the number of schisms grew (like all organic growth) at an exponential rate. At this point, there are so many thousands of denominations that enumerating the doctrines that caused the divisions in the first place is tedius and most Americans have become cynical of finding a church were they can agree on anything but the most basic doctrinal statement. Thus the rise of nondenominational churches and the emergent movement. One seeks to minimize the differences that have divided and focus on practical help and advice instead of theological doctrine (which leads to division). The other seeks to do away with all hierarchy, devolving the church into a series of small, basically independent “home churches” where people can have as diverse a doctrinal set as necessary in order to survive and justify their existence apart from a larger church body.

    Thus also the rise of church hopping. Since individuals are no longer choosing a congregation to worship with based on a distinctive doctrinal statement, personal friendships come to the fore and relationships/personal offense play a much bigger role in choosing where to attend church. Given how sinful humanity is, there is an extreme amount of changing churches based on personal offense and other non-doctrinal issues that would baffle previous generations. This resulting culture of congregational rootlessness and the minimizing of doctrinal differences also encourages people to examine even major doctrinal differences, allowing for a much greater rate of church hopping between groups with very distinct beliefs and practices.

    At least that’s my cynical, former Protestant take. When I made the jump to Catholicism, I lost one childhood friend pretty much immediately, but compared to previous generations, I have kept an astounding number of friends. There are even family members who will go to mass occasionally with me instead of or in addition to their own Protestant services when in town. This is quite a change from previous generations when I would have been ostracized by nearly everyone in my family and circle of friends. Observant Jews, JWs, Mormons and Muslims still practice more extreme forms of ostracization, but mainstream Christianity has lost the distinctive cultural flavor and strong identity that allows for such behavior to be flourish.

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