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A Review of The Worship of the English Puritans by Horton Davies

(Soli Deo Gloria: Morgan, PA, 1997 [1948]) 304 pages, paperback


Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA, Pastor

[Published in Reformation and Revival Journal, Summer 1998]

Sometimes judging a book by its cover is possible. In this case, a dramatic scene of Puritans in a Pilgrim-like new world arrival cloths the brilliant republication of Horton Davies' 1948 book, The Worship of the English Puritans. What is inside the cover will not disappoint Reformation-conscious evangelicals. Davies' book, based on his 1944 Oxford dissertation, is frequently referenced in serious worship literature, but has been out of reach for most of us until now. As the author notes, the book was reissued 41 years after his faculty appointment as professor of Religion at Princeton University. A veritable patriarch of liturgical scholarship, Davies has made a grand contribution to worship studies, not only in the present work, but also in the five volume magnum opus, Worship and Theology in England (Princeton University Press, 1965-1975). Hence Soli Deo Gloria Publications has again made an important resource available, though coming from S.D.G. one may be surprised to see approving references to the Ecumenical movement and Karl Barth in the Preface.

This aside, the value of the book is that it exegetes Puritan worship sentiments with frequent primary source references (with their original spellings, no less) on all the important topics of worship. Davies' purpose is more than historical, however, it is practical. "It is an attempt to shew the relevance of the Reformed tradition in Christian's worship today, and to re-awaken the interest of members of the Reformed Churches in Great Britain in their own rich liturgical inheritance" (vii). Davies is at his best in weaving a myriad of heretofore unknown primary references into a tapestry portraying Puritanism in the pew. Among the author's insights, he observes that though the practice of Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists diverged, they were nonetheless quite united in their overall approach to worship, namely that "The Word of God [is] the Supreme Liturgical Criterion" (the title of chapter five, p 49). The streams flowing from the Reformation did not all follow the same path, but the fountainheads of sola fide and sola Scriptura guided the reformation of worship among all Protestants.

A survey of the contents show chapters on the nature, theology, and heritage of the Puritans with important consideration given to their relationship with the continental Reformers. An important current running through the book is the development of the Puritanism beyond the first generation Reformers like Calvin, as well as the advances (?) of the Puritans regarding the purity of worship. "Puritanism, as we have seen, was born in Geneva, but it was Christened in England" ( p. 49). Very specifically, the Book of Common Prayer, extemporaneous prayer, praise, preaching, the sacraments, ordinations, and church discipline are examined. The cost of the book is hardly to be compared with the value of the last chapter, surveying and critiquing Puritan worship. In fact, I would have purchased the appendices alone if they were available. Appendix A compares the liturgies of Calvin, Knox, two Books of Common Prayer, the Westminster Directory, Baxter's Reformation of Liturgy, and the Savoy Liturgy in a helpful table. The other appendices are jewels too--a brief essay on art and music, a short discussion of the Puritans' attitude toward creeds, and finally, a look at Puritan family worship with special attention to Richard Baxter.

The historical value of the book not withstanding, one may be surprised to learn of many Puritans' stark attitudes on a few matters: no ring in marriage, no religious ceremony at a wedding, no religious ceremony at a funeral, public prayer only in a standing posture, and certainly no acknowledgment of holidays other than the Lord's Day (the "Christian Sabbath"), not to mention the more commonly known denials of instrumental music and hymns (of "human composition" or exclusive Psalm-singing) in worship. Even if at the end of the day one comes to different conclusions about all of the above matters, it is hardly worthless to examine our sometimes grim elder brothers' narrow disposition on these practices. After all they were seeking to be men of the Word. For this, if nothing else, the book is recommended by the reviewer. It is a resource for those interested in Reformation studies. It is a challenge for those seeking to refine current worship practices. It is eye-opening to those who comfortably label themselves "Reformed"--if they only parrot the current trends of Evangelicalism.