John Knox and Public Prayer

Glen J. Clary

New Horizons: October 2014

John Knox

Also in this issue

John Knox—Prophet and Pastor

John Knox on the Scottish Reformation

A Walk through the Valley of Shadows

One of the primary goals of the Protestant Reformation was to reform the worship of the church according to Scripture, the only infallible authority. The Reformers gave careful attention to revising the various elements of worship, including public prayer. As Presbyterians, we may be encouraged to know that some of the best literature written on the subject of public prayer comes from John Knox.

Even though Knox was not a pioneer in the area of liturgical reform, he played a significant role in shaping the service of worship among English-speaking Protestants. Knox was deeply devoted to the purification of Christian worship, and he endeavored to lead the church in worship that was faithful to Scripture and free from man-made inventions. Knox followed the liturgical paths cut out before him by other Reformers, especially Martin Bucer in Strasbourg and John Calvin in Geneva. However, he was no mere carbon copy of these men; rather, he took their pioneering work and improved it considerably.

The influence of Calvin’s liturgy on Knox is clearly seen in the “worship wars” that took place in the city of Frankfurt on the Main. Some two hundred Protestants from England had taken refuge in Frankfurt, after Mary Tudor began her reign, and Knox was called to serve as their pastor. The congregation was divided on matters of worship, with some insisting on using Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and others desiring to follow the liturgy of Calvin. Knox had increasingly become convinced that the Book of Common Prayer contained some things that were “superstitious, impure, unclean and imperfect.”[1] He therefore sided with those who wanted to use Calvin’s liturgy, deeming it “most godly and farthest off from superstition.”[2] However, his ministry in Frankfurt came to an abrupt end due to opposition.

The Genevan Book of Order

After leaving Frankfurt, Knox settled in Geneva and became the pastor of the English-speaking refugees who were permitted to worship in what is now known as the Auditoire de Calvin. For their services of worship, Knox used an order that was drawn from Calvin’s liturgy. This order was published in 1556 as The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc. used in the English Congregation at Geneva: and approved by the famous and godly learned man, John Calvin.[3] Today, it is often referred to as the Genevan Book of Order or simply as Knox’s liturgy. Knox served this congregation until his return to Scotland in 1559. These were the happiest years of his ministry, and he considered Geneva to be “the most perfect school of Christ … since the days of the apostles.”[4]

The Genevan Book of Order was already known in Scotland by the time that Knox returned. In 1564, it was officially adopted as the standard of worship by an act of the General Assembly, which required every minister to “use the order contained therein, in prayers, marriage, and the administration of the sacraments.”[5] This Book of Common Order, as it came to be called, continued to be used in Scotland until it was superseded by the Westminster Directory for Public Worship in 1645.

One of Knox’s greatest contributions to Reformed worship was his development of public prayer. At the beginning of his liturgy, we find a prayer of confession of sin and supplication for God’s mercy. Knox gives two different forms for the Prayer of Confession. The liturgy instructs the minister to use one of the forms or one “like in effect” and to exhort “the people diligently to examine themselves, following in their hearts the tenor of his words.”[6] Though Knox (like Bucer and Calvin)always led public prayer with written or printed guidance, he did not prescribe the reading of liturgical formulas. He did not produce “a fixed liturgy like a medieval service-book or the Book of Common Prayer,” nor did he produce a mere directory.[7]

On the one hand, the Reformers wrote forms of prayer for worship that could be read right out of the book. On the other hand, ministers were given a large measure of freedom to frame their own prayers, provided that those prayers were in keeping with the liturgy. That is, they could either use the prayer forms or pray “in like effect.” A minister had to honor the liturgy and not simply pray what seemed good in his own eyes. At the same time, however, he was allowed to pray, says Knox, “as the Spirit of God shall move his heart.” In later years, Pietism would make this allowance such a mark of sincerity and piety that all prayer forms, even the biblical forms such as the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, were eventually excluded from the service.

For the Reformers, however, prayer was not a matter of human creativity but of speaking to God in his own words. For this reason, the forms of prayer that they produced were drawn from the Holy Scriptures. Knox’s Prayer of Confession, for example, is based on Daniel’s confession of sin on behalf of the nation of Israel (Dan. 9:1–19). This was a particularly appropriate confession to use for a congregation of exiles, such as Knox pastored in Geneva. Knox had a profound sense of biblical typology that shaped his understanding of ministry and often colored his prayers.

In Reformed liturgies, the Prayer of Confession was often followed by an Assurance of Pardon spoken by the minister and a Psalm of Thanksgiving sung by the congregation, after which came the reading and preaching of Holy Scripture. The ministry of the Word was also prefaced by a Prayer for Illumination. In Knox’s liturgy, no form is provided for this prayer, but “the minister prays for the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, as the same shall move his heart.” Here, Knox is again following the example of Calvin’s Genevan liturgy, which provides no form for this prayer, but leaves it up to the discretion of the minister.

The longest prayer in the service came after the sermon. The exposition of Scripture quite naturally led the congregation into prayer. There was a Prayer of Intercession, or, as it is called in Knox’s liturgy, “a prayer for the whole estate of Christ’s church.” Here the church prays for the ministry of the Word, for the faithfulness of church officers, for the perfection of the saints, for the salvation of all people, for the deliverance of the afflicted, and, as Paul instructed Timothy, for all civil authorities (1 Tim. 2:1–8). This long Prayer of Intercession was concluded by the Lord’s Prayer, which, in turn, was followed by a Confession of Faith using the Apostles’ Creed.

Prayer during the Lord’s Supper

When the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was observed, the Creed was followed by the reading of the Words of Institution from 1 Corinthians 11, in order to establish the biblical warrant for the sacrament. This was followed by a Communion Exhortation and a Prayer of Thanksgiving (or Eucharistic Prayer). The form for this prayer in Knox’s liturgy is one of the most beautiful liturgical texts produced in the Reformation. It is a thanksgiving for creation and redemption that resembles the great eucharistic prayers of the ancient church.

The Eucharistic Prayer recounts with thanksgiving the incarnation of Christ, his death to satisfy divine justice, and his resurrection to destroy the author of death and bring life again to the world, “from which the whole offspring of Adam most justly was exiled.” The prayer also gives thanks for all the benefits of the new covenant (explicitly naming many of them), which are given in Christ and sealed in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Knox concludes the prayer with a Trinitarian doxology acknowledging that “these most inestimable benefits” are received by God’s free mercy and grace, through his only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, “for the which therefore, we thy Congregation, moved by thy Holy Spirit, render thee all thanks, praise, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”

In the liturgy of John Knox, we see an attempt to give the congregation a full diet of prayer. The various biblical genres of prayer are represented in the service in one manner or another. The three main prayers are the Prayer of Confession and Supplication at the beginning of the service, the Prayer of Intercession following the sermon, and the Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Communion table. Complementing these public prayers is a full course of Psalm singing, another prominent feature of Reformed worship.

Presbyterian worship has seen many changes since the Reformation era, and in some ways we have strayed far from our roots. By God’s grace, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church still holds firmly to the biblical principles of worship taught by our forefathers, and we desire, as they did, to worship the Lord in accordance with Scripture. As we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Knox this year, we would do well to remember his contributions to the shape of Reformed worship and to follow his example of public prayer.


[1] Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 288.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 295.

[4] John Knox, Works, ed. David Laing, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1855), 240.

[5] William D. Maxwell, The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book (Great Britain: Faith Press, 1965), 8.

[6] The Genevan Book of Order, available online at http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/GBO_ch04.htm.

[7] Duncan B. Forrester and Douglas M. Murray, eds., Studies in the History of Worship in Scotland (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 40.

The author is the associate pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville, Tex. New Horizons, October 2014.

New Horizons: October 2014

John Knox

Also in this issue

John Knox—Prophet and Pastor

John Knox on the Scottish Reformation

A Walk through the Valley of Shadows

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