John Calvin and the Directory for the Public Worship of God

Terry L. Johnson

It can be argued that John Calvin is among the most important liturgists in the history of the Christian church. Indeed, I have attempted to make the case that his Genevan Psalter of 1542 and its Form of Church Prayers established a norm for worship.

The Form’s stress on the ordinary means of grace (word, prayer, sacraments), its emphasis on preaching and congregational singing, its elimination of extra-biblical ceremonies, and its relative simplicity and austerity, have had a decisive influence on all subsequent worship, whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, or even post-Vatican II Roman Catholic.

In contrast, the most important document among English-speaking Presbyterians, the Westminster Assembly’s Directory of the Public Worship of God (1645), has often been treated by scholars as a liturgical wrong-turn, a devolution, even dismissed contemptuously as being “the only liturgy to consist entirely of rubrics.” Among some conservative Presbyterians who care about well-ordered and reverent worship, it has been regarded as inferior to, if not a betrayal of, the pattern of worship established by Calvin.

However, I would argue that the Directory stands in continuity with Calvin’s Form and, indeed, represents true development from and even improvement upon the Genevan standard. The Directory, if properly utilized, is a superior guide to the worship of the Reformed church, over Calvin’s Form.

Continuity with the Form of Church Prayers

What does the Directory maintain that was standardized by Calvin’s Form? It maintains the basic elements that are characteristic of Reformed worship and does so in detail. The Directory is deeply indebted to its continental predecessor for the following: a full diet of biblical prayer; expository preaching; Scripture reading; psalm-singing; and administration of two sacraments. To these elements it adds nothing.

The Directory, like the Form, disallows extraneous ceremony and ritual, unauthorized postures and gestures, and extra-biblical symbols. Only “such things as are of divine institution” are allowed. Both the Directory and Form eliminate the various liturgical responses of congregation in the medieval mass (usually spoken by priests or monks). The sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy Lord…”), Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy), Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest…”), Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), and other congregational responses (e.g. to the greeting, to Scripture readings), have been eliminated. In the Reformed service the congregation responds by singing. Calvin’s Form has more fixed elements: the Creed and liturgical prayers being two examples, while the Directory recommends only the use of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet the basic elements are the same, resulting in a worship that is spiritual, simple, and recognizably of the same liturgical family.

Positive Development

The most obvious distinction between the Directory and Calvin’s Form can be found in the fact that the Westminster Divines produced a directory and not a liturgy of set prayers. Some explanation is in order. Yet before doing so we should note that six basic prayers of Calvin’s Form are present in the Directory’s model (invocation, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction), and even the five-fold intercessions are evident (sanctification of the saints, Christian mission, civil authority, the church’s ministry, and the sick). This is substantial continuity, yet with positive development. The Directory’s prayers are considerably richer, fuller, and deeper than those of Calvin’s Form. Nearly one-third of the entire document is devoted to prayer. Who can fail to be moved by the Directory’s expansive model prayers for before and after a sermon?

Still, why a Directory rather than a set Form? Because the “long and sad experience” had proven that an imposed liturgy would suffocate spiritual vitality. Uniformity was sought, but not the limiting word-for-word uniformity of set prayers. Unity was the goal, but not a unity that stifled the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin expresses the same concern for freedom, but not to the same degree. While not opposed to set prayers in principle, the concern for the exercise of the gift of prayer was paramount among the Westminster Puritans. The “Preface” to the Directory complains of “the reading of all the prayers” and the resulting “idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer.”[1]

This concern for free prayer persisted. It reappeared years later in the Presbyterians’ “Exceptions Against the Book of Common Prayer” presented to the Anglican Bishops in May of 1661. They urged that in a revised prayer book the liturgy not be “too rigorously imposed; nor the minister so confined thereunto, but that he may also make use of those gifts for prayer and exhortation” that Christ has given to the church.[2] When rebuffed and faced with the prospect of praying “in no words but are in the Common Prayer book,” they bitterly complained of the “brevity, ineptness, and the customariness” of those prayers and of their inevitable impact of taking “off the edge of fervor with human nature” and of preventing the “enlargedness, copiousness, and freedom as is necessary to true fervor.” They maintained that “A brief, transient touch and away, is not enough to warm the heart aright; and cold prayers are likely to have a cold return….” The resulting uniformity would produce unity, but this would be “to cure the disease by the extinguishing of life, and to unite us all in a dead religion.”[3]

Again, they were not opposed to liturgy or set prayers or fixed forms. The preface to the Directory complains of “the reading of all prayers”—not just some prayers but all, robbing the prayers of the church of urgency, fervor, and specificity. The models of prayer supplied by the Directory could be and indeed were turned into actual prayers as early as 1645 with the publication of A Supply of Prayer for Ships, intended for circumstances when no minister, that is, no one with the gift of prayer, was available. Rather, they urged in their “Exceptions” in 1661, “We would avoid the extreme that would have no forms, and the contrary extreme that would have nothing but forms.”[4] It was essential to the English Puritans throughout their history that place be given to free prayers, that the gift of prayer might be exercised. Alexander Mitchell (1822–1899) is right to clarify that “nothing was further from their intentions than to encourage unpremeditated or purely extemporary effusions.”[5] Rather, “they intended the exercise of prayer to be matter of thought, meditation, preparation and prayer, equally with the preaching of the word.”[6]

Liturgical scholar Horton Davies regards the Directory as “a notable attempt to combine the spontaneity of free prayer with the advantages of an ordered context or framework of worship.” Indeed, “It aimed at avoiding the deadening effect of a reiterated liturgy as also the pitfall of extempore prayer—the disordered meanderings of the minister.”  This latitude is a positive development from Calvin’s Form. The Directory allows both types of prayers, and yet, says Davies, “is itself the direct lineage of the Calvinist liturgies.”[7]

Other Improvements

The Directory not only descends from but improves its Genevan predecessor. Hughes O. Old points out that the Westminster Puritans “developed a number (of other) insights of the sixteenth-century Reformers in a most positive manner.”[8] Indeed, in many ways the Directory is superior to Calvin’s Form. Note the following twelve features:

1. The Directory provides several paragraphs addressing the congregation’s preparation, attitude, and behavior in worship; the Form has no such directions.

2. The Directory provides a model invocation. Calvin’s Form has no invocation beyond Psalm 124:8. It provides no model for the opening prayer of praise. Hughes Old classifies the Directory’s invocation as among the “most mature devotional insights” that Protestant theology produced.[9]

3. The Directory includes substantial prayer both before and after the sermon; the Form envisions only the prayer of illumination prior to the sermon. Old finds that the “sense for the full range of prayer found implicitly in the Strasburg and Genevan psalters is elaborated explicitly in the Westminster Directory for Worship.”[10]

4. The Directory commends only one fixed form, the Lord’s Prayer, yet it does not forbid the moderate use of creeds and written prayers, leaving the decision to use or not use to individual pastors and churches.

5. The Directory provides substantial and specific directions for Scripture reading (canonical books only, one chapter of each Testament in each service, lectio continua, read by the ministers, etc.); the Form has no directions at all.

6. The Directory includes classic directions for preaching of which Calvin’s Form has no parallel. Indeed, B. B. Warfield calls the Directory’s instructions “a complete homiletical treatise.”[11]

7. The Directory includes the requirement that there be a communion preparatory service that “all may come better prepared to that heavenly feast.”[12] Indeed, Mitchell argues that “the materials of the preliminary exhortation supply the outlines of one of the most complete and impressive addresses to be found in any of the Reformed Agenda.”[13]

8. Old cites the Directory’s superior communion epiclesis, in which the minister calls upon the Holy Spirit

to sanctify these elements both of bread and wine, and to bless his own ordinance, that we may receive by faith the body and blood of Jesus Christ consecrated for us, and so feed upon him, that he may be one with us, and we one with him.[14]

The continental Reformers invoked the Holy Spirit, Old notes, “but in nothing like the fullness we find here.”[15]

9. The Directory requires a collection for the poor following the post-communion thanksgiving. This too, says Old, “had been an important aspect of the eucharistic piety of Continental Reformed churches,” but rarely specified in liturgical documents as it was in the Directory.[16] Mitchell’s view is that the Directory’s communion service as a whole is “more complete in all that such a service should embrace than any similar office either in the reformed or the ancient church.”[17]

10. The Directory includes a more fully developed covenantal theology, as evidenced in the baptismal administration with multiple references to the “covenant” or “covenant of grace,” and baptism’s “sealing” function.[18]

11. The Directory includes a baptismal invocation, the minister offering a prayer “for sanctifying the water for this spiritual use.”[19] D. B. Forrester, assessing the Directory’s handling of the sacraments, notes that “the sections on baptism and the Lord’s Supper have attracted favorable comment from liturgists of many traditions.”[20]

12. The Directory includes far more substantial guidance for both the “Solemnization of Marriage” and the “Visitation of the Sick.”

Influence of the Directory

William D. Maxwell and many other liturgical scholars have been overly critical of the impact of the Directory and its Puritan originators. He speaks of the result being bare worship becoming “barer still.”[21]

Warfield, for his part, leaves us with a happier assessment. He commends the Directory “for the emphasis it places upon what is specifically commanded in the Scriptures,” for its “lofty and spiritual” tone, for its “sober and restrained” conception of acceptable worship that is “at the same time profound and rich.” “The paradigms of prayers which it offers,” Warfield says, “are notably full and yet free from overelaboration, compressed and yet enriched by many reminiscences of the best models which had preceded them.”

The Word of God, read and preached, is given the prominence it deserves “as a means, perhaps we should say the means, of grace.” Warfield finds the paragraph on preaching to be “remarkable at once for its sober practical sense and its profound spiritual wisdom,” and thinks it “suffused with a tone of sincere piety, and of zeal at once for the truth and for the souls which are to be bought with the truth.” He finds the Directory “notable for its freedom from petty prescriptions and ‘superfluities.’ ” In summary, the Directory “can scarcely fail to commend itself as an admirable set of agenda, in spirit and matter alike well fitted to direct the public services of a great church.”[22]

This is high praise from one of the greatest theologians and historians of the Reformed church. The Directory is, indeed, a worthy and faithful successor of Calvin the liturgist and his normative Form of Church Prayers.


[1] Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian, 1976), 373, 374.

[2] Timothy J. Fawcett, The Liturgy of Comprehension, 1689: An Abortive Attempt to Revise the Book of Common Prayer (Mayhew-McCrimmon Ltd., 1973), 2 (my emphasis).

[3] Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (1948; Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 154.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alexander Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards; Being the Baird Lecture for 1882 (1883; Stillwater Revival, 1992), 228.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Davies, Worship of the English Puritans, 141.

[8] Hughes O. Old, Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (1984; Westminster John Knox, 2004), 137.

[9] Hughes O. Old, Themes and Variations for Christian Doxology: Some Thoughts on the Theology of Worship (William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 37.

[10] Old, Worship, 173 (my emphasis).

[11] B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Oxford University Press, 1932), 52.

[12] Directory, 384.

[13] Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 234.

[14] Directory, 385.

[15] Old, Worship, 138.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 235.

[18] See also Shorter Catechism Q/A 92, 94; Larger Catechism Q/A 162, 165, 167, 174,  176; Westminster Confession of Faith XXVII.1; XXVIII.1.

[19] Directory, 383.

[20] D. B. Forrester, “Worship,” in Directory of Scottish Church History and Theology (InterVarsity, 1993), 846.

[21] William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland (Oxford University Press, 1955), 106, 107.

[22] Warfield, Westminster Assembly, 51, 52

The author, a minister in the PCA, is senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. New Horizons, January 2017.

New Horizons: January 2018

John Calvin and the Directory for the Public Worship of God

Also in this issue

Glory Veiled in Simplicity

A Greater Priest, A Greater Sacrifice, a Heavenly Place

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