Liturgical book of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

There have been several liturgical books used in American Presbyterian Churches. The main service book in current use is the Book of Common Worship (1993), published by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in cooperation with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

These books are not commonly used in the pews, but are resources for pastors in the preparation for Sunday worship, as well as for devotional use by church members and seminarians. Portions of these books are frequently found in the church bulletins, which become the liturgical booklet in many Presbyterian Churches.


  • "The Presbyterian Service Book" and "The Directory For Worship" 1
  • Service books of the 16th and 17th centuries 2
  • Service books in the 19th century 3
  • "Book of Common Worship" (1906, 1932, and 1946) 4
  • "The Worshipbook" (1970) 5
  • "Book of Common Worship" (1993) 6
  • "Book of Occasional Services" 7
  • Publications of books in the 20th century 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

"The Presbyterian Service Book" and "The Directory For Worship"

American Presbyterians have both a directory for worship and a service book. There is often a confusion over the distinction between the two, and over the role of each. A Directory for Worship is a part of the constitution of the church and thus has the authority of church law. It provides the theology that undergirds worship, and includes appropriate directions for worship. It sets forth the standards and the norms for the ordering of worship. It does not have fixed orders of worship or liturgical texts.

The church’s service book, on the other hand, provides orders and texts for worship. It is in harmony with the directory and is approved for voluntary use. Where both a directory and a service book coexist, as in those churches served by the Book of Common Worship (1993), the service book sets forth, in orders of services and in liturgical texts, the theology and norms described in the directory. Service books have a longer history in the Reformed tradition than directories, and most churches in the Reformed community do not have directories but do have service books.

Service books of the 16th and 17th centuries

Reformed churches in the sixteenth century used service books. Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin all prepared worship forms for use in the congregations. John Knox, following Calvin, prepared The Forme of Prayers and subsequently a service book, the Book of Common Order, for use in Scotland. Liturgical forms were in general use in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, England, and Scotland.

However, the Reformation in England and Scotland after the death of Thomas Cranmer was formed in a very different context from that on the continent, where entire political entities were Reformed. The Reformed were thus able to prepare their own service books without interference. In England and Scotland those seeking to carry the reform from the continent had the difficult task of reforming within a state church hostile to Genevan-inspired reform. Even after the Scottish kirk was reformed under John Knox, it continued to endure English political and religious pressures, resulting in bitter conflict with the English crown.

As the contending party in a state church, the Puritans were vulnerable. The liberty of the church to order its life and worship in harmony with the Word of God was threatened. The Puritans felt under attack by both church and nation. It was in worship that the conflict raged. The Puritans’ struggle for liberty put them in direct conflict with those who had power to legislate the content of the service book and to require its use. Initially, the Puritan conflict was not about opposition to the propriety and use of a service book.

The Puritans proposed their own service books. Rather, the conflict was about a service book that was being imposed upon the Puritans that did not reflect their concerns. The struggle ultimately drove the Puritans to join forces with the separatists. As a result, both the English Puritans and the Scots were forced into a more radical liturgical position than that of the reform on the continent, which did not have to face such issues. Whereas the Reformers were in a position to reform the forms of worship, the political and ecclesiastical situation compelled the Puritans, for the sake of liberty, to reject the forms thrust upon them.

It was in this context that the Westminster Directory for the Publique Worship of God, devoid of liturgical text, was created in 1644, under the influence of Puritans and separatists. This directory was destined to play the dominant role in shaping the worship of American Presbyterians. It was at this moment in history that Puritans and Scots settled in the New World. They were the nucleus that initially shaped American Presbyterianism. Puritan views thus dominated the way the church took root in American soil. Opposition to service books continued even though the Puritans were no longer engaged in a struggle for liberty. The agenda remained, even though the context had changed. American Presbyterians soon forgot why they opposed service books. What began as a struggle for liberty turned into a new legalism.

In keeping with their Puritan legacy, Presbyterians who settled in the New World chose to be served by a directory for worship rather than a service book. Colonial Presbyterians had the 1644 Westminster Directory available to them until, in 1788, the Westminster Directory was revised for use in the United States and subsequently adopted by the first General Assembly. Two generations after the first General Assembly, things began to change.

Service books in the 19th century

In the middle of the nineteenth century a movement emerged among American Presbyterians and other Reformed churches that sought to restore a liturgical tradition that was both Reformed and catholic, and thus to recover the values associated with use of a service book.

Individuals began to write service books for use by Presbyterians. Toward the end of the century, demand for such resources prompted the publishing house of the northern Presbyterians to produce collections of liturgical forms.

But it was the southern General Assembly that first extended official sanction to liturgical forms. In 1894 a directory for worship was adopted for use in the southern church that contained liturgical formulas, and liturgies for marriages and funerals were appended to it. Nine years later, the northern General Assembly was ready to respond positively to overtures calling for a book of services.

"Book of Common Worship" (1906, 1932, and 1946)

In 1903, in response to the growing expression of need for worship forms, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (northern) approved overtures calling for the preparation of a book of services. The result was that the first Book of Common Worship was published in 1906. In approving this book, the church embraced the growing concern for the reform of Presbyterian worship.Although American Presbyterians had a directory for worship to guide them in liturgical matters, the approval of a service book gave official recognition to the value of liturgical orders and texts in shaping worship.

The 1906 book was therefore a significant milepost in the reform of Presbyterian worship. It included orders with liturgical texts for both morning and evening Lord’s Day worship. It provided for celebrating Holy Communion, and included an exemplary eucharistic prayer (in this book called “great thanksgiving”). Texts were provided for some festivals and seasons of the liturgical calendar. There were orders and liturgical texts for Baptism and for Confirmation of Baptismal Vows. A treasury of prayer, with family prayers, was included, as well as a selective psalter and a collection of ancient hymns and canticles. Congregational participation was encouraged with the provision of responses and unison prayers. This service book included prayers drawn from a wide range within the church catholic and from across many centuries.

By 1928, the book began to appear dated. Responding to popular demand, the General Assembly appointed a committee to revise the Book of Common Worship. The revised edition appeared in 1932. This edition was an expanded version of the 1906 book. Texts for additional festivals and seasons were added. A rudimentary lectionary was included. It is significant that the southern General Assembly approved it for use by its congregations.

Nine years later the northern General Assembly established a permanent committee on the revision of the Book of Common Worship to monitor the liturgical needs of the church and to periodically propose revisions. This underscores the importance that the Office of the General Assembly gave to the service book at that time.

A thoroughgoing revision of the Book of Common Worship resulted in a new edition being published in 1946. Those who prepared this book had the advantage of increasing ecumenical liturgical scholarship and of more knowledge about the worship of the Reformers. This edition of the service book provided for still greater congregational participation. It contained expanded resources for Sunday morning and Sunday evening worship and for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The reading of scripture in worship was given emphasis by the addition of a complete two-year lectionary from the Church of Scotland’s Book of Common Order, published in 1940.The liturgical year also received increased emphasis, with prayers included from the service books of other churches.

"The Worshipbook" (1970)

In 1955 the northern General Assembly called for another revision. As the committee appointed to revise the Book of Common Worship began its work, it was confronted with the great disparity between the Directory for Worship and the Book of Common Worship. The committee reported back to the assembly that it could not proceed until a new directory was adopted to replace the existing one, which for the northern church had remained virtually unchanged since its adoption nearly one hundred and seventy years earlier.

The southern Presbyterians joined with the northern church to produce the new service book but decided to prepare their own directory. Also joining the project was the United Presbyterian Church of North America, which in 1947 had published a book entitled The Manual for Worship, which included general guidelines for worship with some orders and liturgical texts. Before the new service book was completed, the United Presbyterian Church of North America had merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church also joined in the project to produce the new service book. The Cumberland Presbyterians later engaged in preparing a new Directory for Worship, which was approved by their General Assembly in 1984. Other Reformed churches participated in early phases of the development of a new Book of Common Worship.

Work resumed on a revised Book of Common Worship when in 1961 the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and in 1963 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., adopted new directories. The committee distributed two trial use pieces prior to publication: one in 1964, another in 1966. In 1970 the service book was published with the title The Worshipbook—Services. Two years later it was published as part of The Worshipbook—Services and Hymns.

The contributions of The Worshipbook are noteworthy. As the first of a wave of new service books among American denominations, it broke new ground. It departed from Elizabethan English and began the search for a suitable contemporary style of language appropriate for the worship of God. It set forth with clarity that the norm of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day is a service of the Word and Sacrament. Although six years earlier the committee had proposed a new lectionary, it recognized that the lectionary then being completed by the Roman Catholic Church was superior to the lectionary it had prepared. The committee therefore modified the Roman lectionary for use by Presbyterians and included it in the final publication of The Worshipbook. Other denominations also made revisions of the Roman lectionary.

But with all of its contributions, The Worshipbook was vulnerable. Following Vatican Council II there was a great resurgence of liturgical reform that continues unabated in virtually every branch of the church. Service book revision was begun by every church that had a service book. Presbyterians began to recognize the need to go beyond The Worshipbook. It was therefore no surprise that a new service book was soon called for.

"Book of Common Worship" (1993)

In 1980 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. approved an overture from the Presbytery of the Cascades calling for “a new book of services for corporate worship.” In adopting the overture, the General Assembly expressed the fervent hope that the new book would be “an instrument for the renewal of the church at its life-giving center.”[1] Immediately the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church approved participation in the project.

The process leading to a new service book called for the publication of trial-use resources prior to the finalization of the service book itself. Between 1984 and 1992 seven trial-use resources were published, each including proposed text for a portion of the service book. The trial-use volumes were published under the series title: Supplemental Liturgical Resources. Each volume was prepared by a task force chosen for the task. From fifty to one hundred congregations were invited to review testing drafts of each of these resources prior to its approval for publication. Suggestions received from these evaluations greatly contributed to the preparation of the final drafts, and thus to their usefulness in the church. Following the publication of each volume, evaluations and suggestions were received. These responses, based on their use, were carefully considered and were a valuable aid in revising the liturgical texts for inclusion in this book. In revised form the liturgical texts of the seven trial-use resources are included in this book.

During the course of the development of this service book, the reunion in 1983 of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) occurred. This resulted in the preparation of a new Directory for Worship. In the years that followed reunion, until the adoption of the new Directory for Worship in 1989, the preparation of the directory and the development of the service book followed parallel tracks. Because the work was concurrent, there was a creative exchange between the two tasks. Each influenced the other. Appearing four years after the adoption of the revised Directory, the final Book of Common Worship is consistent with the provisions of the Directory.

This book does not include some liturgical resources that ordinarily are included in the previous service books, namely, ordinations, installations, and occasional services such as dedications. At the time of its publication, a major study on ordination is before the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This had precluded the finalization of an ordination rite. The decision was made to do as other churches have done and produce a book of occasional services separate from the Book of Common Worship, which would include additional liturgical resources needed by the church, such as ordinations, installations, dedications, and other occasional services, and liturgies needed by presbyteries to fulfill their responsibilities.

"Book of Occasional Services"

In 1999, the Geneva Press published for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) a liturgical resource supplementing the 1993 Book of Common Worship, containing multiple services for ordination and installation, commissioning, dedications, marking transitions in congregations and governing bodies, together with additional prayers for various occasions.

Publications of books in the 20th century

Henry van Dyke and others were influential in the first publication of a liturgical book for American Presbyterians. It was published in 1906, followed by a revision in 1932. Other books have followed every few decades:


  1. ^ Minutes of the General Assembly of the UPCUSA

External links

  • Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.