The Mechanics of Puritan Worship: Singing, Preaching, and Conversing
The Puritans were great champions of personal worship, family worship, and public worship. However, in our limited time, there is much I must pass over, including the Puritan doctrine of the Christian Sabbath, how they applied the Fourth Commandment to set apart the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10) for the spiritual delight and refreshment of God’s people. Nor will I be able to discuss the Puritan practices of family worship, private meditation, and personal prayer, though I have written on these matters elsewhere.35
Yet even with respect to public worship, I cannot in short compass deal with the whole of Puritan teaching. I recommend that you read the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God.36 Here, I must pass by the centrality of united prayer.37 I will not be able to explore the Puritan teaching on sharing our wealth with the poor as an act of mercy, which Perkins called “an excellent part of the worship of God” (Heb. 13:16),38 nor will I be able to address the Puritan view of the sacraments, which they employed as means of grace to increase the assurance and holiness of God’s children.
In this section, I will limit myself to speaking about how the Puritans built upon the foundation of Christ according to the rule of Scripture with the forms of singing, preaching, and conversing with each other.
The Songs of Puritan Worship
In obedience to Colossians 3:16, the Puritans employed an ancient form of worship largely forgotten in the modern church: singing the Book of the Psalms found in the Bible.
Though some Reformed Christians continued to object against corporate singing in the church, the Puritans generally loved to sing the psalms.39 William Ames (1576–1633), a very influential student of Perkins, wrote that singing the psalms has the following advantages over merely reading them: “it brings a kind of sweet delight to godly minds,” it enables “a more distinct and fixed meditation,” and it results in more “mutual edification.”40
John Cotton (1585–1652), an English Puritan who later immigrated to the American colonies, also believed that God willed for the church to sing the psalms or other songs found in Scripture such as the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46–55). He too argued that psalms should be sung without instrumental music.41 Privately composed hymns could also be sung and accompanied by musical instruments, but only in private worship, not public worship.42
The crux of the Reformed and Puritan argument for singing the psalms of the Bible was Colossians 3:16, and the parallel statement in Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves [or one another] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Cotton noted that these same words “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs,” are “the very titles of the songs of David, as they are delivered to us by the Holy Ghost himself.”43
Some objected that the Holy Spirit leads men to compose “spiritual songs” in the contemporary church. Cotton replied that ordinary men led by the Spirit may err, but the prophets “carried by the Spirit” as they wrote the Scriptures “cannot err.”44 The Puritans believed that songs of mere human origin have their place, but “our devotion is best secured” when our songs come from “divine inspiration,” that is, the inspired Scriptures.45
Since Paul linked singing the psalms to the filling of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), Paul Baynes (c. 1573–1617), another mighty Puritan preacher, said that the exercise of singing the psalms is a means of increasing in ourselves the work of the Holy Spirit.46 However, Baynes said we should not object against singing with instruments such as the organ if it is done in a helpful way, for “we are expressly charged by God’s Spirit to praise him both on stringed instruments and organs (Ps. 150:4).”47 Evidently, some Puritans felt very strongly about not using instruments, for Baynes complained that one pipe in the organ could blow out their zeal, and blow them out of the church! So we see that there was at least some diversity among Puritans about musical instruments. But they were united in maintaining that the ordinary worship of the church should be the singing of the psalms and that musical instruments should not be used at all or kept to a minimum, since they are nowhere commanded in the New Testament.
35 See Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, ch. 53–55; Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour, eds., Take Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).
36 The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, in Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994), 369–94. See Stanley R. Hall, “The Westminster Directory and Reform of Worship,” in Calvin Studies VIII, ed. John H. Leith (Davidson, N.C.: Davidson College, 1996), 91–105.
37 See Roy W. Williams, “The Puritan Concept and Practice of Prayer: Private, Family and Public” (PhD dissertation, University of London, 1982), 285–317.
38 Perkins, Diuine Worship, 247.
39 On the struggles over corporate singing, see Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (repr., Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 168–74.
40 William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (London: by E. G. for I. Rothwell, T. Slater, L. Blacklock, 1643), 2:43.
41 John Cotton, Singing of Psalmes a Gospel-Ordinance (London: by M. S. for Hannah Allen, 1647), 2, 12, 15.
42 Cotton, Singing of Psalmes, 15. He also affirmed the singing of a portion of a Psalm (2 Chron. 5:13; 20:21), or, on special occasions, to compose a spiritual song made of “words of praise dispersed in several Psalms” (29).
43 Cotton, Singing of Psalmes, 16.
44 Cotton, Singing of Psalmes, 19. Note that Cotton affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture.
45 John Owen, Thomas Manton, et al., preface to The Psalms of David in Meeter (1673), cited in Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 669.
46 Paul Bayne, An Entire Commentary vpon the VVhole Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians (London: by M. F. for R. Milbourne and I. Bartlet, 1643), 633.
47 Bayne, Ephesians, 634.