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John Calvin's Order of Worship (1542) and Genevan Liturgy in Strassborg (Strasbourg)

Creeds and Confessions of the Church - Liturgy and Order of Worship
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John Calvin’s Order of Worship in Switzerland:

Calvin’s liturgy was published twice in 1542. It was introduced at Lausanne in the same year, and gradually passed into other Reformed Churches. Later, the puritans would further simplify Reformed Worship with the Directory for Public Worship.

A typical outline for Reformed Worship stemming from Calvin and further refined can be found here in the Pastor’s Ordering of Public Worship.

Calvin built his form of worship on the foundation of Zwingli and Farel, and the services already in use in the Swiss Reformed Churches. Like his predecessors, he had no sympathy whatever with the Roman Catholic ceremonialism, which was overloaded with unscriptural traditions and superstitions. We may add that he had no taste for the artistic, symbolical, and ornamental features in worship. He rejected the mass, all the sacraments, except baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the saints’ days, nearly all church festivals, except the Lord’s Day (although Calvin’s view was overly radical in spiritualizing the 4th commandment), images, relics, processions, and the whole pomp and circumstance of a gaudy worship which appeals to the senses and imagination rather than the intellect and the conscience. Such worship tends to distract the mind with the outward show instead of concentrating it upon the contemplation of the saving truth of the gospel.

He substituted in its place that simple and spiritual mode of worship which is well adapted for intelligent devotion, if it be animated by the quickening presence and power of the Spirit of God, but becomes jejune, barren, cold, and chilly if that power is lacking. He made the sermon the central part of worship, and substituted instruction and edification in the vernacular for the reading of the mass in Latin. He magnified the pulpit, as the throne of the preacher, above the altar of the sacrificing priest. He opened the inexhaustible fountain of free prayer in public worship, with its endless possibilities of application to varying circumstances and wants; he restored to the Church, like Luther, the inestimable blessing of congregational singing, which is the true popular liturgy, and more effective than the reading of written forms of prayer.

The order of public worship in Calvin’s congregation at Strassburg was as follows: —

Invocation and Call to Worship[1]

The Confession of Sin (Prayer) and a Brief Absolution (which would oftentimes include the 10 commandments).[2]

Reading of the Old Testament / New Testament

Psalm Sung[3]

Pastoral Prayer / Prayer of Illumination

The Word of God Preached (The Sermon)

Prayer of Intercession and Application ending with the Lord’s Prayer (a prayer for the people by the minister).

Psalm Sung[4]



Calvin’s Alternate Order of Worship for Communion

  • Call to worship
  • Confession of Sin / Absolution
  • The Ten Commandments (sung) (In Calvin’s preparation of a metrical tune)
  • Psalm (sung)
  • The Word Read from the OT or NT
  • Prayer for Illumination
  • Preaching of the Word Sermon
  • Prayer of Intercession
  • Apostle’s Creed (sung) (In Calvin’s preparation of a metrical tune)
  • The Lord’s Supper
  • Prayer of Thanksgiving
  • Psalm (sung) or Song of Simeon (sung)
  • Blessing

The same order (first listed above) is substantially observed in the French Reformed Churches. Calvin prepared also liturgical forms for baptism and the holy communion. A form for marriage and the visitation of the sick had been previously composed by Farel. The combination of the liturgical and extemporaneous features continue in the Reformed Churches of the Continent. In the Presbyterian churches of Scotland and most of the Dissenting churches of England, and their descendants in America, the liturgical element was gradually ruled out by free prayer; while the Anglican Church pursued the opposite course.

Baptism was always performed before the congregation at the close of the public service, and in the simplest manner, according to the institution of Christ; without the traditional ceremony of exorcism, and the use of salt, spittle, and burning candles, because these are not commanded in the Scriptures, nourish superstition, and divert the attention from the spiritual substance of the ordinance to outward forms

The communion was celebrated once a month in a simple but very solemn manner by the whole congregation. Calvin required the communicants to give him previous notice of their intention, that they might receive instruction, warning, or comfort, according to their need. Unworthy applicants were excluded (i.e. fencing the table).

The introduction of the Psalter in the vernacular was a most important feature, and the beginning of a long and heroic chapter in the history of worship and Christian life. The Psalter occupies the same important place in the Reformed Church as the hymnal in the Lutheran. It was the source of comfort and strength to the Huguenot Church of the Desert, and to the Presbyterian Covenanters of Scotland, in the days of bitter trial and persecution. Calvin, himself prepared metrical versions of Psalms 25, 36, 43, 46, 91, 113, 120, 138, 142, (at times he also used a metrical version of the Song of Simeon and the Ten Commandments.[5] He afterwards used the superior version of Clément Marot, the greatest French poet of that age, who was the poet of the court, and the psalmist of the Church (1497–1544). Calvin met him first at the court of the Duchess of Ferrara (1536), whither he had fled, and afterwards at Geneva (1542), where he encouraged him to continue his metrical translation of the Psalms. Marot’s Psalter first appeared at Paris, 1541, and contained thirty Psalms, together with metrical versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Angelic Salutation, the Creed, and the Decalogue. Several editions, with fifty Psalms, were printed at Geneva in 1543, one at Strassburg in 1545. Later editions were enlarged with the translations of Beza. The popularity and usefulness of his and Beza’s Psalter were greatly enhanced by the rich melodies of Claude Goudimel (1510–1572), who joined the Reformed Church in 1562, and died a martyr at Lyons in the night of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. He devoted his musical genius to the Reformation. His tunes are based in part on popular songs, and breathe the simple and earnest spirit of the Reformed cultus. Some of them have found a place among the chorals of the Lutheran Church.

(Taken in part from Schaff’s, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation    § 87. The Liturgy of Calvin.)

[1]Nostre aide soit au nom de Dieu, qui a faict le Ciel et la terre. Amen.” Opera, VI. 173.

[2] This confession is still in use and may be favorably compared with the confession in the Anglican liturgy. It is as follows (in modern spelling):—
Mes frères, qu’un chacun de nous se présente devant la face du Seigneur, avec confession de ses fautes et péchés, suivant de son coeur mea paroles.
Seigneur Dieu, Père éternal et tout-puissant, nous confessons [et reconnaissons] sans feintise, devant ta Sainte Majesté, que nous sommes pauvres pécheurs, conçus et nés en iniquitéet corruption, enclins àmal faire, inutiles àtout bien, et que par notre vice, nous transgressons sans fin et sans cesse tes saints commandements. En quoi faisant, nous acquérons, par ton juste jugement, ruine et perdition sur nous.
“Toutefois, Seigneur, nous avons déplaisir en nous-mêmes, de t’avoir offensé, et condamnons nous et nos vices, avec vraie repentance, désirant que to grâce [et aide] subviennent ànotre calamité.
Veuille donc avoir pitiéde nous, Dieu et Père très bénin, et plein de miséricorde, au nom de ton Fils Jésus-Christ, notre Seigneur; effaçant donc nos vices et macules, élargis nous et augmente de jour en jour les grâces de ton Saint-Esprit, afin que, reconnaissant de tout notre coeur notre injustice, nous soyons touches de déplaisir, qui engendre droite pénitence en nous: laquelle nous mortifiant àtous péchés produise en nous fruits de justice et innocence qui te soient agréables par ice-lui Jesus-Christ. Amen.”
After this confession the Strassburg Liturgy adds a form of absolution, which was afterwards omitted:—
“Ici, dit le ministre quelques paroles de l’Écriture pour consoler les consciences, et fait l’absolution en cette manière:
“Un chacunde vous se reconnaisse vraiment pécheur, s’humiliant devant Dieu, et croie que le Pare céleste lui veut étre propice en Jésus-Christ. A tous ceux qui, en cette manière se repentent, et cherchent Jésus-Christ pour leur salut, je dénonce l’absolution au nom du Père, du Fils, et du Saint-Esprit. Amen.”

[3] The whole congregation, male and female, joined in singing the Psalms, and took an active part in public worship in this way, while formerly they were but passive listeners or spectators. This was in accordance with the Protestant doctrine of the general priesthood of believers.

[4] An interesting description of the Reformed worship at Strassburg, by a French student in 1545, was first published in 1885 by Erichson, p. 7, and is given by Doumergue, l.c. p. 15 sq. He speaks of daily preaching and chanting of Psalms by the whole congregation (“tant homine que femme avec un bel accord“) from a tune book (un livre de musique), which each member had in his hand.

[5] They were printed at Strassburg, 1539, and republished, together with an original hymn (Salutation à Jesus-Christ), from an edition of 1545, in Opera, VI. 212-224.

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