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Matthew Sigler ~ Knowing What We Have: A Look at the Methodist Liturgical Heritage


Cutting and Pasting

A lot has been said in recent years about a growing number of young evangelicals who long to be “more liturgical.” I don’t have any statistics in front of me, though a simple search on the internet will yield a plethora of posts concerning this trend. There are a number of ways to parse the rather generic term “liturgical worship;” not the least of which is that, strictly speaking, all worship is “liturgical.” Oftentimes when people speak of becoming “more liturgical” what they are really saying is that they want to anchor worship in something beyond the moment.

Many seeking to reclaim a more historically resonant form of worship often employ a “cut and paste” approach in their design of such services. I’ve been guilty of this myself when, over a decade ago, I began softening to “liturgical” forms of worship. In my case, I would often open up the Anglican prayer book, find a collect that impressed me, and insert it into our church’s “contemporary” order of worship. I had little concept of the Christian Year, much less the historic function of the Collect of the Day in the Anglican order of worship. For example, I was quite happy to insert a collect from Pentecost into a service held in October simply because it echoed one of the worship songs we had planned to sing. The problem with the “cut and paste” approach is that it overlooks the fact that forms of worship, like collects, derive much of their meaning from what comes before and after in the service.

Lest this sound like just the type of triviality upon which the “liturgy police” make a living, consider the impact of the hymn “Just As I Am” at a Billy Graham crusade in the 1950s. In most cases, the hymn was sung concurrent with the altar call. Those in attendance had just heard a sermon geared at calling sinners to repentance. An invitation to follow Christ had just been given. The simple text of the hymn takes on a much more poignant meaning when one understands how it was often used. Now consider what might be lost if one was to open up next years’ Easter Sunday service with “Just as I Am.” Would it be total disaster? No. Could God still use it? Of course. But it would not carry the same significance as it did at the close of a Billy Graham crusade. In extracting an element from a worship service without careful consideration as to how it functions in its original design, one is likely to miss out on the full impact of that prayer, song, response, etc. To return to my example of the collect for Pentecost, I later learned how much more powerful that particular prayer can be when it is surrounded with scriptures, songs, and a sermon centered on the giving of the Spirit.

The temptation to “cut and paste” in designing a worship service is all the more strong if you do not know the history of your own tradition. On several occasions in the last five years I have had people contact me seeking advice for designing a “more liturgical” service in their local Methodist congregation. In each case I have noted that many overlook the rich resources available within our own Methodist liturgical heritage. If it is true that many are gravitating to more historically resonant forms of worship, Methodists should know the resources within their own liturgical history. Quite frankly, I find that many of us don’t know what we have in our American Methodist liturgical heritage. With this in mind, I’d like to devote the remainder of this post and a few subsequent posts to giving a brief overview of the history of the American Methodist liturgical tradition and the resources that have emerged from within that heritage. As will be seen, Methodists have a rich liturgical heritage that values both form and freedom in worship.

The Sunday Service

Any discussion of American Methodist worship must begin with the prayer book Wesley sent to America. A year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, John Wesley sent his edited version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer to the newly formed United States. The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America was a fairly conservative reworking of the English prayer book—most of the changes being made by deletion rather than the insertion of new material. Wesley’s desire was to simplify the prayer book so that it could be used more effectively and affectively. Along with the Sunday Service, Wesley sent a letter that was often bound with copies of the prayer book. In the letter John Wesley advises “all the travelling-preachers to use [the Sunday Service] on the Lord’s day, and in all their congregations, reading the litany only on Wednesday and Fridays, and praying extempore on all other days.” He continues: “I also advise the elders to administer the supper of the Lord on every Lord’s day.”[1] Wesley envisioned that the Sunday Service would be infused with the singing of hymns—a fact demonstrated in the inclusion of A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for the Lord’s Day with many of the copies of the Sunday Service. The use of hymns among the Methodists had been quite an innovation within the context of 18th century British Anglicanism, and American Methodists now inherited the treasury of hymns written primarily by Charles Wesley.

Wesley was clear in his expectation that American Methodists use the Sunday Service as their primary service book in worship. Rather than a lifeless, dry formalism, he considered the liturgical forms he bequeathed to the American Methodists to be a platform for the affections in worship—something that both anchored emotions while also giving expression to the affections. The forms of Methodist worship, when embraced with “heart, mind, soul and strength,” should allow for reverent spontaneity and holy emotion. The use of liturgical forms, for Wesley, actually led to freedom in worship—a fact quickly lost on his American descendants. Indeed, American Methodists waited until their founder passed away before they quietly put aside the Sunday Service. The early American Methodist minister, Jesse Lee, summed up how many Methodists felt about the Sunday Service when he observed that Methodists could pray better with their eyes shut than their eyes open. Printed prayers were considered dry and lifeless by many American Methodists, so the Sunday Service went into disuse.

While the Sunday Service would be lost to relative obscurity for at least seven decades (Thomas O. Summers reissued a version of The Sunday Service in 1867), in 1792 the rites for baptism, the Lord’s Supper, weddings, funerals and ordination were extracted from the Sunday Service to form the backbone of what would later be called the Ritual. For nearly two hundred years, whenever Methodists used the Ritual they were following in this Anglican/Methodist pattern. Of course, Wesley’s hope for a Sunday service patterned after the Anglican form was rejected by the American Methodists. In my next post I’ll consider some of the changes in American Methodist worship during the 19th and 20th centuries.


[1] John Wesley, Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, ed. James F. White (Nashville: Quarterly Review, 1984), ii.