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A Brief History of Christian Worship
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A Brief History of Christian Worship

by James F. White

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Most histories of Christian worship are written as if nothing significant in liturgical history ever happened in North America, as if cultural diversities were insignificant in the development of worship, and as if most of what mattered were words the priest or minister addressed to God. This book is a revisionist work, attempting to give new direction to liturgical


Most histories of Christian worship are written as if nothing significant in liturgical history ever happened in North America, as if cultural diversities were insignificant in the development of worship, and as if most of what mattered were words the priest or minister addressed to God. This book is a revisionist work, attempting to give new direction to liturgical history by treating the experience of worship of the people in the pews as the primary liturgical document. It means liturgical history written facing the other way--that is, looking into the chancel rather than out of it.

Relishing the liturgical diversity of recent centuries as firm evidence of Chritianity's ability to adapt to a wide variety of peoples and places, Professor White shows that this tendency has been apparent in Chrisitian worship since its inception in the New Testament churches. Instead of imposing one tradition's criteria on worship, he tries to give a balanced and comprehensive approach to the development of the dozen or more traditions surviving in the modern world.

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A Brief History of Christian Worship

By James F. White

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-03414-7


Worship in the Churches of the New Testament Era

The foundations for all subsequent Christian worship were laid in the decades in which the New Testament books were being written and edited, roughly the century following the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every period of renewal since then has aspired to reach back to the principles and practices of the first Christian century; most debates about Christian worship have argued over the biblical evidence. The churches of the apostles and their immediate heirs have an authority for the Christian imagination that no other period can match. Golden age or not (I Cor. 11:29), all things liturgical are still tested by the standard of the earliest worshiping Christian communities.

This is the period when the canonical books of the New Testament were being written although no one recognized them as such at the time. But other sources from this period also fix our attention: the Didache, probably written in Syria late in the first century or early second; the so-called Clement's First Letter, most likely written in Rome in the last decade of the first century, and the letters of the martyred bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, from about A.D. 115. Even pagans contribute details to our knowledge such as a letter of Pliny, Roman governor of Bithynia about A.D. 112. So we are not destitute of information; the problem is how to evaluate what we can know about the worship of these Christian communities scattered from Jerusalem to Rome.

Our method will be to glimpse briefly the world the first Christians inhabited and the social realities they experienced. Who were these first Christians? Then we shall move on to see how they signified becoming Christian. How did they effect and experience this new order of being one in Christ? Then we examine what it was like living and dying as a Christian. How did they pray, give thanks, mark time, and support each other through life's crisis points? After that, we shall ask about the life of the Christian community itself in this period. How did it organize itself for ministry, preach the gospel, and use space and music? We must beware in this first century of presuming to know more than can be known from actual evidence. In other periods, the information becomes more voluminous, if not more comprehensible, and we shall follow approximately the same procedure.


The primary liturgical document in any period is the worshiping community itself. So it is appropriate that we take a quick look at the people we encounter in the pages of the New Testament. Recent scholarship has taught us much about these early worshiping communities. For the most part, they are not the people we encounter in the pages of the gospels, chiefly village people of rural parts of Palestine, but people immersed in the urban centers of the Greco-Roman world. This much more cosmopolitan world had replaced the homogeneity of the village environment with urban life in cities crammed full of a variety of races, religions, and languages. Paul could readily find a Jewish community in most cities as he did in Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14) or Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-2). Jews comprised about one seventh of the population of most Mediterranean cities.

Within these urban areas, the new converts to Christianity reflected a wide variety of social and educational levels. Onesimus, the runaway slave, and Philemon, his wealthy owner, are social extremes but fellow Christians. And every level in between seems encompassed among these early worshipers: Lydia the independent businesswoman dealing in luxury goods (Acts 16:14); Crispus, formerly ruler of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:8); Dionysius, one of the governing council in Athens (Acts 17:34); and Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10:22), about as wide an assortment of "all sorts and conditions" as one could find in any society. Social stratification caused many of the problems in the churches, not least of all in the eucharist as at Corinth (I Cor. 11:20-22). Over against these social discrepancies Paul finds it necessary to assert the equality of baptism that transcends all human distinctions (I Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

The new Christian communities were only one tiny group within a vast assortment of clubs, associations, and religious bodies. Yet these Christian groups signaled membership in a radically new body by means of baptism which "signaled for Pauline converts an extra-ordinarily thoroughgoing resocialization, in which the sect was intended to become virtually the primary group for its members, supplanting all other loyalties." And it was loyalty not just to a local church but to a new Israel which, like old Israel, transcended localities and nations. Apostolic visits and epistles, even pseudonymous ones, kept reminding them of this fact. We shall shortly be examining some of the worship patterns they held in common; there were also common structures of oversight and concurrence in belief patterns.

Many of these were inherited from Judaism, especially the ethical dimensions. Yet the old maps with which Judaism had plotted acceptable behavior no longer held firm for Christians. The accusation that Christians were "people who have been turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6) was perceptive from the standpoint of Jewish tradition. Christians had adopted new definitions of what was pure and impure, new boundaries between what behavior was encouraged and what forbidden. Jerome Neyrey shows how Jesus had transformed the whole map of persons and places for meals. "Nothing, then, seems right according to the cultural rules for meals: no concern whatsoever is had for who is eating with whom, where, how or what is eaten.... Jesus' table-fellowship turns the world upside down for he welcomes anyone, especially sinners and the unclean, to eat with him anywhere and at anytime."

But we must beware of overemphasizing the contrasts when it comes to worship. It is fundamental that Jesus was a Jew as were his earliest followers. A whole gamut of Jewish concepts and practices underlies Christian worship to this day. The concept that the saving power of a past event is brought into the present through reenactment is basic whether one is celebrating Passover or Good Friday. The recovering of past events through the observance of commemorative time underlies what both Christians and Jews still do. The experience of God's self-giving through ritual acts is a permanent part of Christian sacraments just as it is in Jewish worship. We cannot tell precisely how the Jewish understanding of the way to give thanks taught Christians to do so except that early eucharistic prayers show Christians learned the lesson well from Judaism. And even where early Christians might have found mentors in the pagan world, as in concepts of sacrifice, they preferred only Jewish teachers (Heb. 9:11-14). Christians may have turned the world upside down but in the form and content of their worship it was still recognizably a Jewish world.


We begin by looking at how the early churches signified the making of a Christian. There seems to be unanimity in this period in the practice of baptism as the means of identifying converts and including them within the Christian community. But details beyond the central act of a water bath are often indistinct.

Baptism had high authority in that the Lord himself had submitted to it at the beginning of his public ministry. All four gospels attest to this although not without some embarrassment (Matthew 3:15) since Jesus was sinless. For John the Baptist was preaching a baptism of repentance in the context of the last times. Some of John's converts were still around twenty years later (Acts 18:25; 19:1-7) but by then Christian communities had experienced a new reality of baptism, the activity of the Holy Spirit. In different ways but with similar effect, all four gospels portrayjesus' baptism as a theophany of the Holy Spirit. Matthew expresses this as a promise: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matt. 3:11).

The early churches were engaged primarily in a missionary undertaking so it is not strange that baptism is the best documented rite in the New Testament. According to John, Jesus' disciples began baptizing shortly after his baptism (John 4:2). Jesus equated baptism with his death (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50) and this combination of baptismal and burial images became a perennial theme, still reflected in baptism today.

Baptism becomes the response expected from apostolic preaching. Pentecost may be the most dramatic instance: "Peter said to them, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you'.... So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added" (Acts 2:38, 41). The pattern is familiar: the word is preached, hearers become believers, they repent, and then are baptized. Making disciples leads to baptizing them.

All of this is done with urgency for they live at the edge of time and are prepared to enter a new age. Christian sacraments all have a strong eschatological flavor. Even marriage is a foretaste of the Kingdom, symbolized in Orthodox churches by the act of crowning the couple, as rulers of a new kingdom, the family. Baptism may be the most eschatological of all; it introduces one into a new community where the first fruits of the Kingdom are found. One rises from the watery grave of baptism in a new body, the Church, where the Holy Spirit dwells. One lives born again, having been cleansed of sin in passing through the waters. Baptism is initiation into God's new Kingdom of which the Church is a colony on earth. The eucharist is a lifelong renewal of baptism's initial foretaste of God's Kingdom.

The New Testament gives fascinating hints about the form and practice of baptism but we must not speculate beyond the actual evidence. It is tempting to take what we know from subsequent sources and read it back into this earliest period, but that produces more speculation than fact. But we can garner some information about the candidates, the actual practice, the formula used, the material, and attendant ceremonies. And we have even more evidence on how the act itself was interpreted.

The most vexing question, of course, is the age of candidates. Were they only adults, capable of professing faith themselves, or were families including small children also baptized? There is no direct evidence either for or against the baptism of infants in the New Testament churches. Those who are disinclined to baptize infants cite passages such as Mark 16:16 "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved" or Acts 2:38 "Repent, and be baptized." But those who baptize infants counter with the four household (oikos) passages which speak of the baptism of households: I Cor. 1:16 (Stephanas), Acts 16:15 (Lydia), Acts 16:33 (Philippianjailer), and Acts 18:8 (Crispus of Corinth). All of these speak of baptisms of "households," a term which included slaves and clients as well as immediate family.

Our most detailed account of a baptism occurs in Acts 8:35-39, the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. There is instruction, a request for baptism which contains the intriguing word "What is to prevent (kolúei) me from being baptized?", a question and answer as to belief (missing in some early texts), descent into water, Philip baptizes him, and they come up out of the water. It is intriguing for it tells us so much and so little. But the same sequence is still followed in adult baptisms: candidates are examined as to ethical and creedal commitment before being baptized.

The earliest baptismal formula seems to be baptism "in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19:5). This is corroborated by passages such as Acts 2:38 "in the name of Jesus Christ," "in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 8:16), "calling on his name" (Acts 22:16), and Paul's rhetorical question "Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (I Cor. 1:13). In the first century, this formula was probably replaced by the familiar Trinitarian one found in Matthew 28:19, "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The same language is echoed in exactly the same words in the Didache (7). Ever since, virtually all the churches have followed this pattern although the United Pentecostal Church, International insists on the earlier "Jesus only" formula.

The Didache gives us more details as to the water. Running water is preferable, cold water is desired, but lacking these, "pour water on the head three times" (Didache, 7). This suggests that if the rest of the body could not be covered, at least the head should be deluged. The earliest surviving baptismal pools (several centuries later) indicate that the adult candidate stood in water a couple of feet deep while it was poured over his or her head. In addition, baptism, the Didache tells us, is an occasion for fasting by both baptizer and candidates.

Other ceremonies might accompany baptism but no consistent pattern emerges in the biblical accounts. These might include the laying on of hands, which signified and effected the transmission of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit resists our attempts to hold a stop watch on its appearance: at Caesarea it fell on converts before baptism (Acts 10:44 and 47) and Ananias lays hands on Paul at his conversion so he might "be filled with the Holy Spirit" and then he is baptized (Acts 9:17). At other times, its arrival is postponed until sometime after baptism as in Samaria (Acts 8:16). Or at Pentecost it seems to come with baptism (Acts 2:38). The unifying thread seems to be that, unlike the baptism of John, Christian baptism is Spirit-filled. Somehow this is usually manifested in connection with the laying on of hands (Acts 8:18 and 19:6). The same image appears less frequently as sealing "by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts" (II Cor. 1:22).

Presumably, the usual minister of baptism was whoever was in charge of the local congregation. Paul goes out of his way in I Corinthians 1:14-17 to dissociate himself from doing much baptizing: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel" (17). On other occasions, Paul (at Ephesus, Acts 19:5), Ananias, and Philip (probably the deacon), take up this work the disciples had begun (John 4:2).

Baptism was such a universal experience for new Christians that it provided a ready point of reference for Paul and others in interpreting Christianity to recent converts. A variety of baptismal metaphors appears in Paul's epistles and other New Testament books. We cannot exhaust the list here and some are relatively minor: naming the name of the Lord, sealing, putting on Christ (as a garment), and entering the royal priesthood. But the five most important metaphors give us keen insight into what it was presumed baptism meant for early Christians and are reflected in subsequent baptismal rites. All of these metaphors overlap although no systematic presentation of baptism appears in the first two Christian centuries.

Baptism brings union to Christ. This is stated most forcefully in Romans 6:3: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." A similar thought appears in Colossians 2:12. The connection of baptism and death and resurrection becomes a permanent theme in baptism and is dramatized whenever immersion is used ("enough water to die in"). Note that this is union with Christ's person (death and resurrection) and work (priesthood). Thus through baptism all Christians become priests, forming "a royal priesthood" (I Pet. 2:9). This is the basis for the priesthood of all believers as well as the ordination of both women and men.

Closely related to this metaphor of union to Christ is that of incorporation into his body, the Church. Nowhere is this described in such detail as in I Corinthians 12. Verse 13 relates "For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." A similar passage occurs in Galatians 3:28 adding "no longer male and female" and Colossians 3:11 specifies also neither "circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian." Some exegetes would like to believe that a possible baptismal formula exists in these passages although that seems to stretch the evidence. First Corinthians 12 stresses the relatedness of the body's parts and the variety of gifts given to its members for the common good. The whole chapter leads directly to Paul's eulogy of love in Chapter 13 as the greatest of spiritual gifts. All these gifts are given by the Spirit for use in the body where baptism places us.


Excerpted from A Brief History of Christian Worship by James F. White. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James F. White holds the Bard Thompson Chair of Liturgical Studies at Drew University. He previously taught at the Perkins School of Theology for twenty-two years and was professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame until 1999. He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and received its Berakah Award. He also chaired the editorial committee of the Section on Worship of the Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Dr. White holds an A.B. from Harvard, a B.D. from Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Duke University.

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