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By the Vision of Another World: Worship in American History

By the Vision of Another World: Worship in American History

by James D. Bratt (Editor)

This book samples the rich variety of worship practices in American history to show how worship can be a fruitful subject for historians to study and, alternatively, how past case studies can enrich our understanding of worship today.

By the Vision of Another World gathers highly regarded historians and other scholars who usually are not read together


This book samples the rich variety of worship practices in American history to show how worship can be a fruitful subject for historians to study and, alternatively, how past case studies can enrich our understanding of worship today.

By the Vision of Another World gathers highly regarded historians and other scholars who usually are not read together because of the widely different subject areas in which they typically work. Yet their essays all fit together here as they address how worship, work, and worldview converge and reinforce each other no matter what particular place, era, denomination, or ethnic group is under consideration. The variety of methodologies and voices will appeal to a breadth of critical interests, while the consistently high quality of historical narrative will keep readers engaged.

Dorothy C. Bass
James D. Bratt
Ruth Alden Doan
Paul Harvey
George M. Marsden
Timothy Matovina
Harry S. Stout
Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Michael Woods
Joyce Ann Zimmerman

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Leanne Van Dyk
— Western Theological Seminary
"This book offers a genuine contribution to multiple fields of study, including American history, liturgical studies, and practical theology. It succeeds in deeply integrating and mutually illuminating these fields with wit, warmth, and wisdom. The challenge of ranging so widely across disciplines is remarkably met and mastered. Readers will reflect meaningfully on the many particular shapes of American religion and worship in their contexts of ethnicity, culture, class, and worldview."

Christian Librarian 
“There is much to enjoy in this fine collection. . . . A strong compilation that should prove useful for both students and practitioners of American church life.”
Journal of Southern History 
“With its focus on human experience and lived communities, this volume provides a treasure trove of diverse perspectives on worship.”
Christian Scholar’s Review 
“Each essay successfully opens a window into the complex interrelations and interaction of worship, work and worldview of a particular community at a particular time and place.”
Choice (American Library Association) 
“A collection of historical essays examining how worship practices interacted with and altered theological doctrine in the US. . . . This book should prove valuable to historians examining religion in the US as well as to contemporary Christians seeking a historical perspective on their liturgical practices and rituals. Recommended.”

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

By the Vision of Another World

Worship in American History

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 James D. Bratt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6710-0

Chapter One

Liturgy, Literacy, and Worship in Puritan Anglo-America, 1560-1670

Harry S. Stout

Although my particular focus in this essay will be on Anglo-American Puritan liturgy in the seventeenth century, it is important to see this movement as the outgrowth of a profound and often rancorous set of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates that erupted between the state Church of England, supported by the Crown and Parliament, and the dissenting counterculture of Puritanism, whose seedbed was Geneva and the English universities, especially Cambridge University. In significant ways these two battling traditions would shape the evolution of churches and congregations in early America. Members of the Church of England would be especially strong in the Chesapeake and to a lesser extent New York, while Puritans would be especially strong in New England. Both functioned effectively in their regions as "established" churches which enjoyed the support and coercive energies of their governments. Puritan "dissenters" and Anglican "establishmentarians" stood as the ecclesiastical paradigm alongside which other traditions and movements understood themselves and their distinctives. As case studies they are indispensable for understanding the subsequent evolution of liturgical practice in American congregations.

In exploring Puritan liturgy and worship, in England and New England, it is important to understand how decisively worship shaped all of Puritan life including church, state, economy, schools, and families. Far from being incidental or irrelevant to the Puritans' revolutionary ideology, a text-based liturgy and worship served as the mobilizing trigger and master organizer of the Puritan state.

Nowhere were Puritans in England and New England more radical and unique than in their worship and liturgy. Their lack of a printed liturgy, together with a "plain style" rhetoric in preaching, prompted Anglican critics to recoil in horror at the theological betrayal they witnessed. Far from being more "pure," these Puritans appeared to established churchmen to be just the opposite: sacrilegious and even profane. In a sermon preached during the Commonwealth period when English Puritans executed their king and established a "holy Commonwealth" under Oliver Cromwell, Bishop Jeremy Taylor had occasion to remark on the "profaneness" of Puritans who "neglect the exterior part of Religion: and this is so vile a crime, that hypocrisie while it is undiscovered is not so much mischeveous as open profaneness, or a neglect and contempt of external religion." Although the Puritan was many things, the Anglican sense of nonconformity-as-profane is difficult for the historian to understand. Judged by their words and actions — to say nothing of later stereotypes — the Puritans appear to be anything but profane. The voluminous literature on Puritanism habitually fastens on their intense inner spirituality expressed among other places in the new literary genre of the spiritual autobiography; an unprecedented degree of lay involvement and theological sophistication; an almost obsessive attention to Sabbath-keeping and sermon attendance; a proclivity for extemporaneous "heartfelt" prayer; and an unflinching loyalty to sola Scriptura as the only rule of faith and life. Their very title "Puritan" addressed the fervent religious faith which was their most distinctive quality.

Yet at the same time that historians have given the Puritans high marks for piety, they have recognized that it was a piety rooted in far different impulses than that which drove earlier religious movements. If the Puritans were zealous it was a zeal marked by liturgical iconoclasm as much as spiritual renewal; and if they were religious it was a type of religiosity that was self-evidently novel and revolutionary in implication. As Bishop Taylor's complaint suggests, the seventeenth-century sense of profane had less to do with atheistic beliefs and a godless lifestyle than with attitudes toward the "external" forms of rituals and worship. And on this level his accusation is not so misplaced. Puritans did run roughshod over liturgical conventions that had governed Christian worship for millennia and, in that fact alone, did more to pave the way for their revolutionary society than any other cause.

When Puritan worship is examined in the anthropological categories of ritual and belief, the Anglican charge carries with it a fundamental insight into the nature of Puritanism which has largely been ignored by historians. Indeed, Taylor's sense of the profane residing in attitudes toward ritual forms coincides with a broad body of contemporary anthropological literature that distinguishes ("sacred") traditional cultures from ("profane") modern cultures primarily in their contrasting attitudes toward ritual, tradition, and social authority. At some point in the history of Western culture the faith in inherited ritual forms disappeared and was replaced by a "modern" religious-like faith in what Max Weber first termed "legal-rational" modes of organizing society and supplying cultural meaning. "Moderns" picture society as a social contract between consenting autonomous individuals. The official bond of society is content not form, written constitutions eternally preserved in print. Rituals such as presidential inaugurations, royal coronations, or military parades are perceived as a mere embellishment of political realities.

While very successful in pointing out the chasm separating traditional cultures from modern, anthropologists are less successful in delineating how that transformation took place. Where are the fault-lines separating traditional from modern? And what might liturgy and worship have to do with them? Before the modern faith in reason-over-ritual could triumph, the older faith in traditional institutions upheld by ceremonial forms had to be undermined. This, I would argue, is precisely what Puritans achieved in their worship and it spilled over into all other walks of life in ways that are now recognizably "modern" and "ideological." While notable scholars like Max Weber and Michael Walzer have discussed the Puritans' modernity in terms of capitalism and political ideology, they failed to identify the fountainhead of this revolution in Puritan worship. In the following pages I will suggest that Puritanism represented a critical transition or fault-line that unintentionally eroded faith in the traditional sacred cosmos and paved the way for a modern society bound together by ideological consensus rather than inherited ceremonial forms. Despite their intense religiosity the Puritans inadvertently paved the way for new secular bases of order by calling into question and condemning traditional notions that things are the way they are because they have always been that way. The argument set forth in this essay is necessarily abstract in that it fastens on only one dimension (worship) of Puritan religious life. It is not meant to imply that Puritans were modern or, for that matter, that Anglicans were traditional. In terms of their attachment to a view of the universe that was essentially static and religious the Puritans remained close to the medieval world which spawned them. But in their attitudes toward traditional ceremonies and nonverbal ritual they shared more with modern people than with their medieval forebears. They were (again in Weber's terminology) a "transitional" or "charismatic" movement which served as a bridge between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern.

The secularizing potential of Puritanism is perhaps most apparent in their hostile attitudes toward existing forms of worship. And here we must be sensitive not only to how their attitudes diverged from that which preceded them in the Christian tradition, but also why they differed so dramatically. Political or economic explanations are not in themselves sufficient explanations. They miss internal cultural sources that are to be discovered primarily on the level of language and communications. Though notoriously difficult to define in sociological categories, the least that can be said of the Puritans who would inaugurate the godly Commonwealth and settle the New World is that they were almost universally literate. They were the first English-speaking movement to be legitimately characterized as a "people of the Book" and, as such, were clearly set apart from traditional, "aural" cultures. Is there a connection between print, literacy, and worship that can help us to understand the destructive attitudes toward ritual and ceremony?

In his introduction to a collection of essays on the history of Jewish and Christian faith communities, historian John Van Engen urges scholars of religion to consider the primary media of communications in different faith communities as a way of understanding the particularities of various religious groups. In particular he focuses on literacy: "What of the difference between the literate and the nonliterate, manuscript culture and print culture? Did practices and materials appeal to the eye, as in images, stained glass windows, and icons? Or to the ear, as in sung prayers, preached sermons, and hymns? Or to the mind by way of printed instructions, catechisms, devotional books?"

The questions Van Engen raises come to the very core of what made Puritans unique and modern. Literacy mattered. And it mattered decisively. Puritans emerged as the first English-speaking faith community to employ the "tools" of literacy to construct entirely new conceptions of religion and right living. Liturgy, in Van Engen's terms, "formed" a particular "practice" not only on Sunday, but through all aspects of life.


Before the Puritans, Christian worship and liturgy was necessarily "aural" and non-literate. In its broadest sense liturgy means simply "service" to God. It signifies the external forms through which public worship is enacted. For traditional religious communities public worship constituted the primary ritual of solidarity that grounded religion beneath the realm of speculative ideas and into the arena of experience and group participation. The recognition that Christian worship existed prior to doctrine led the liturgicologist R. P. C. Hanson to argue that "when we trace the development of patristic literature we discover something of how the intellectuals thought. But when we trace the development of Christian worship we are seeing theology at its grass-roots, theology from the inside, the theology of the ordinary man." Like the coronation of a king or the invocation of parliament, the forms and settings of religious worship are filled with cultural messages that the historian needs to interpret.

Besides the theological significance of liturgy and worship as prior to and more foundational to faith than ideas and "doctrines," there is also a powerful ritual significance to liturgy that was richly developed in the classic work of historian of religion Mircea Eliade. Although primarily concerned with pre-literate or non-literate religious communities, Eliade provides a theoretical focus that is broad enough to include an analysis of Christian worship in the Puritan era. Eliade insisted that ritual cannot be understood as epiphenomenal, for it is an irreducible element of religion that must be explained in its own terms. Amassing evidence from a broad range of religious traditions across time and space, Eliade refuted the assumption that culture was originally secular and that only in the course of time were mundane objects consecrated to the sacred inventions of man. This (modern) assumption actually reverses the historical sequence, for in all traditional cultures nature was perceived as a bearer of the sacred. Occasional and regular "hierophanies" manifested the holy in a direct, visible manner. Natural objects were worshiped, Eliade argued, "precisely because they [were] hierophanies, because they show[ed] something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred." Because persons can communicate and understand the unknown only in terms of the known, they regarded the natural rhythms of work and nature as revealing a supernatural meaning higher than their natural sense.

In traditional cultures the categories of space and time are neither linear nor uniform. To protect themselves from a hostile environment, traditional societies lived as close as they could to special, sacred places. Profane space assumed meaning only when oriented around the absolute point of departure at the "center of the universe": "religious man's desire to live in the sacred is in fact equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality, not to let himself be paralyzed by the never-ceasing relativity of purely subjective experiences, to live in a real and effective world, not in an illusion." Sacred time, moreover, is not linear but cyclical; it is past events ritually made present. The notion of unilinear mechanical or digital time stands in stark contrast to sacred time which, "by its very nature ... is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is primordial mythical time made present. Every religious festival, any liturgical time, represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past...." Typically the solar year provided the cycles for ritual celebrations and renewal. By entering into sacred space and time traditional societies came into contact with the source of life and, in so doing, gained some measure of control over their lives.

In such a world, ceremony and ritual are more important than any other human activities. Religious rites are stereotyped and highly coded channels of communication through which the community of faith enters sacred time and space. They constitute the primary forms through which reality is ultimately perceived. As Emile Durkheim first suggested, ritual celebrations create and sustain community. Without them society ceases to exist.


Eliade recognized both continuities and discontinuities when applying the broad comparative framework of myth and ritual to the evolution of Christian worship. What made Christianity so innovative was the existence of the God-man Jesus Christ living in historical space and time. Nature was no longer the sole or primary bearer of the sacred, and the faith did not rely on myths from primordial time, ab origine, to sanctify existence. The "supreme theophany" of Jesus Christ meant that history surpassed nature as the primary bearer of the sacred and that myths would rely on Christ's spoken words (the "gospel") witnessed to and recorded by contemporary apostles.

The Christians' unequivocal appeal to their one true God created what H. Richard Niebuhr termed the "enduring problem" of reconciling the exclusive claim of Christianity with a "pagan" civilization attuned to universal natural symbols. For the early church the primary problem became reconciling the unique historical event of Jesus Christ with long-familiar natural hierophanies. In dealing with primitive people who instinctively perceived reality through ritual forms the church could only communicate its faith in kind. Christian missionaries practiced a liturgical syncretism that incorporated pagan symbols and rituals into the Christian message. Peasant images and festivals were retained and their meaning was altered to fit the Christian framework. To communicate its message the Catholic Church relied heavily upon highly visual imagery and the sacraments. Because there were neither vernacular Bibles nor literate readers, worship was centered around action and ceremony rather than sacred vernacular texts and doctrinal comprehension.

The implications of mystery and natural symbolism for worship were not obvious. Pagan rites and rituals, sacred calendars, and vestments were not discarded but instead retained as symbols that actively manifested the "saving mystery" of the Christ event. Daniel Sullivan described the relationship of Catholic Christianity with natural symbols as one of unification: "In the new revelation the old cosmic cycle is broken, and a new symbolic dimension is disclosed: God reveals Himself in the singular, historic event as well as in the universal cosmic cycles and the historic revelation gives to the cosmic symbolism itself an inner meaning which it did not have before; the cosmic itself is brought into line with the historic." Because natural symbols and non-verbal gestures were believed to be meaning-bearing just as words were, worship was highly ceremonial. The church itself was the indispensable sacrament and the external forms of worship were as intrinsically sacred and meaningful as the spoken proclamation. The performance of ritual actions within the church became the necessary precondition to salvation.


Excerpted from By the Vision of Another World Copyright © 2012 by James D. Bratt. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 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 D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College andcoeditor of Perspectives: A Journal of ReformedThought. His other books include DutchCalvinism in Modern America and AntirevivalisminAntebellum America.

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