To Go Back to “The Old Time Religion,” You Must First Prove That It Is

Dan Tomberlin’s post on the “old time religion” deals with a subject that conveys one thing to one group of people and one thing to another.  The whole business of “religion” has gotten a great deal of press thanks to Jefferson Bethke’s video and this relates to that in an indirect way, but this is as good a time as any for me to “pick a bone” with my colleagues in the Evangelical world on the whole subject of the much-loved “old time religion.”

Up until the Reformation, virtually all Christian worship was liturgical.  After that, surprisingly, not much changed.  The two largest groups of Protestants–Lutherans and Anglicans–stuck with some kind of liturgy for the most part.  The outliers in the process (excluding the Anabaptists) were the Reformed churches, including the Zwinglian ones.  In the early years their reach was surprisingly small–parts of Switzerland, Holland and of course the Huguenots in France.  Their shift towards a “preaching-centred” worship was doubtless fuelled by both a desire to get back to a New Testament style of worship and (especially for the French) to be different from the Roman Catholicism that surrounded them.

The greatest prize for the Reformed religion, however, was Scotland.  John Knox’ zeal for the place was legendary, and that zeal paid off.  The Scots were able to pitch Roman Catholic type of worship in its entirety and still have a state church.

The trout in the milk (then and now) for the Scots are the English.  With James I the two countries had the same monarch; with Charles I same monarch got the idea that the two countries, both with the force of law behind them, should have the same worship.  With Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud at the forefront, the attempt to impose Anglican liturgical worship on the Scottish Kirk came to a head on 23 July 1637, when Jenny Geddes threw her stool at the hapless Dean of Edinburgh, James Hannay, in St. Giles, who was attempting to read the Collect.  One good stool thrown led to another (some Bibles got thrown in the melée,) and with that liturgical worship at St. Giles came to a grinding halt.  The rebuff spread to the rest of the Kirk, and the entire dispute was one of the events that fuelled the English Civil War, in which both Charles I and Laud lost their heads and both England and Scotland ended up with Oliver Cromwell.  (Those years in Scotland were also the beginning of the Celtic Protestant obsession with the whole business of “covenant,” and that hasn’t stopped either.)

Eventually Cromwell and his progeny passed and the Crown was restored along with true Anglican worship in England.  As for the Scots, eventually their independence was ended in the Union.  The English, however, seeing discretion was the better part of valour, left the Kirk’s worship as it was.  Many of the Scots, enclosed from their land and their independence, sought refuge in the “colonies,” where they had as little use for English worship and liturgy here as they did back home.  One thing led to another and the preacher-centred worship that is the hallmark of Evangelical churches became very much the rule in American Protestant churches, and this in turn was spread to other parts of the world.  It even was passed to Pentecostal churches, who claimed that only the Spirit of God led the worship.

Now, with music lyrics projected on screens and repetitious (and occasionally homoerotic) choruses becoming the norm, many long for the “old-time religion” of brush arbors, clapboard churches, revivals and (most importantly) Southern Gospel music.  But is it really “old-time?”  From the standpoint of Christian history, the answer is no.  And it should be noted that many of those whose ideas are enshrined in the “old-time religion” knew that this was the case.  Charles Finney, for example, introduced things such as the “anxious bench” (the ancestor of the modern Evangelical altar and the altar call) under the supposition that the New Testament never laid out the specifics for Christian worship and the methods by which souls might  be brought to Jesus.  He referred to many of the innovations as “new measures,” and spent some time lampooning those who stood for their own “old time religion.”  Today we see Finney’s construct being defended as the “old time religion” that’s good enough, but neither history or Finney would see it that way.

Now with even the pastor of this continent’s oldest continuing Pentecostal church admitting that we actually follow a type of liturgy in our worship, it’s time to come clean with ourselves on this subject.  If we really want to get back to an “old time religion” that’s worthy of the name, we will end the innovations of those from Zwingli to Knox to Finney and beyond and return to real liturgical worship, along with ending the endless schism and spawn of autocephalous institutions we have to support all of this.  If we don’t we need to say that we do what we do in the way we do it so “…that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God–and that, through your belief in his Name, you may have Life.” (John 20:31)  We waste far too much time in Evangelical Christianity–especially on this continent–making our Christian life an endless appeal to the past when we either need to move forward with the mission we have at hand or actually go back to something more firmly rooted in the history of the church. (And that, BTW, doesn’t obviate the need for the mission, as the Anglicans have found out of late.)

As I like to say, it’s our move: we need to make it.

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