/ worship / Robert Kelbe

Reverence and Emotion in Reformed Worship Part 2

This is the second in a three-part series on the role of emotion in Reformed worship (Part 1 is here). In these articles, I argue for the necessity and importance of emotion in worship. We must avoid the "frozen chosen" caricature of emotionless formalism. At the same time, however, outward displays of emotion should be self-controlled to prevent the opposite extreme of emotional formalism, in which believers are pressured to conform to outward acts of emotional expression.

The Puritans (1600s)

The Puritans in the 1600s continued the legacy of the Reformers by seeking to purify the worship of the Church of England. The crowning documents of the Puritans were the Westminster Standards, completed in 1646. In The Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Westminster Divines describe how the congregation ought to assemble for worship:

Let all enter the assembly, not irreverently, but in a grave and seemly manner, taking their seats or places without adoration, or bowing themselves towards one place or other.
The congregation being assembled, the minister, after solemn calling on them to the worshipping of the great name of God is to begin with prayer.
In all reverence and humility acknowledging the incomprehensible greatness and majesty of the Lord, (in whose presence they do then in a special manner appear,) and their own vileness and unworthiness to approach so near him, with their utter inability of themselves to so great a work; and humbly beseeching him for pardon, assistance, and acceptance, in the whole service then to be performed; and for a blessing on that particular portion of his word then to be read: And all in the name and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Reverent, grave, seemly, solemn – these adjectives convey a seriousness about worship that seems to preclude external expressions of emotion. But this language is not to suppose that the Puritans did not value emotion. In fact, the Puritans were “intensely self-conscious of – and, indeed, fascinated by – their own emotions.”[1] Many Puritans looked to their own spiritual experience for evidences of God working in their lives.[2] For the Puritans, reverence in worship did not stifle the emotions, but channeled them so that they ran deeper. Speaking of early modern Protestants, historian Alec Ryrie writes:

Certainly they observed and disciplined their emotions with unusual rigour … But channeling a current only makes it run swifter and deeper. Nor did the early modern Protestants discipline their emotions because they wished to suppress them. Rather, they believed that the emotions – or “affections”, “feelings” or “passions”, to use their preferred terms – could be guides on the road to godliness, supports when the road became hard, and invaluable testimonies that the destination was within reach. Protestants disciplined their emotions because they mattered.[3]

For the Puritans, the emotional and rational faculties of man are both necessary for true spiritual worship. The emotions are the wind in the sails and the proper response to the saving knowledge of God. Indeed, the chief end of man, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1, is “to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.” The Puritans “were more alarmed by too little emotion than by too much.”[4]

Due to the fallenness of man, however, the emotions do not always respond as they should. It is possible to manufacture emotions which are divorced from true spiritual understanding. It is equally possible to lack the intensity of emotion proper to a true spiritual understanding. The Puritans asserted the ontological priority of the rational will over the emotions, both to awaken emotion and direct it to the proper ends.[5] Reverence in worship is a means of focusing on the means of grace – word, sacraments, and prayer, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 88 – in order that truth leads emotion in worship, rather than the other way around.

Great Awakenings (1700s and 1800s)

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America witnessed two revivals of religion called the First and Second Great Awakenings. These awakenings were often accompanied by dramatic physical and emotional responses which the church was forced to wrestle with and interpret. Were they legitimate, or illegitimate? Were they necessarily reflective of an inward spiritual reality? Should they be encouraged, or discouraged? The answers to these questions will inform the discussion on emotional expression in worship.

In his book, Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray distinguishes between revival as a sovereign work of God and revivalism as an attempt to manufacture revival by manipulating the emotions.[6] The former generally characterized the First Great Awakening in the mid-1700s, while the latter became increasingly prevalent during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, under the influence of Charles Finney.

Even during the First Great Awakening, revivals often resulted in unusual phenomena such as falling, trembling, twitching, singing, and shouting.[7] Iain Murray argues, however, that these phenomena were not the work of the Spirit, but instead hindered the work of the Spirit. “The course of a revival,” he writes, “is directly related to the manner in which such excitement is handled by its leaders.”[8] The discerning ministers aimed to dampen the emotional response so that the work of the Spirit could continue. In the Second Great Awakening, Edward Griffin recounted to Asahel Nettleton a revival that began with great weeping. “But,” he continues, “this excitement of animal feelings, incident to the commencement of revivals of religion, soon subsided, and the work has proceeded in profound silence.”[9]

In contrast to these pastors, revivalists like Charles Finney believed that they could manufacture revivals by “new measures,” such as protracted meetings and altar calls.[10] Ultimately these means were intended to stimulate emotion in order to induce a response to the Gospel.[11] The unfortunate result of relying on emotional technique rather than the means of grace was that the results did not last. The majority of his supposed converts showed, in time, that they were not truly converted.[12]

The emotional frenzy produced by these new measures was only a counterfeit manifestation of the true work of the Spirit. The characteristic emotion of true revival was not unrestrained emotion, but solemnity. The divine encounters of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John agree with the purest instances of revival that, “it is reverence, humility, and stillness rather than noise and excitement which mark the nearness of God to a people.”[13] It follows that the solemnity enjoined in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship is compatible with true spiritual experience.



[1]Alec Ryrie and Tom Schwanda, eds., Puritanism and Emotion in the Early Modern World (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, c2016), 7.

[2]Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, c2013), 41.

[3]Ibid., [17].

[4]Ibid., 20.

[5]Ryrie and Schwanda, eds., Puritanism and Emotion in the Early Modern World, 8.

[6]Ian H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, c1994).

[7]Ibid., 164.

[8]Ibid., 163.

[9]Ibid., 210.

[10]Ibid., 242.

[11]Ibid., 241-242.

[12]Ibid., 289.

[13]Ibid., 211. Firsthand accounts of this solemnity can be found on pages 138 to 140.