Spirituality, Worship, and Congregational Life

D. Densil Morgan

in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III

Published in print May 2017 | ISBN: 9780199683710
Published online May 2017 | e-ISBN: 9780191823923 | DOI:

Series: Oxford History Of Dissenting Traditions

Spirituality, Worship, and Congregational Life

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Protestant Dissent was assailed by Anglo-Catholics in England and by the Mercersburg Theologians in the United States for its fissiparous tendencies, sectarian nature, and privileging of emotional conversionism over apostolic order and objective, sacramental religion. Yet this chapter argues that personal conversion was essential to the faith of Dissent and the key to its spirituality, worship, and congregational life. Whether conversion was gradual or instantaneous, it remained the point of entry into the Christian life and the full privileges of church membership. Spurred by the preaching of the gospel and sometimes, but not always, accompanied by the application of the divine law, the earlier underpinning of conversionism in Calvinism gave way to an emphasis on human response. Popular in both the United States and Great Britain, the ‘new measures’ of the Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney, in which burdened souls were called forward to ‘the anxious bench’ and prayerfully incited to undergo the new birth, brought thousands into the churches. However, in more liberal circles especially, conversion had by the end of the century become less of a crisis of guilt and redemption than a smooth progression towards spiritual fullness. Although preaching was often linked, especially in the first part of the century, with revivalist exuberance, it remained a mainstay of congregational life. Mainly expository and practical with a view of building up congregants in the faith, it was accompanied by hymn singing, scriptural readings, public prayers, and the two sacraments or ‘ordinances’ of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Sermons tended to become shorter as the century progressed, from an hour or so to thirty or forty minutes, while the ‘long prayer’, invariably offered by the minister, tended to be didactic in tone. From mid-century onwards, there was a move towards more rounded worship, though congregations would sit (or sometimes stand) for prayer, but not kneel. The liturgical use of the church year with congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer became slowly more acceptable. Communion, either monthly or quarterly, was usually a Zwinglian memorial of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The impact of the temperance movement during the latter part of the century dictated the use of non-alcoholic rather than fermented wine in the Lord’s Supper, while in a reaction to Anglican sacerdotalism, baptism too, whether believers’ baptism or paedo-baptism, progressively lost its sacramental character. Throughout the century, Dissenters sang. In the absence of an externally imposed prayer book or a standardized liturgy, hymns provided them with both devotional aids and a collective identity. Unaccompanied at first, hymn singing, inspired mostly by the muse of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and, in Wales, William Williams, became more disciplined, eventually with organ accompaniment. Even while moving towards a more sophisticated, indeed bourgeois mode, Dissent maintained a vibrant congregational life which prized a simple, biblically based spirituality.

Keywords: baptism; conversion; hymn; Lord’s Prayer; new birth; ordinances; preaching; public prayer; sermon; sacrament

Chapter.  10199 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Christian Theology

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