A Brief History of Christian Worship


White, James F. A Brief History of Christian Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

To fully grasp and appreciate the vast diversity found within present-day Christian worship requires an objective examination of the practices of those who have gone before. United Methodist author James F. White, professor of Liturgical Studies at Drew University and visiting professor at Yale, wrote A Brief History of Christian Worship to chronologically explore and elucidate Christian worship in six time periods or “branches” that spring from common ancient roots. He describes worship in the New Testament era, the early Christian centuries, the Middle Ages, the Reformation period, modern times, and ends with a brief glimpse toward churches of the future. Written from a North American perspective that distinguishes his volume from other Christian histories, White argues that the “vastness of variety in the Christian experience of worship” still maintains a “coherence that unites the various expressions in time and place.” (10). To develop this argument, White concisely summarizes the various known practices of Christians throughout the ages, affirming that “the primary liturgical document in any period is the worshipping community itself.” (14).

White states that whenever there has been a time of renewal in the church, the faithful have “aspired to reach back to the principles and practices of the first Christian century,” the “gold standard” by which everything that follows is measured (13). The author notes the equalizing nature of baptism that “transcends all human distinctions” (15) and the commonality of reenactment—the way in which the commemoration of God’s actions in human history “underlies what both Christians and Jews still do.” (16).

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Following the New Testament era, the next five hundred years and beyond saw “enormous changes” in worship that are outlined in much greater detail in extant historical documents; many of the practices described are still in current use (40). To demonstrate the “living and dying” of ancient Christians, White examines such topics as public prayer, the Eucharist, the keeping of Christian time, preaching, leadership, marriage and burial rites, church music, and architecture. From his examination of Christian worship, White seeks to “trace a few major trajectories” because its shared heritage and interconnectedness is of crucial importance in understanding the development of the various traditions of Protestant worship after the Reformation (75­–76).

White concludes with a restatement of his thesis that the God whom Christians worship “seems to relish diversity” in practices that still manage to “contain a unity in essentials.” Additionally, White indicates that each worshipping community has its own unique offering to contribute to the “totality of Christian worship.” (180). Because of its objective tone and concise writing style, this volume would be useful in both academic and church settings. For readers who seek additional information on the topics discussed, the author also provides helpful bibliographies at the end of each chapter for further reading. White ends the book with an expression of hope that the Holy Spirit who “has not left us speechless” throughout the centuries “will continue to give us many new voices” in worship (180).