We have little knowledge of exactly how the Scottish Presbyterian settlers who founded our church originally worshipped, but they likely brought with them the Reformed Protestant practices of the Church of Scotland. A key principle Presbyterians share with other Protestant traditions is the centrality of preaching, and our official church history relates the power of many early pastors’ sermons. Our first pastor, Rev. John Cross, was apparently not only a powerful preacher but also encouraged our church to participate in the first great American revival movement, the Great Awakening. He invited such notable preachers as the English evangelist George Whitfield, who came here in 1740 and preached to a large crowd perhaps under our old oak tree and later all night long in Cross’s barn. Today we continue to make the sermon central to our worship and to be moved by the powerful preaching of our present and recent pastors and notable invited preachers.
The use of music is a feature of worship particularly important to us today that has likely changed dramatically since the early days of our church. Music in Reformed Protestant worship originally consisted only of congregational singing of psalms paraphrased into verse in the vernacular languages and sung to simple melodies. Many of these were taken from Calvin’s Genevan Psalter. Accompaniment by organs or other musical instruments was frowned upon. Today, music forms a key underpinning to our services and we use a wide variety of hymns and musical styles. Choirs, organ or piano, and often other instrumental ensembles including bell choirs lead the music component of our worship. However, like the early Reformed Protestants, we still stress the importance of congregational singing and maintain a vestige of the original Reformed hymnody when we sing the Doxology, a paraphrase of Psalm 100 from the Geneva Psalter. The evolution of our music practice over the years is evidenced in our church records which note the appointment of men to give out the lines of hymns and to lead singing in 1786, the first indication of a “chorister” (choir director) and paid singers around 1820, and our first choir of “eleven men and seven ladies” in 1845. Our current Sanctuary organ was dedicated in 1961, but references to earlier organs appear as early as the middle of the 19th century.
Our Sanctuary, originally build in 1839, reflects the Reformed Protestant principle that worship should be simple with limited decorations and art to distract attention from God and to avoid the worship of “graven images.” We have significantly relaxed over time this rigid simplicity in worship and often include important visual components. We also increasingly offer a variety of styles and spaces for our worship, currently with the more intimate Sunday Chapel service and the informal Saturday Oak Table Service in Westminster Hall to complement our more traditional 10:15 AM Sunday Sanctuary service.
Styles of worship and use of music have evolved significantly over our 300 years, but we remain largely true to our Reformed origins and likely will continue to do so as we move into the future.