SATURDAY READING: Kneeling In Prayer by Abraham Kuyper

Kneeling In Prayer by Abraham Kuyper

From Our Worship

It is appropriate to say a few words about kneeling in prayer, especially in connection with the “Prayer of Confession of Sin.”  We should realize that in this question also custom does not make liturgical law.  The present custom in our churches is for men to stand during prayer and for women to remain seated, while one kneels only at adult baptisms, when a minister is ordained, and at wedding services.  This may not hold true for all churches.  It is possible that in remote communities kneeling is also done on other occasions, but in the majority of our churches the custom, mentioned above, is followed, possibly with this minor variation, that some men remain seated even when others rise for prayer.

Kneeling Is Appropriate

It should be noted, however, that this has definitely not always been the case in our Reformed churches.  When the great Synod of Dordrecht convened in 1618, the delegates discovered that in that church it was a normal practice for all, men and women, to kneel during prayer.  And it is also well known that in our field services and in our earliest church services people always prayed on their knees.  Even now, we sing the psalm that says, “Come, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker and Redeemer” – except, nobody kneels.  It is true that in our homes we still kneel.  We do it before going to bed, and many still do it in the family circle during morning and evening prayer.  Scripture also speaks about kneeling all the time, in both Old and New Testament.

In short, the common idea, “Do not kneel in church because it is Roman Catholic,” can be regarded only as very superficial.  Precisely in the days of the martyrs, when the battle with Rome was most intense, our fathers always prayed in church on their knees.  Kneeling as such is nothing more than having your body assume a posture that symbolizes the soul bowing before the majesty of God.  And this is not in the first place to make the body convey what lives in the soul, but rather to deepen and strengthen the action of the soul through the harmonious cooperation of body and soul.

The evening prayer on one’s knees remains for every child of God his most heartfelt prayer; it truly represents his prayer life.  He kneels, not to be seen by people, for usually he is alone, but because the posture of praying on one’s knees best reflects a person’s inner attitude.  This holds true not only for the body, but also for the soul.

To pray while standing is always somewhat tiresome.  It is particularly difficult for many churchgoers to stand quietly, especially during the long and protracted prayers some ministers still insist on.  The person, while standing in a pew, will try to support his body by leaning with his hands or arms on the pew.  He constantly moves his feet.  Time and again he takes on a different position.  Many who stand during long prayers become so preoccupied with the difficulty of standing up, that the effort involved distracts them from true prayer, instead of helping them.

However, if we kneel by our bed or a chair for the evening prayer, this objection no longer holds.  The body does not need to be sustained in that position; in fact, the body rests.  We forget about our body and are able to devote ourselves completely to the spiritual.  It also is well for “mighty man” when, at least once a day, he bows before God’s majesty.  It is as if we humble ourselves intentionally when we kneel, so that God may be exalted in our thoughts.

Puritan Influence

The question arises why the practice of kneeling in our churches was abandoned.  It is a fact that at the beginning of the Reformation kneeling was an accepted practice in the Roman Catholic Church, both for prayer and when receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  History also confirms that the practice was retained during the first century following the Reformation.

The change came from across the sea as the result of the struggle of the Puritans against the Episcopal Church of England.  That church deliberately attributed value to many rituals that the Puritans contested.  The Puritans felt that, although the Episcopal Church had broken with the primacy of the pope, it continued to float in the old stream.  It did so primarily by emphasizing the practice of kneeling, in addition to a number of other rituals.  Kneeling was elevated to a religion of sorts.  It was as if kneeling was a “good deed,” an act of piety.  And to this the Puritans objected.  They recognized the danger, so evident today in England, that this strong attachment to rituals might lead again to the false principle that rituals have inherent value.  They feared the power of ritualism.

We have to admit, however, that the Puritans went too far in this.  In their zeal to avoid the danger of ritualism they failed to see that there must be certain formalities in a worship service, even though we always make sure that the formalities agree with what is holy and are not in conflict with it.  If they had not exaggerated this issue so much, they would undoubtedly have retained a large segment of the population that has gradually returned to the Episcopal Church.  But the nature of their English character did not allow this.  What they did they wanted to do radically.  And this explains why in their zeal against rituals they also targeted kneeling, and insisted that all kneeling in the church should be abolished as a Roman Catholic ritual.  The influence of the English Nonconformists on our Dutch churches, and especially on strict Reformed circles, has been considerable from the very first.  This is due mainly to the fact that in England and Scotland, more so than here, the practical aspect of life was studied more, and that their authors used a more popular writing style.

The transition from kneeling in prayer to standing took place in the time of the great theologian Gijsbert Voetius (1589–1676).  He tells us of the peculiar contradiction that in his day, in some localities, people began to object to kneeling out of superspiritual motives, while in other localities, where Roman Catholics were still in the majority, the minister urged people to kneel in the pews, to avoid the appearance that we were less respectful in our churches than the Roman Catholics.

Voetius relates how during the Synod of Dordrecht (1618) kneeling was still a common practice in all the churches there.  He observed the same in the city of Utrecht.  Thus he took a stand against the superspiritual people and defended kneeling.  He argued this not as a law to be imposed, but as a good practice, because (1) this is what Godly people did in the Old and New Testament; (2) ministers had recommended it from of old; (3) it was practiced in the churches from the beginning and continued through the ages; (4) in his day the practice was still held in high esteem in most of the Reformation churches abroad; (5) also in our country, it was the custom in the days of the martyrs; and (6) in general there can be no objection to assuming a meek and humble attitude when approaching the face of God.  The only thing Voetius objected to was for people to attach religious value to kneeling, and also that one might encourage the delusion that prayer without kneeling could not be a proper prayer.

Historical Perspective

To understand all this, it is well to look at the situation historically.  In our large, old church buildings it was customary in the earlier days of the Roman hierarchy, and for many centuries thereafter, to bury people in the church.  This made it necessary to empty the entire nave of the church after a worship service.  In those days there were no pews for government officials, or for the consistory, or for important members of the congregation.  There were pews, but only in the choir area.  In the nave of the church there were only single chairs, and these had to be picked up after the service and stacked in a pile on the side.

At the next service people would take a chair from the pile, and put it anywhere they pleased for the dual purpose of kneeling on it for prayer and using it as a seat.  This still happens in many Roman Catholic churches.

That mobility was also promoted by the different places a member chose to be during the Mass and during the sermon.  During the Mass people moved forward toward the choir area, and positioned their chairs in such a way that they could see the altar.  But during the sermon they gathered in the nave around the pulpit with their chairs facing the minister.  These chairs were, and still are, so constructed that the back was higher and the seat lower than an ordinary chair; a flat board was attached to the back of the chair for elbow support while kneeling on the seat.

When these church buildings were transferred to Reformed church councils, the choir area was cordoned off because the Mass was abolished, but otherwise people kept following the old customs.  They used the available prayer-chairs, which were stacked in a pile at the conclusion of the service to keep the nave free for funerals.  At the next service people entering the church would take a chair from the stack and put it wherever they liked in front of the pulpit.  The chairs were not put close together, but with sufficient room in between so that they could be used for kneeling.  People would get up, turn their chairs around with the back toward the pulpit, and kneel on them for prayer.  Sometimes distinguished ladies would even send their maids ahead to put a chair in place, and then, when the lady appeared, the maid would get up and give the chair to her lady.  (This was a custom consistories sought to abolish.)  Such were the customs for about a century after the Reformation, but gradually things began to change.

The esteemed magistrates wanted to be acknowledged officially in church as representatives of the confessional government, and desired to have separate pews.  Those pews were usually positioned across from the pulpit between the pillars, and they were elevated above the chairs to indicate the elevated position of the occupants.  Following their example, the ecclesiastical office bearers wanted to have similar “status” pews, and thus the so-called baptismal railing was built around the pulpit, creating an area with pews for the ministers, elders, and deacons, while the church wardens, who were mostly appointed by the city government, often had a seat assigned to them either to the left or to the right of the government pews.

But these fixed pews of the consistory and government officials made kneeling impossible.  There was no room to do so.  That is how the habit of standing for prayer originated.  And this new custom affected the people using chairs, of course, so that gradually they abandoned the custom of kneeling and followed the example of standing during prayer.  Add to this the population increase and the subsequent lack of room in the churches, which made it necessary to place the chairs so close together that turning them around for prayer became more and more difficult, especially for women.  According to Voetius, many women rose for prayer and prayed standing already in his time.

Thus the influence of the English Nonconformists, combined with practical difficulties, caused the custom of kneeling for prayer to fall into disuse.  And when the old chairs eventually had to be replaced, the wardens provided a different kind of chair that was suitable for sitting but not for kneeling.

Voetius also says the use of foot warmers contributed to the demise of kneeling.  As is still the case in some large churches, the congregation is expected to sit in totally unheated buildings for two hours, even on the coldest of days.  It is hard to imagine how much sickness and death this must have caused.  This led to the custom of women coming to church carrying a foot warmer with a copper handle, while the ladies had their maidservants bring their foot warmers for them.  Naturally, this use of foot warmers made it more difficult to turn the chairs around.

For quite some time there was a great deal of confusion.  One person would kneel, the next one would stand, while a third person would remain seated.  Some ministers would urge people to kneel, while others encouraged them to stand.  Gradually one custom prevailed, and when, in addition, the idea came across from England that kneeling was actually a Roman Catholic remnant, kneeling finally was discontinued.  In fact, people became so suspicious of it that Voetius already had to defend kneeling against all kinds of charges.  And, as far as standing or sitting was concerned, it gradually became customary for men to stand while women were allowed to remain seated, although, according to Voetius, there is not a single valid reason for this.

The Role of the Body in Worship

The elimination of “praying on your knees” was sometimes defended on the basis of mysticism.  It was suggested that God was not interested in form, but rather in essence, and that kneeling could only be form, since our knees have no relation to our prayer.  If kneeling is supposed to express humility and a spirit of submission, the real question is not whether we assume an attitude of humility externally, but rather whether our hearts are attuned to God in humility and submission.  Imagine two people praying.  One of them bowed the knee in prayer to God but his spirit was haughty.  The other person prayed standing but hardly dared to look up to God.  Then the question arose whether standing with a humble heart was not much more valuable spiritually than kneeling with a proud heart.  With this kind of reasoning it was easy to conclude that only the attitude of the heart counted and that the posture of the body was a matter of indifference.  This being so, it might be most safe to remain seated since both kneeling and standing for prayer are little more than show to impress people, but to God, the Holy One, who alone knows the heart, the posture is meaningless and without value.

My protest against this one-sided mysticism was conducted primarily by using Holy Scripture.  If it is true that kneeling before the majesty of the Lord of lords leads only to a sinful and distracting show, why does the same Holy Scripture clearly recommend kneeling?  Scripture contains countless pronouncements and examples of God’s saints kneeling, and even shows Jesus falling with his face to the ground in Gethsemane.

Our conclusion, therefore, can only be that not to kneel in our Reformed churches must be considered a liturgical error.  However, we must not try to rectify it abruptly, although reaction against this error is certainly demanded and necessary.  It ought to be explained in various ways, also in sermons, what the Biblical relationship is between form and essence – for posture, but also for prayer in general.  And if, as a result, the conviction grows that it is fitting in the gathering of believers to bend the knee before God, then this conviction will stimulate the energy that will restore our liturgical honoring of God to its proper course.

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