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Come, Let Us Bow Down: Reflections on kneeling

In most Reformed and Presbyterian churches people do not kneel during prayer. Should they?

About one hundred years ago Abraham Kuyper, renowned Dutch theologian and prime minister of the 'Netherlands, addressed this question. His firm answer: Yes.

In the paragraphs that follow, Kuyper explains that kneeling was still customary as late as 1618, at the Synod of Dort. Various reasons and circumstances led to a change soon after that. But not very good reasons!

The change came about partly through the influence of the English Puritans. They saw the danger in the church of England, in which there was too great an attachment to ceremonialism. However, the Puritans went too far. In order to avoid the danger of ceremonialism, they overlooked the fact that we do need forms for worship. If they had been less extreme, they might have retained a large number of the people who now returned to the Anglican church. But the English character did not allow this flexibility. Whatever the Puritans did, they wanted to do radically. Therefore, in their zeal against ceremonies, they also insisted that kneeling be abolished in the churches, because it was a Roman Catholic ceremony. The influence of the English nonconformists on the Dutch churches was very strong, especially on the more strict Reformed groups.

One also has to imagine the actual situation. Under the old Roman hierarchy, it was customary to bury people in our grand old churches. This required that the whole center part of the church be cleared after the service. Pews were used only in the chancel; in the central part of the church there were only chairs, and these chairs were picked up after the service and stacked on the side. At the next service people took a chair from the side and placed it wherever they liked. The chairs served the dual purposes of being used for kneeling in prayer and for sitting. They were built in such a way that the back was higher and the seat somewhat lower than a regular chair, and at the top of the back there was a flat surface on which one could lean the elbows when kneeling on the seat.

When the Reformed consistory took over these church buildings, they closed off the chancel, because the mass was discontinued, but otherwise followed the old customs. People used the available prayer chairs. After the service the chairs were stacked on the side in order to keep the main area free for funerals. For the next service, people would take a chair and place it wherever they wanted in front of the pulpit. These chairs were not put close together, but with sufficient space so that they could be used as prayer chairs. One would stand up, turn the back of the chair to the pulpit, kneel on the chair, and pray Sometimes prominent ladies would send their servants ahead to set up a chair. When the lady arrived, the maid would stand up—a practice that the consistories protested.

This continued for about a century after the Reformation, but eventually a change occurred. The honorable magistrates wanted to be acknowledged in the church as representatives of the "confessional government" and therefore wanted pews. These pews were usually placed right in front of the pulpit around the pillars, higher than the chairs, in order to symbolize the importance of those seated there. Reacting to the government officials, the church officers then decided they wanted similar seats of privilege. The church therefore built the so-called doophek around the pulpit [literally, "baptismal partition"—a wooden partition about three feet high, enclosing a space for baptism and pews]. Here were pews for ministers, elders, and deacons, while church administrators were directed to a pew to the left or the right of the government pew.

These new pews for the consistory and church government officials did not permit kneeling. There was no room to kneel, and the pews were not built for it. These officials therefore adopted the custom of standing during prayer. Of course, this example influenced those sitting on chairs, so that increasingly they discontinued kneeling and began to stand up during prayer. Moreover, because of the growing population and the shortage of space in the churches, chairs were placed so closely together that turning them around for prayer became less possible and even difficult and cumbersome, especially for women. For this reason many women stood up during prayer.

Thus the influence of the nonconformists from England combined with practical difficulties to do away with kneeling for prayers. And when the old chairs eventually had to be replaced with new chairs, the church administrators finally brought in chairs that were built for sitting but not for kneeling.

The use of foot warmers also contributed to this change. During severe winters the church challenged the congregation to sit for two hours in unheated buildings. One cannot begin to imagine the illness and death caused by this hardship. This led to the custom that women took along a foot warmer with a copper handle, and prominent ladies had their servants bring the foot warmers in. Of course, these foot warmers made it even more difficult to turn around the chairs.

For a while, there was great confusion. One person still knelt, a second stood, a third remained seated. Some ministers urged the people to kneel, others argued for standing up during prayer. Slowly the one custom won out over the other, and when the English notion took root that kneeling was really a Roman Catholic remnant, kneeling was discontinued. Gradually it became the custom that men stood during prayer, but women could remain seated—a custom for which one cannot find a single good reason.

Our conclusion can only be that the absence of kneeling in our Reformed churches must be considered a liturgical mistake. We must not attempt to change this mistake at once, but it is essential and necessary that we react against it. We must make clear in all ways, including in preaching, the scriptural relationship between form and essence in prayer. May we thus again become convicted that in the gathering of believers, bending the knee before God is fitting. With this conviction, we will once more put our liturgical honoring of God on the right track.