Navigating Troubled Waters, Part 1: Frankfurt, 1554-1559


“The Regulative Principle of Worship” (RPW) is a standard position in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but not in Anglican or Lutheran churches. Briefly, the RPW states, “whatever is commanded by God for worship is required, and whatever is not commanded is forbidden.” The authors of this concise definition explain, “This principle therefore goes contrary to the view of worship embraced by Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism, viz., that whatever is not forbidden in worship is allowed.”[1] The contrasting position invoked here is usually called “The Normative Principle of Worship” (NPW), and is more accurately defined thus: “The rites and ceremonies of the Church are to be ‘normed’ or measured by the Scriptures rather than ‘regulated’ by them.”[2] When interacting with orthodox Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans, one generally finds something far from an “anything goes” mentality toward liturgy. While the RPW is held in common by denominations subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, by those holding to the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort), the RPW is not applied the same way among or even within these denominations, raising the question of how effective the “Regulative Principle” is as a regulating principle.

Conflict emerged in the English-speaking congregation at Frankfurt during the Marian exile (1553-1559), in an event known to history as the ‘Troubles’ at Frankfurt. In this conflict, a nascent RPW butted heads with existing church traditions which those upholding judged to be solidly Christian, Biblical, and even Reformed. The episode provides a window into the RPW/NPW fissure, and into the difficulty of dividing the question of what to do in worship this way. The ‘Troubles’ became the seedbed of non-conforming Puritanism, but the other side in the controversy also thought of themselves as Reformed. As such, they suggest how – and even more so, how not – to navigate liturgical conflict within the family of churches stemming from the Protestant Reformation, and particularly within its Reformed, as opposed to Lutheran, groupings. After setting some historical context and defining the two sides of the dispute, I will go on in future installments to trace the course of the conflict and its aftermath (Part 2), to explain its legacy in England, Scotland, and on the European Continent (Part 3), and, finally, to draw some lessons for how Christian should approach opposing convictions, especially regarding worship, today (Part 4).


At the outset of the reign of Edward VI in 1547, Catholic Emperor Charles V defeated the Protestant Schmalkaldic League at Mühlberg, leading many reformers from the Continent to take refuge in England. Those who were specially invited by Edward’s government included Lutherans such as Philip Melanchthon and Johannes Brenz, but those who actually accepted the invitation were the Reformed – Martin Bucer, John à Lasco, and Peter Martyr Vermigli. The divergence in these responses indicates a growing discrepancy between the Lutheran and Reformed camps, and also England’s increasing preference for the latter.[3] The Peace of Augsburg, enforced by Charles V, resulted in further hardening of the division, as it meant only one variety of Protestantism would be officially tolerated in the regions affected.[4] Philip Benedict writes, “as Germany’s Lutheran territories proved by and large inhospitable to the English refugees, the emigration further reinforced the links between English Protestantism and the Continental Reformed.”[5]

Meanwhile, Edward VI’s England was opening its doors for reformation. Most historians believe that Edward’s abrupt death stopped English ecclesiastical reform from continuing along the lines of reformation on the Continent.[6] However, the perceived incompleteness of Edward’s reformation would not be readily acknowledged by all involved. When, after Edward’s death in 1553, catholic monarch Mary Tudor ascended to the throne, trouble inevitably followed.


English Protestants who fled their homeland at the ascension of Mary settled at Emden, Wesel, Strasbourg, Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Aarau, as well as at Frankfurt. Although Lutheran territories had grown less hospitable to the Reformed during the Augsburg Interim, they did feel enough sympathy for their evangelical brethren in exile to offer asylum and hospitality.[7] Many of the English-exile congregations that formed on the Continent used the recently-minted Book of Common Prayer (1552), but those who first settled in Frankfurt were in search of a simplified liturgy after the models provided by John Calvin and Valérand Poullain.[8] This preference would eventually bring bitter conflict with those who wished to retain the use of the second Edwardian Prayer Book as much as possible.

William Whittingham, an important founding member of the congregation at Frankfurt, sent out an enthusiastic invitation to other English exiles to join them, but many of the Englishmen who settled elsewhere were reluctant to move again. They may also have been suspicious of the Frankfurt congregation due to their lack of supervision from “senior clerics of the Edwardian church,” as Jane Dawson puts it.[9] Soon, they reacted against the liturgical developments in Frankfurt, decrying them as tarnishing the reputation of the framers of the Prayer Book, then standing trial as martyrs for the faith in England, and as an offense against the memory of Edward VI himself. The new reformers in Frankfurt, however, saw Edward’s reign as part of a trajectory that would best honored by pushing it forward. They saw Edward’s reforms as steps of progress in their context, and sought to honor their spirit, if not their exact form.[10] The claim to be advancing Edward’s reformation, however, seems to have been taken as an insult, and “the more the book was criticized, the more [the other side] defended it.”[11] As Beth Quitsland summarizes, “The ‘troubles’ at Frankfurt stemmed from a dispute over the relative value on the one side of hierarchy, uniformity, and national community that the Prayer Book represented, and on the other the imperative to scriptural purity that inspired the Frankfurt reformers.”[12] Personal taste was admittedly a factor as well. For example, one of the most inflexible preferences of the Prayer Book party was for the congregational responses absent from the liturgies proposed by the other side.[13]

John Knox was among those working for further reform, having been called by the Frankfurt congregation as one of their pastors on September 24, 1554.[14] His boldness in opposing the Prayer Book stemmed, in part, from a conviction that the reign of Mary was a judgment from God for the incompleteness of the reformation under Edward VI. The Marian exile presented English Protestantism with both the opportunity and admonishment to demonstrate repentance for its shortcomings by progressing beyond earlier attainments in line with Scriptural imperatives.[15] Knox’s goal, as he saw it, was to “constantly proceed to reform all abuses.”[16] Knox states his position succinctly when he writes, “No religioun pleaseth God except that which his own Word doth assure.”[17] This was Knox’s remedy to the tendency for superstition and idolatry to creep into the church: demand positive Scriptural warrant for everything done in worship. Knox’s particular objection to various elements of the Prayer Book, including even the responsive prayers, was, as he said, that they were “borrowed of the Papists and Papistical.” Since Knox saw the Mass as a work of the devil, he would understandably have concerns about borrowing from its liturgy.[18]

On the opposing side of Knox and Whittingham was the conservative bent of the “Prayer Book party,” seeking to maintain what had been gained in England under Edward. “Where Knox wished to have specific scriptural ‘warrant’ for every ceremony, the defenders of the Prayer Book sought good reason before abolishing them.”[19] Early in the conflict, John Bale would condemn Whittingham’s party as sectarian because they made changes to the liturgy without consulting others, and then presented those innovations as true reforms of English worship of the same type that had been obtained under the Crown.[20] There was a struggle for proper control of the church’s future as much as there was disagreement over the theological rationale for what should be done.

As the conflict progressed, both parties sought counsel from Calvin. Whittingham and Knox wrote up portions of the Prayer Book they found objectionable and sent them to the Genevan reformer for his evaluation. We should note that Calvin apparently did not have firsthand familiarity with the English liturgy. He was accustomed to working in Latin and French. This may be why Knox and Whittingham wrote up their digest in Latin, though that decision may also have aided in coloring the document as “Papistical.” After all, the translation of traditional Latin prayers into English had been a major step of reform in England.[21]

Thomas Sampson, an English exile at Strasbourg, and later a nonconformist minister during the reign of Elizabeth, also wrote to Calvin to explain the various sides of the conflict in Frankfurt. As he parsed it, one party wanted the Prayer Book “set aside altogether”, another wished to retain everything but kneeling at Communion, the linen surplice, and similar details reminiscent of the Roman Catholic sacerdotal system, and a third party wanted every last detail of the second Edwardian Prayer Book retained. The most important rationale on the conservative side of the debate was support for the framers of the Prayer Book, especially Archbishop Cranmer who was then in prison awaiting a death sentence from Mary.[22] What one side saw as straightforward loyalty to Scripture, the other side judged as disloyalty to their native church in the very crucible of its own conflict for Scriptural truth.

  1. . Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D. and Chris Coldwell, “The Regulative Principle of Worship: Sixty Years in Reformed Literature, Part One (1946-1999),” The Confessional Presbyterian 2 (2006): 89. The authors explain that the phrase “regulative principle” itself may not have been used until as late as the twentieth century.
  2. . Matthew M. Kennedy, “The Prayers Rose Like Incense: Anglican Worship and the Normative Principle,” Christian Research Institute (CRI), January 9, 2020, accessed January 31, 2020,
  3. . Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 235-236.
  4. . Euan Cameron, “Frankfurt and Geneva: The European Context of John Knox’s Reformation,” in John Knox and the British Reformations, ed. Roger A. Mason, St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History (Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998), 51–73.
  5. . Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, 242.
  6. . Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, 231.
  7. . Cameron, “Frankfurt and Geneva: The European Context of John Knox’s Reformation,” 56.
  8. . Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed., 242.
  9. . Jane E. A. Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 92.
  10. . Goodman to Vermigili, March 25, 1555, in Dawson, “Letters from Exile: New Documents on the Marian Exile, 1553-9,” DD/PP/839, 50.
  11. . Cameron, “Frankfurt and Geneva: The European Context of John Knox’s Reformation,” 65.
  12. . Beth Quitsland, The Reformation in Rhyme: Sternhold, Hopkins and the English Metrical Psalter, 1547-1603 (Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2008), 118.
  13. . Duguid, “The ‘Troubles’ at Frankfurt,” 244.
  14. . Frankfurt Congregation to John Knox, September 24, 1554, in Dawson, “Letters from Exile: New Documents on the Marian Exile, 1553-9,” Debingshire Record Office, Plas Power MSS DD/PP/839, 32-33.
  15. . Patrick Collinson, “John Knox, The Church of England and the Women of England,” in John Knox and the British Reformations, ed. Roger A. Mason, St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History (Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 1998), 91.
  16. . John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. W. C. Dickinson (Edinburgh, 1944), 1:347.
  17. . John Knox to William Williams, Thomas Wood, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Huyck in Frankfurt, May 1, 1555, 45-47, in Dawson, “Letters from Exile: New Documents on the Marian Exile, 1553-9,” DD/PP/839, 46.
  18. . Cameron, “Frankfurt and Geneva: The European Context of John Knox’s Reformation,” 62-65.
  19. . Cameron, “Frankfurt and Geneva: The European Context of John Knox’s Reformation,” 65.
  20. . Duguid, “The ‘Troubles’ at Frankfurt,” 249-250.
  21. . Cameron, “Frankfurt and Geneva: The European Context of John Knox’s Reformation,” 62-63.
  22. . Works of John Knox, 4:53.

Steven McCarthy

The Rev. Steven McCarthy is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican South Bend. He is a native of Lansing, MI, and was a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church before joining the Anglican Diocese of the Living Word.

'Navigating Troubled Waters, Part 1: Frankfurt, 1554-1559' has 1 comment

  1. February 5, 2020 @ 8:15 am Sudduth Cummings

    I was baptized at 12 years old in the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Carrollton, MO. This tradition started on the American frontier of 19th century America by Scottish Presbyterian immigrants, Thomas and his son Alexander Campbell, with Barton Stone, a Baptist. They sought to restore the primitive, New Testament church by rejecting all creeds,the doctrine of the Trinity (including rewriting the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”) practicing believer baptism, weekly Lord’s Supper and a congregational form of government. It soon split three ways–the Disciples adopted the principle of “if not prohibited in Scripture, it;s allowed. The Church of Christ took a strict “if not commanded by the New Testament, it’s prohibited.” And the Christian Church (not Disciples of Christ) tries to practice a mediating stance in between the two. What I learned from studying the early church history, liturgics and the Bible, led me, as such studies led many others, to realize the Restoration Movement had an inaccurate, distorted understanding of the primitive church. The Holy Spirit led me to Anglicanism and I discovered my true spiritual home. The Christian Church approach results in a style of worship bereft of the fullness of incarnational corporate praise and prayer and a reductionist faith that rejects the work of the Holy Spirit in history. The Disciples in recent years developed a growing appreciation of the church’s liturgical tradition which is good news, but still remains less than fully sacramental. While offering freedom of celebration style, the Book of Common Prayer is God’s gift to the church as a faithful restoration way of true and living faith and worship.


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