Rev. Coleborn is a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.


One of the primary documents of the Scottish Reformation is The First Book of Discipline. It is a document for the ordering of the life of the Reformed Church in Scotland drawn up at the dawn of the Reformation in Scotland. This document, together with The Book of Common Order, formed the original Church Order of the Reformed Church of Scotland in the days of John Knox. The First Book of Discipline was the work of five other Scottish reformers in addition to John Knox. Knox also, with the help of others in Frankfurt, compiled The Book of Common Order. These documents and the times in which they were written show us the close connection especially between the Reformed Church of Scotland and that of France and Geneva. This is seen in the close contact and communication between those churches, not only on the ordering of the church, but also on all matters of doctrine, worship, and government.

Historical Background to the First Book of Discipline

The years 1559 and 1560 were dramatic and crucial years of God’s mighty work of reformation in Scotland. A great struggle, a spiritual struggle, but with political manifestations, was taking place in this northern land of Europe. The French noblewoman Mary, of the powerful house of Guise, was the regent queen of Scotland. At this time the ducal house of Guise dominated both the French and Scottish courts.

Mary of Guise had previously been married in France. When widowed she married James V of Scotland, who died in 1541. She lost her two sons by James V as infants. James and Mary’s only surviving child, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was still in her minority. This young woman and heir to the Scottish throne was living in France and married to the dauphin (crown prince) Francis. They were seen as the Queen and King of Scotland, but until Mary came of age a regent reigned in her stead.

There had been strong ties between Scotland and France, not only culturally, but also economically and militarily. They were united against a common enemy, England. For a time Mary of Guise as regent of Scotland practiced a limited toleration towards those of the Reformed faith in Scotland. This was only as a political tool, however, to woo them and to hamper English influence in Scotland, for Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) was the tragic but bigoted Roman Catholic queen of England at the time.

Under the influence of powerful spiritual forces, Lowland Scottish society was in a state of flux. The amazing work of the Spirit of God and the force of biblical truth had been, since the 1520s, effecting a change in the hearts and understanding of many of the dominant Lowland Scots’ society. (The Reformation came more slowly and later to the Highlanders, where many remained under the sway of a sad mixture of pagan and Romish beliefs and practices until the 1700s.)

Under the blessing of God, and through the means of the preaching and teaching of godly men, the Reformation, this mighty work of God, was dawning in Scotland! The more outstanding preachers and leaders of this reformation were such ministers as John Knox, John Winram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, John Row, and Christopher Goodman and such elders as the scholar George Buchanan and the Earl of Glencairn. By 1558 the Reformation had become so extensive and deep that the regent dowager queen Mary, in a negative spiritual and political reaction to it, abandoned her conciliatory policies towards the Reformed. It was now no longer necessary for her to show a conciliatory attitude to them to keep a wedge between Scotland and England, for now a different queen, Elizabeth Tudor, a Protestant, had became ruler of England.

With an increasing number of Scots embracing the Reformed faith, and now a majority of the ruling nobles sympathetic to the Reformed faith as well as to a Protestant England, Mary of Guise’s power began to seep away — so much so that in October 1559 Mary was deposed from the regency. She clung to power for a time with the help of French troops, but an English army marched to the aid of the Reformed. Mary’s policy of maintaining Roman Catholicism with French arms collapsed, and for the first time the Reformed of the land, in God’s providence, had the dominant voice in the church and nation.

It was against this background that the First Book of Discipline, the original book of Church Order, was drawn up for the Reformed Church of Scotland.

The First Book of Discipine

In July of 1560 the Parliament was called to meet in Scotland. The queen and king in France, the young Mary Queen of Scots and her husband the dauphin, commissioned it, and it met the following month.

This reforming Parliament requested the Reformed Church to draw up a Confession of Faith, known variously as the First Scots’ Confession, Knox’s Confession, or The Scotch Confession of 1560. In addition, the Reformed Church was requested also to draw up a Church Order showing how the church should be governed and how discipline should be exercised. Calderwood records, “… consultation was had how a good and godlie policie might be established in the church, which, by the Papists, was altogether defaced. Commission and charge were given … to draw a plat forme of the church policie, as they had done of the doctrine.”1

The first meeting of the General Assembly of the Reformed Church of Scotland was held in December of 1560. There were only forty delegates, of whom six were ministers. The ministers, Hetherngton says, though small in number, were of “great abilities, of deep piety, and of eminent personal worth, fitted and qualified by their Creator for the work which He had given to them to do. … It was very clearly seen by the reformers, that the power of discipline was essential to the well being of a church, since without it purity could not be maintained, whether among the people or the ministers themselves. They determined, therefore, to draw up a book in which there should be a complete system of ecclesiastical government…. They applied themselves to their task … looking to Divine direction and authority alone. … Having arranged the subject under different heads, they divided these among them; and, after they had finished their several parts, they met together and examined them with great attention, spending much time in reading and meditation on the subject, and in earnest prayers for Divine direction.”2

The men given this task were the same six ministers who drew up the Confession of Faith. They were John Knox, John Winram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, and John Row. It tickled the Scots’ sense of humor that they all had “John” as their Christian names, and they were popularly called the “six Johns.”

The document these worthies drew up was called The First Book of Discipline or The Policy and Discipline of the Church. After consultation with other Reformed brethren and the Scottish Parliament, further changes were made to the initial production. In its final form there were sixteen chapters. The historian A. M. Renwick says of it, “It is a remarkable document revealing better than anything else the statesmanlike qualities of the leading ministers, and their amazing far-sightedness.”3

It was sent to Calvin, Viret, and Beza in Geneva, and to Peter Martyr, Bullinger, and others in Zurich for their considered opinions.

The Book was ready for the scrutiny of the General Assembly by December 1560, and was presented for approval to a convention of nobles and the Privy Council. Sadly, it was never approved officially by the Scottish Parliament, as was the First Scottish Confession, for several reasons. One reason was that many of the lords had taken possession of vast territories belonging to the church. The First Book of Discipline required that the income from these lands support not only ministers of the gospel, but also the Christian education of the youth of the nation and the care of the poor. The greed of such men overrode their nominal commitment to the cause of Christ. Many of the lords and burgesses, however, signed it in a private capacity and promised to forward its aims by every means in their power. Calderwood says, “Some approved it, and wished it to be ratified by law: other perceaving their carnall libertie to be restrained, and worldlie commiditie to be shmwhat impaired thereby, grudged, in so muche that the name of the Booke of Discipline became odious unto them. … Yitt a great part of the nobilitie subscribed the Booke of Discipline….”4

Another reason the ungodly were adverse to it was the strict discipline which it appointed to be exercised against vice. To approve it would mean that they were condemned by it. They loved darkness rather than the light of Christ and His good ways.

Though not approved formally by Parliament, The First Book of Discipline nevertheless was adopted by the Reformed Church of Scotland as its programme for ordering itself as near as it could after the principles of Christ as its Head and as taught in the Word. In the preface the authors claimed scriptural authority for their proposals and urged the lords of the Parliament to have a care not to sanction anything “which God’s plain Word shall not approve.”

The Book of Common Order

The Book of Common Order, produced in 1564, was a summary of the laws of the church of Scotland with regard to worship. It was eventually replaced by the Westminster Standards’ Directory of Public Worship. It provided a common order for worship rather than a liturgy. Its origins were in Frankfurt in 1554. Knox at that time was a refugee there from persecution in Scotland and was a pastor to a group of English Protestants who had fled from the persecution of Queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary). He and several other pastors were asked by the magistrates of Frankfurt and the English congregation to draw up an order in the English language that closely followed the French Reformed order of worship. Many of this congregation moved to Geneva, and this order was published there. It was also known as The Genevan Order.

After Knox’s return to Scotland in 1559, this Order or Directory for worship was used by some of the Reformed congregations. The First Book of Discipline refers to it as “the book of our common order.” The General Assembly of the Reformed Church of Scotland enjoined its uniform use in “the administration of the sacraments and the solemnisation of marriages and burial of the dead.”

The inclusion of a complete metrical Psalter and additional specimens of prayers drawn from both the continental and Scottish sources enlarged the Book of Common Order. This work has often been called erroneously Knox’s Liturgy. It was intended as a guide and as an aid to ministers in conducting services. It was not meant to be slavishly followed. Calder-wood and others of that age made it clear it was intended to be a directory, and not ritualist liturgy.

The Book of Common Order, in addition to guidelines on the administration of the sacraments, marriage, and Christian burial, also provided directions for fasting, the election of ministers and elders, the exercise of church discipline, and the visitation of the sick.

The order of worship was much the same as followed by the French Reformed Church. Worship began with the simple call, “Let us worship God,” and perhaps the reading of a suitable verse of Scripture. There was then a prayer of confession, followed by the singing of a psalm. Prayer for God’s blessing on the preaching of the Word was then offered up, followed by the sermon. After the sermon a general prayer was offered, and “the Belief” or Apostles’ Creed was recited. The singing of another psalm and the minister pronouncing the benediction then concluded the service. It will be noted there is in this order of worship no mention of the reading of the Scriptures. This was because a “reader” read them before the formal worship commenced.

(It remains, still, to detail with the contents, the main subjects, of the Book of Discipline and the Book of Common Order. This we hope to do in a future article.)

1.D. Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, vol. II, Wodrow Society, Edinburgh, 1843, p. 41.

2.Hetherington, W. M., History of the Church of Scotland, John Johnstone, Edinburgh, 1848, p. 29.

3.Renwick, The Story of the Scottish Reformation, IVF, London, 1960, p. 109.