Vestments in Protestant Churches

What are the vestments in Protestantism?

The Protestant Reformation, with the exclusion of the hierarchy and the rejection of special acts of worship, was forced to abolish a part of the liturgical vestments and official insignia. While there was no need of a complete break with the past, this step was taken by enthusiasts whenever they were able to accomplish it, and the Reformed Church also pursued the same way more or less radically.

In 1523 Ulrich Zwingli, in his Auslegung and Grund der Sehluss reden, gave it as his judgment that cowl, cross, surplice, tonsure are not "neither good nor bad," but only "bad," so he abolished them as soon as possible. Martin Luther, on the other hand, saw in these externals things indifferent in themselves, and not only in his time but long after, the mass vestment was still used. The Interim gave the usage new support and procured for it a wider spread.

However, the general trend of development was in another direction, and in fact it took up the gown worn by the middle classes: a full mantle covering the whole body, which varied in material, color, and cut according to rank and fashion. Luther preached for the first time in the black gown of the scholars on the afternoon of October 9, 1524. In the altar picture by Lucas Cranach in the Stadtkirche at Wittenberg he is represented wearing it in the pulpit. John Calvin and Zwingli also performed their functions wearing the gown.

History and use

With the gown went the biretta, which had driven out the hat in the dress of the burghers and appears in a great variety of forms. The clergy wear it as a rule in the form of a rich low cap, which stayed on the head by means of a stiff lower projection and was sometimes also provided with an upturned brim.

In the seventeenth century the Spanish costume began to influence the gown and led to its complete change. The mantle was transformed into a simple, long coat, buttoned up in front.

The large ruff was introduced and has maintained itself up to this day in some parts of Germany. The broad coat collars were reduced in secular as well as clerical usage to two linen strips resting on the breast and called beffchen, (from the Low German beffe, diminutive beffken), which have been preserved to the present time.

In the eighteenth century, the cloak of the French abbes found its way into German use. The head is covered by a small, round cap. Although there is a certain general agreement in the vestments of Germany and Switzerland, considerable differences also show themselves.

However, since the surplice of today was prescribed in Prussia by a royal ordinance of January 1, 1811, bringing the gown to life again, unity was much favored, and it is again as complete as in the sixteenth century. At the same time the stiff biretta, resembling a hat, reappeared.

The surplice still survives as a relic of the Middle Ages in some Evangelical churches of Germany. On the other hand, in the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish churches, it is a permanent part of the liturgical dress.

Other Articles in This Series

  • History of Vestments
  • Cassock
  • Vestments of Priests
  • Vestments of Bishops
  • Vestments in the Greek Church
  • Vestments in Protestant Churches
  1. Victor Schultze, "Vestments." New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Baker Book House, 1950).