Kneeling, the act of bending the knee in devotional exercises, is a practice of great antiquity. Reference to it is made in all parts of the Scriptures, both of the O.T. and N.T. writings, as in Isaac's blessing on Jacob (Ge 27:29), compared with his brother's subsequent conduct (Ge 42:6), and with an edict of Pharaoh, "Bow the knee" (Ge 41:43), and again in the second commandment (Ex 20:5). Then we find David exclaiming, " Let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker" (Ps 95:6); "We will go into his tabernacle, and fall low on our knees before his footstool" (Ps 132:7). Solomon " kneeled on his knees" before the altar of the Lord, with his hands spread up to heaven (1Ki 8:54) ; Ezra fell upon his knees, and spread out his hands unto God, and made his confession (Ezr 9:5-15); Daniel "kneeled upon his knees three times a day," and prayed "as he did aforetime" (Da 6:10); the holy martyr Stephen " kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice," praying for his murderers (Ac 7:60); Peter likewise " kneeled down and prayed" (Ac 9:40); Paul also (Ac 20:36; Ac 21:5). That the posture was a customary one may be inferred from the conduct of the man beseeching Christ to heal his son (Mt 17:14), and of the rich young man (Mr 10:17), as also of the leper (Mr 1:40); yea, we have even the example of Christ himself, who, according to Luke (Lu 22:14), "kneeled down" when he prayed. That the practice was general among the early Christians is plain from the Shepherd of Hermas, from Eusebius's History (ii, 33), and from numberless other authorities, and especially from the solemn proclamation made by the deacon to the people in all the liturgies, " Flectamus genua" (Let us bend our knees), whereupon the people knelt till, at the close of the prayer, they received a corresponding summons, " Levate" (Arise), and from the fact that prayer itself was termed κλίσις γονάτων), bending the knees.
In the days of Irenaeus, and for some time after, four postures were in use among Christians, namely, standing (for which see reason below), prostration (as a sign of deep and extraordinary humiliation), bowing, and kneeling. The posture of sitting during the time of public prayer, of modern days, seems to have been unknown to the early Christians. Kneeling at public devotions was the common practice during the six working days, and was understood by the early Church to denote humility of mind before God, and "as a symbol of our fall by sin." A standing posture in worship (explained as being emblematic of Christ's resurrection from the (lead, and the forgiveness of sins, and also as being a sign of the Christian's hope and expectation of heaven) was assumed by the early Christian worshippers (except penitents) on Sundays and during the fifty days between Easter and Whitsuntide, "as a symbol of the resurrection, whereby, through the grace of Christ, we rise again from our fall." Cassian says of the Egyptian churches that from Saturday night to Sunday night, and all the days of Pentecost, they neither knelt nor fasted. The Apostolical Constitutions order that Christians should pray three times on the Lord's day, standing, in honor of him who rose the third day from the dead, and in the writings of Chrysostom we meet with frequent allusions to the same practice, especially in the oft-repeated form by which the deacon called upon the people to pray, " Let us stand upright with reverence and decency." Tertullian says, " We count it unlawful to fast, or to worship kneeling, on the Lord's day, and we enjoy the same immunity from Easter to Pentecost." This practice was confirmed by the Council of Nice, for the sake of uniformity, and it is from this circumstance, probably, that the Ethiopic and Muscovitish churches adopted the attitude of standing generally, a custom which they continue to this day. From Cyril's writings it would appear that also at the celebration of the Eucharist a standing attitude was assumed by the early Christians. He says "it was with silence and downcast eyes, bowing themselves in the posture of worship and adoration." The exact period when kneeling at the Lord's Supper became general cannot be ascertained, but it has prevailed for many centuries, and it is now generally, though not altogether, practiced as the proper posture for communicants.
In ordination, also, a kneeling posture was early practiced. Dionysius says, "The person to be ordained kneeled before the bishop at the altar, and he, laying his hand upon his head, did consecrate him with a holy prayer, and then signed him with the sign of the cross, after which the bishop and the clergy present gave him the kiss of peace." It would appear, however, that bishops elect did not relish much the humiliating posture of kneeling at their ordination, for Theodoret informs us that "it was a customary rite to bring the person about to be ordained bishop to the holy table, and make him kneel upon his knees by force." But this, no doubt, was a significant mode of showing with what reluctance men should undertake so important, so weighty a charge as that of bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, so solemn and onerous were its responsibilities esteemed, that we read of several who absconded as soon as they understood that the popular voice had chosen them to fill this honorable post; and many of them, when captured, were brought by force to the holy altar, and there, against their will and inclination, were ordained by the imposition of hands, being held down on their knees by the officers of the church. SEE ELECTION OF CLERGY.
In the Roman Catholic Church the act of kneeling belongs to the highest form of worship. It is especially practiced in the performance of monastic devotions and in acts of penance. It is also frequently employed during the mass, and in the presence of the consecrated elements when reserved for subsequent communion. In acts of penance this Church has carried the practice to great excess, subjecting the penitent to sufferings which remind us of the legend told of St. James, that he contracted a hardness on his knees equal to that of camels because he was so generally on his knees. "Instances," says Eadie, " are innumerable, and ever recurring in the Romish Church, of delicate women being obliged to walk on rough pavements, for hours in succession, on their bare knees, until at length nature, worn out by the injurious and demoralizing exercise, compels them to desist. To encourage the penitent and devout in acts of this nature, the most wonderful tales are related of the good resulting from self- mortification and entire submission to the stern discipline of the Church." SEE GENUFLEXION.
In the Anglican Church the rubric prescribes the kneeling posture in many parts of the service, and this, as well as the practice of bowing the head at the name of Jesus, was the subject of much controversy with the Puritans. A like controversy was in 1838 provoked in Bavaria by a ministerial decree obliging Protestants to join Romanists in this ceremony when required of them, and ended only with its repeal in 1844 (for details on this point, see the Roman Catholic version in Wetzer und Welte, Kirtchen Lex. 6:23(;; the Protestant side in Herzog, Real-Encyklopadie, s.v. Baiern. See Eadie, Eccles. Diet. s.v.; Farrar, Eccles. Dict. s.v.; Hook, Church Dict. s.v.; Riddle, Christian Antiquities, 391 sq., 631 sq.; Coleman, Christian Antiquities (see Index).