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Vol II No. 5
English Reformation

Triggered by the Book

by D. N. Keane

Shortly after the Restoration (1660), John Hacket officiated a funeral for a parishioner who was as opposed to the Book of Common Prayer as Hacket was devoted to it. When the Prayer Book was outlawed in Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Hacket, once refused to stop reading a service from it at gunpoint. When Charles II acceded to the throne, Hacket (who would be made Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry the next year) knew the Prayer Book would soon be restored as well and found a clever way to reintroduce his reluctant parish to it — he said the burial service by memory so no one would know he was using the Prayer Book.

His biographer, Thomas Plume tells it,

when the company heard all delivered by him without book, and with free readiness, and profound gravity, and unaffected composure of voice, looks, and gestures, and a very powerful emphasis in every part (as indeed his talent was excellent in this way), they were strangely surprised and affected, professing that they had never heard a more suitable exhortation, or a more edifying exercise even from the very best and most precious men of their own persuasion!1Quoted from Judith Maltby, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 7.

Hacket likely guessed exactly what their response would be when his Puritan parishioners heard the words of the Prayer Book read well without knowing their source. Without seeing the book, they were able to listen without prejudice to the words, believing the viva voce spoke ex tempore. When they praised his ‘suitable exhortation’ and ‘edifying exercise’, he used to occasion to upend their assumptions about the liturgy they thought that they loathed:

they were afterward much more surprised and confounded, when the same person who had officiated assured the principal men among them, that not one period of all he had spoken was his own; and convinced them by ocular demonstration how all was taken word for word out of the very office ordained for that purpose in the poor contemptible Book of Common Prayer.2Ibid.

This amusing incident provides an interesting means of peering into anti-Prayer Book sentiment. It suggests that the book as such triggered prejudice that prevented some from fairly assessing the words spoken. 

We have other evidence of the book served as a trigger. In 1590, Thomas Daynes, the Vicar of Flixton, Suffolk, excoriated his congregation for ‘looking in their books’. Evidently many of them bought their own copies of the Prayer Book and brought it with them to services to follow along. He thundered from the pulpit, ‘they which wolde have sarvice sayde accordinge to the booke of common prayer are papists and atheists’.3Ibid., p. 45. At this time, ‘atheist’ meant someone who lived like a godless heathen (rather than lack of belief in a deity). In essence, his objection was that their religion was all outward, all for public show, rather than of true sorrow for sin, repentance, faith, and virtuous, godly living. Not taking kindly to their minister’s non-conformity nor his accusations against them, the parishioners brought Daynes up on charges before the consistory court in Norwich, to compel him to read services by the book.

The association between the holding of a book and popery became a meme. The rector of Tarporley in Cheshire in the early 1640s equated using the Prayer Book with ‘mass mumbled on beads’.4Ibid., p. 20. Handling the book resembled handling rosary beads and the poor manner in which some parsons performed the services reminded many of the old massing priest, mumbling Latin that he hardly understood. Both the conformists and non-conformists wanted religion that hammered at hard hearts and comforted the heavy-laden, but the non-conformists were convinced that reading the Prayer Book could do neither. By memorizing the liturgy and animating it with conviction and rhetorical sensitivity, showed his skeptical but zealous flock that the Prayer Book, used well, could do precisely that. The book as such is incidental, what the Prayer Book aims to do is deploy the Word of God and write it on our hearts.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Quoted from Judith Maltby, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 7.
  • 2
    Ibid.
  • 3
    Ibid., p. 45.
  • 4
    Ibid., p. 20.
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