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date: 25 May 2020

(p. 255) Spreading the Word (p. 256)

(p. 257) Introduction to Part III

Dedicating The Seconde Parte of the Catalogue of English Printed Bookes (1595) to Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, Andrew Maunsell boasted that he had already shown in The First Parte ‘that in Divine matters necessarie to salvation, no Nation hath better or more plentifull instructions in their owne tongue then wee’.1 Alongside translations of the scriptures, whether as whole Bibles or individual books, biblical knowledge was disseminated, received, and reshaped in a plethora of forms and venues. Hornbooks, used to teach basic literacy, followed the alphabet (usually begun with a small cross upon which users were asked to meditate) with the Lord’s Prayer. Catechisms used a question and answer format to teach Bible stories and godly principles, primarily to children but also to the unlettered, potential converts, and even sailors.2 Commonplace books, concordances, and abridgements offered easy access to the scriptures. The first known ‘Thumb Bible’, directed at children, John Weever’s versified An Agnus Dei was printed in 1601, measuring 3.3 by 2.7 cm.

For the majority of men, women, children—and dogs, if complaints about canine bad behaviour in church are to be believed—sermons formed the primary means to access and understand the scriptures. The skill of preachers was variable: particularly in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, parochial clergy were frequently described as barely literate, ignorant of the scriptures, and poorly equipped to cater to the spiritual needs of their cure. Campaigns for a learned ministry urged the ordination of graduates, and propagated a variety of schemes for the training and scrutiny of ministers. Elements of that scrutiny survive in printed copies of the Articles of Inquiry that bishops prepared before visiting the parishes in their dioceses: a series of questions posed to ministers and church officials on subjects from the physical cleanliness of the church to the spiritual cleanliness of parishioners. In her chapter, Lori Anne Ferrell draws on these suggestive sources, whose frequent annotation attests to the extent of their use, to track the English Church’s official position on scripture during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and, (p. 258) briefly, Charles I. She argues that, whilst the Church of England, in 1559, worked hard to promote Bible reading in domestic as well as ecclesiastical settings, attitudes had changed significantly by the mid-seventeenth century, when the visitation articles insisted instead upon the importance of the spoken word in sermons delivered by qualified preachers.

Ian Green explains which parts of the Bible were read in churches, and the fixed rotas of readings, communal worship, and set prayers that constituted most worshippers’ experience of the Bible in England throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries. The congregation heard God’s word read aloud to them, and had its meaning elaborated and explained in sermons that sought to make scripture directly applicable to the lives of its hearers. More than that, the church service, Green shows, was structured to provide numerous opportunities for the congregation to speak and sing parts of the Bible aloud, entering into an experience of communal worship, and learning the terms and attitudes of devotion and praise.

It is the controversial subject of singing, and particularly of the Psalms, that Rachel Willie takes as her subject. Understood as the Bible in miniature, the Psalms taught individuals how to converse with God; communal singing allowed them to perform that conversation in ways that were both public and intensely personal. Whilst the musicality of the Psalms was understood to create a pleasing harmony, not only between the soul of the individual believer and God, but between members of the congregation and the larger Christian community, debates around the genre of the Psalms, the propriety of singing, and the politics of reproduction introduced notes of dissonance into post-Reformation discussions of liturgical practice and godly living. Willie’s chapter explores these controversial subjects, paying particular attention to the bodily and social forms of psalm reading and singing.

The best preachers were celebrities, admired for the passion and eloquence of their performances: performances which could be intensely dramatic, provoking urgent and deeply felt responses in their hearers.3 Though handbooks of preaching urge the need to make the scriptures relevant to the particular circumstances of the audience, they give little sense of how preachers achieved their effects, or of which approaches and interpretative techniques were most appreciated by audiences hungry for novelty as well as edification. Mary Morrissey sheds new light on this question by turning to the evidence of rehearsal sermons, preached annually in London and Oxford, which gave abbreviated accounts of previous sermons before concluding with a new sermon composed by the rehearser. In the terms rehearsers use to describe (and occasionally to satirize) the techniques of their seniors, we begin to understand how preachers thought about the biblical texts they represented to their hearers, and how they achieved the difficult combination of communicating sound doctrine and engaging an audience through skilful embellishment and inventive interpretation. Rehearsal sermons emphasize the need for the repetition of doctrine, but also the importance of the ability to ‘ornament’ scripture and expand the interpretative possibilities of the text. Treading a perilous line between literal sense and figurative reading, preachers searched out ways to reveal new meanings to their hearers, prompting anxieties about the relationship between the charisma of preaching and the learning of the clergy.

Whilst Green and Morrissey focus primarily on the English case, and Willie counterpoints that example with reformed practices in Geneva and elsewhere, Alasdair Raffe and Marc Caball offer accounts, respectively, of the dissemination of the scriptures in Scotland and in Ireland. The highly varied experiences of England’s near neighbours—with the Reformation (p. 259) gaining a firm hold in Scotland and only a precarious one in Gaelic Ireland—open up new perspectives on how the scriptures were understood and on attempts to expand their reach and reception. The full implementation of the Scottish Reformation, Raffe argues, depended upon decades of ecclesiastical innovation, but also upon the instruction and conversion of worshippers from a wide range of backgrounds. His chapter explores the ways in which the Bible was disseminated and consumed by Scottish Protestants in the century and a half after 1560. Like Green, Morrissey, and Ferrell, Raffe is particularly concerned with the role played by the scriptures in public worship. He contrasts the practice of public reading with the interpretative preaching preferred by leading Scottish Protestants, a tendency that became more marked after the covenanting revolution of 1638–41. In time, Raffe argues, the Bible was rarely read aloud in the context of public worship, but was, increasingly, studied in domestic and personal contexts, transforming Scots’ engagement with the Word.

Caball, in contrast, attests to the evangelical spirit that motivated those who worked to print the scriptures in Irish Gaelic, but notes that more research is needed to fully understand the partial and often hostile reception of the fruits of their labours among Irish Catholics, as well as their adoption and appropriation by Protestant converts. Though projects to print an Irish translation began as early as the 1560s, no complete Irish Bible was published until 1685. As late as the printing of the Irish Book of Common Prayer in 1608, Caball demonstrates, Gaelic Irishmen, often members of elite bardic families, were central to the project of evangelization through print. Yet ironically the printed scriptures were essentially an expression of state authority which privileged the use of English. Caball takes us through the first printings of the New and Old Testaments in Gaelic, and reveals the central role played by the philosopher Robert Boyle in the republication of the New Testament in 1681 and Old Testament in 1685. Boyle’s support for the distribution of the Gaelic Bible in Scotland neatly complements the very different religious climate described by Raffe.

The final chapter in this section, by Helen Smith, is centrally concerned with questions of conversion. Smith explores, on the one hand, the ways in which the Bible was used as a tool for personal transformation, and, on the other, how it was deployed in attempts to achieve the conversion of others, not least in missionary efforts to establish Christianity in the New World. This chapter illustrates the ways in which influential accounts of conversion informed, and helped to shape, the approach of early modern readers to their Bibles, and emphasizes the transformative effects scripture was understood to possess. Smith explores the material charge of the Bible as a devotional object, and the physical—as well as intensely imaginative—ways in which readers experienced and used their Bibles. The second part of Smith’s chapter follows the English Bible across the seas, charting the centrality of the Bible to debates around conversion, but also exploring the challenges to evangelization faced by Protestants and Puritans who insisted upon the necessity of scriptural knowledge gained through reading to the full realization of the conversion experience.

Read, spoken, or sung; heard (almost) in its entirety over the course of a year; condensed in the form of a favourite Psalm or meaningful and often-meditated verse; repeated verbatim or explored and expanded by inventive preachers, the Bible was a flexible and varied resource across and beyond the four nations in the early modern period. Taken together, the chapters in this section reveal the massive administrative efforts that lay behind the dissemination and interpretation of the scriptures, and alert us to the variety of responses provoked by biblical encounters, and to the resistance and hostility that faced those who wished to impose the Bible, or a particular version of the scriptures, onto an unwilling population. (p. 260)


(2) John Flavel, Navigation Spiritualized: or, A New Compass for Seamen (London, 1677).

(3) See esp. Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).