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Literary Habits of the Pre-Modern Clergy

Derek Wilson, writing about the context just prior to the publication of the King James Bible, illuminates the strikingly bad conditions of learning and reading among the 16th-century English clergy:

Clergy considered themselves, and were considered by their flocks, to be primarily performers of rituals rather than teachers of Christian truth. As late as 1551, Hooper, the bishop of Gloucester in the process of a visitation of his 311 clergy discovered that 168 could not remember all the Ten Commandments, thirty-three could not locate them in the Bible, ten were unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and thirty-four did not know who its author was. For a hundred years or more, zealous bishops had complained about the educational inadequacy of priests, many of whom knew just about enough Latin to mutter their way through the mass. This state of affairs was perhaps understanding during the centuries when books were extremely expensive, hand-made objects, but the printing press had been invented a full century before Bishop Hooper made his disturbing discovery. His statistics can be backed up by others.

Between 1500 and 1550, 869 East Anglian clergy left wills which were proved in the consistory court at Norwich, the second city in the kingdom. Only 158 died possessed of any books at all. Of that residue fifty-eight clergy merely had service books (missals, manuals, processionaries, etc.) to bequeath. That leaves a round hundred who might have owned devotional, instructional, or apologetic works. No detailed information is given about twenty-one of the remaining clerical libraries. We are thus left with seventy-nine parish clergy about whose literary and religious tastes we can discern something. Most of them owned collections of sermons and anthologies of legends and stories of the “miraculous” type already mentioned. Twelve testators owned Latin Bibles. Thus, only a dozen pastors throughout a large, populous, and thriving part of England owned the sourcebook of the Christian faith. Fewer than a hundred possessed preaching aids and the vast majority were concerned only with the mechanical performance of their pastoral, ritual, and sacramental duties.

The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version (Lion, 2010), 15–16

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.