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French Reformed Liturgy of 1555: Some Background

Since Eric Hutchinson has shared his delightful translations of certain prayers contained in Liturgia Sacra, a 16th century French Reformed prayer book, I thought it pertinent to give some background to this particular liturgy and its author. The book gives us the details of its origin. It was published in 1555 in Frankfort am Main by the French congregation there, which had been exiled from France during the religious persecutions. Though the book includes the signatures of the officers of the French congregation (Vallerandus Pollanus, Ioannes Murellius, Ludovicus Castellio, Georgius Maupas, and Jacobus Crucius) it is clearly a new addition of an earlier work of the same title published by Pollanus, a.k.a. Vallerand Poullain (1515-1560). Poullain published this and at least one other edition of Liturgia Sacra between 1551-1555.1 The 1551 edition is slightly different, as it was written and used for the Strasbourg French Reformed congregation. The earlier edition included mention of a choir of singers and had a penitential liturgy on Thursdays, whereas the 1555 edition excludes these items.

There was another Reformed church in Frankfurt, an English congregation pastored by the famous reformer, John Knox. In 1555, the same year that the 2nd edition of Liturgia Sacra was published, Knox was banished from Frankfurt because he vigorously opposed the attempt of other English divines to impose the English prayer book upon the congregation (he was also accused of treason to the town senators by Richard Cox).2. In a public sermon he publicly rebuked these ministers and argued that the failure to purely reform the English prayer book, presumably toward a more Geneva friendly form, was one of the reasons that God allowed Queen Mary to take the throne. Many in the congregation were highly offended by this sermon and Knox was openly rebuked as he stepped down from the pulpit. Though Calvin wrote to Knox to either put up with the prayer book or quietly abscond to another town, Knox still persisted and was banished from Frankfurt. Interestingly, Knox wanted to replace the English prayer book with a liturgy that was actually more comparable to the French Reformed liturgy of Poullain.

Oddly enough, Poullain had been present in England when Cranmer began revising the prayer book in 1548/9 and was even an advisor to the archbishop on his reforms of that very book that caused Knox so much trouble. The early 20th century historian William Muss-Arnolt gives a helpful account of Poullain’s influence:

[Poullain] succeeded Calvin in 1541 as minister of the French Reformed refugee congregation at St. Nicolas in Strassburg and took refuge with his congregation in England, in 1549, when the religious compromise known as the Augsburg Interim drove him and many others from Germany to England. He and his French- Walloon congregation were settled by Cranmer at the old abbey of Glastonbury. Here he translated into Latin Calvin’s liturgy for Geneva, as published in Strassburg in 1545, and had it printed in London in 1551, with the title: Liturgia sacra sev ritus Ministerii in Ecclesia peregrinorum profugorum propter evangelium Christi Argentinae. Adjecta est ad finem brevis apologia pro hac Liturgia,per Vallerandum Pollanum Flandrum. Londini, per Steph. Mierdmannum. 1551. 8vo. The book, it is generally assumed, furnished hints to the English revisers for some additions that were made in 1552 to the ancient services.

Poullain’s dedication of the book to King Edward is couched in terms which make it evident that he hoped its publication might influence future liturgical revision, being itself a revision of Calvin and Farel’s Services, “modified and supplemented.” The translation helped to make Calvin’s liturgy well known in England. Its influence upon the Prayer Book in 1552 may possibly be traced in the introductory portion of the morning and evening prayer, and in the insertion of the ten commandments in the Communion office.

According to H. J. Wotherspoon (The Second Prayer Book of King Edward the Sixth [1905], p. 19) Poullain’s ‘draft thus prepared was privately printed in 1554, and a few copies circulated among the Frankfort exiles with a view to consideration and adoption, and it possibly reappears later as the Order of Geneva (as distinguishedfrom the Genevan Order of Calvin), which in revised and extended form became the Book of Common Order introduced into Scotland in 1563-64’ (see also, ibid., pp. 59-61). George Washington Sprott (The Book of Common Order [1901], p. 198) states that ‘A second edition of the Liturgy of Pollanus was published at Frankfort, 1554.’34

  1. All of Poullain’s versions of Liturgia Sacra were reprinted with an introduction and commentary in 1970.
  2. William Whittingham, a presbyterian minister at Frankfurt, published a (not so unbiased) account of his and Knox’s struggles in Frankfurt, which one can read here.
  3. Unless Poullain published a separate liturgy in 1554, merely a year prior to the 1555 edition, then this data must be incorrect
  4. Muss-Arnolt, “Puritan Efforts and Struggles.”

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.