The Core of Elizabethan Religion
John E. Booty
Historiographer of the Episcopal Church, USA

Booty, John E. "'The Core of Elizabethan Religion." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 4.1-14 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/booty.htm>.

  1. The Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552, 1559) can be understood as a fundamental expression of and formative agent in Elizabethan religion.[1] Authorized and its use enforced by a statute of the realm (I Eliz. 1.c.2), the book assumes that God is, that the world and all in it were created and ordered by God, that human beings by their hubris (sin, pride) are responsible for the disordering of this orderly world, that Christ was sent to be the agent by which the disorder can be reordered (reformed) and disobedient, rebellious humans saved from the consequences of sin and death.

  2. Such an understanding of order, disorder, and reordering was common in Elizabethan England. In the minds of Elizabethans Thomas Elyot, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Walter Raleigh the universe was an orderly whole, disordered by hubris, selfish pride. The ideal was order, harmony, concord, "sweet music." The actual was disorder, disharmony, discord, "sour music." They understood this not only on specific concrete terms but as effecting the universe. Thus William Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida (1.3) has Ulysses proclaim:

    The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
    Observe degree, priority and place,
    Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
    Office and custom, in all line of order . . . .

    Such is the ideal and to the bard most real. The actual he describes, saying: 

    But when the planets
    In evil mixture to disorder wander,
    What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
    What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
    What consternation of minds!

    Now the enterprise is sick with a sickness that pervades all mankind. Ulysses comments:

    Take but degree away, untune that string,
    And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
    In mere oppugnancy.

    Of this Leo Spitzer wrote, "The equation here is distemperamentum = discordia rerum of which repugnantia rerum (Cicero) and repugnantia naturae (Pliny) are variants."[2]

  3. What is the cure? In a sermon presented before King James VI and I, John Donne spoke of God making "this whole world in such an uniformity, such a correspondency, such a concinnity of parts that it was an Instrument, perfectly in tune." But then the highest strings, the trebles, were disordered. Donne said, "the best understandings, angels and men, put this instrument out of tune. He does not say so here, but elsewhere he attributes the disorder to hubris, having in mind the Biblical doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin. What is to be done? "God rectified all again, by putting in a new string, semen mulieris, the seed of a woman, the messias."[3] And with the sounding of that string disorder is overcome and order restored. That is to say, through Christ, his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, people are turned as they turn from sin and death to righteousness (obedience to God's will) and eternal life (incorporation into the living body of the Son of God, the eternal Logos).

  4. The Book of Common Prayer was crafted and its use enforced as a means to restore order among the people, the Church, and the nation. A first installment of the book in 1548 was "The Order of Communion," issued at the beginning of the reign of Edward VI to provide for the communion of the people at the Mass in both bread and wine and to help prevent the disorderliness then occurring in the transition from Henry VIII to his son. That "Order" meant to be inserted into the Mass signaled certain key emphases. First, it was in English whereas the Mass was in Latin. It emphasized the necessity of the faithful receiving the sacrament, whereas there was a tradition of non-communicating masses. The word and concept of communion included personal participation in Christ, his death and resurrection, and concern for the commonweal, the welfare of all the people in the community. Specifically it provided for the confession of sin and the amendment of life, not in a spirit of stultifying contrition but in thankfulness. The faithful were exhorted to "give most humble and hearty thanks [Eucharistia] to God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ." In Christ, through Christ the faithful are freed from the bonds of sin and death, serving "him [God] in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life."[4] This is true order, true harmony, sweet music restored.

  5. All of this occurs in The Book of Common Prayer in the context of the Sacraments, Baptism and the Holy Communion. In his Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament (1550) Cranmer wrote of the Sacraments as instrumental in effecting that participation in Christ whereby we are cleansed from our sins, inherit eternal life and live in communion with others as responsible citizens. He emphasized that the purpose of the water in Baptism and the bread and wine in the Holy Communion was not that they should be other than they seem to be, but that they may be the means by which God's work of redemption may be done in the washing in water in Baptism and the eating of bread and wine in the Holy Communion, the bread and wine being Christ's body and blood to the faithful receivers, means by which they are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, made new people to do his work in the world.[5]

  6. In such thought Cranmer (and The Book of Common Prayer) did not separate a person's religion from society and the various crises in that society, including the greed of landowners and the poverty of the yeoman farmers. In the Defence he wrote:

    more cruel and unreasonable are they than brute beasts, that cannot be persuaded to be good to their Christian brethren and neighbours, for whom Christ suffered death, when in this sacrament they be put in remembrance that the Son of God bestowed his life for his enemies. We see by daily experience that the eating and drinking, together maketh friends and continueth friendship; much more then ought the table of Christ to move us so to do. Wild beasts and birds be made gentle by giving them meat and drink: why then should not Christian men wax meek and gentle with this heavenly meat of Christ? Hereunto we be stirred and moved, as well by bread and wine in this holy supper, as by the words of scripture recited in the same. Wherefore whose heart so ever this holy sacrament, communion and supper of Christ will not kindle with love unto his neighbours, and cause him to put out of his heart all envy, hatred, and malice, and to grow in the same all amity, friendship, and concord, he deceiveth himself, if he thinks he hath the spirit of Christ dwelling within him.[6] 

    The restoration of order thus involves the commonweal. The people composing the geographical parish gather to worship God and to be formed and reformed as the body of Christ, the Church, which is a social entity of people caring for one another, the wealthy and the poor alike, according to their station in life, a community marked by "amity, friendship, and concord," a well ordered society.


  7. Richard Hooker in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity reflects the core of Elizabethan religion and in Book V does so in a lengthy treatise which is, in part at least, a commentary on The Book of Common Prayer or an exposition of the meaning of the Prayer Book worship, the first extensive, probing examination of The Book of Common Prayer and its meaning.[7] 

  8. First, and in a sense foremost, is Hooker's affirmation of God the creator, redeemer, fulfiller of everything that is in heaven and on earth. Hooker affirmed this in describing the universe of laws, all proceeding from God, and the first and second laws eternal. This led to the affirmation in Book V of the Laws that "God hath his influence into the verie essence of all thinges, without which influence of deitie supportinge them theire utter annihilation could not choose but followe. Of him all thinges have both received theire first beinge and theire continuance to be that which they are" (Laws, V: 56.5). He affirmed on this basis the interdependence of all that is, in the Sermon on Pride saying: "God hath created nothing simply for it selfe: but ech thing in all thinges and of everie thing ech part in other hath such interest that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto anie thing created can saie, I need thee not" (FLE 5: 333.16-19).[8] This is the grand vision, shared with Aristotle and Thomas, rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; and it is a vision which has ramifications for all of life, every aspect of being and becoming. God "is the father of all." 

  9. But that vision is blurred in our world, the world as we experience it, not the world as it is essentially. In place of a sense of dependence based upon divine love and interdependence, the fruit of that love in our relationships with all that God has made, there is, Hooker tells us, pride, "immoderate swelling," the mother of all evil, evil that negates God's love, setting man against man, family against family, and nation against nation. In a magnificent long sentence Hooker describes the proud, saying, in part: "how they use their servants as if they were beasts, their inferiours as servants, their equals as inferiours, and as for superiours acknowleg none; how they admire them selves as venerable puissant wise circumspect provident every way great, taking all men besides them selves for ciphers poore inglorious silly creatures, needles burthens of the earth, ofscowringes, no nothing" (FLE 5: 319.29-320.4). There is another form of pride, that which infects persons who, although acknowledging their faults, despise themselves, convinced that they are beyond salvation, refuse forgiveness and sink into the slough of despair. In effect, as Hooker teaches in Book VI, this is to deny God and to regard themselves as failed gods. Whichever form it takes, pride is destructive, a disease that, infecting and killing ourselves and others, destroys the commonweal.

  10. The medicine, as the Epistle to the Ephesians asserts, the cure for the disease of selfish pride is found in God's gift of his Son: "that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith, that ye being rooted and grounded in love . . . that ye might be fulfilled with all the fullness which cometh of God" (Eph. 3:17, 19).  In his Sermon on Pride Hooker referred to this passage from Ephesians, focusing on the words, " that Christ may dwell in your harts " (FLE 5: 326.19). He had in mind here "participation," "that mutuall inward hold which Christ hath of us and wee of him, in such sort that ech possesseth other by waie of speciall interest propertie and inherent copulation" (Laws, V: 56.1), whereby we are made new, transformed, saved from the hell of selfish pride and all of its hideous offspring. Christ dwelling in our hearts we are enlivened to strive toward that ultimate goal of all, which is union, communion with God and with one another in God. "Then are we happie," wrote Hooker in Book I, "when we injoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our soules are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God" (Laws, I: 11.2).

  11. How does this transformation occur? Through God's grace, God's abundant love working through word (logos and Logos) and sacraments in the body which is Christ's own, the Church. The ministry of word and sacraments viewed interdependently in the context of Prayer Book worship provides the means of justification and sanctification, through the grace of repentance transforming prideful beings in a lifetime of mutual nurture from selfish pride to that which is the opposite of pride, according to Hooker, humility. Such humility was revealed in Christ Jesus and is inspired through the ministry of word and sacrament. To have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5) is to participate Christ (this is Hooker's wording), to be humbled as he was, living in constant awareness of dependence upon God and interdependence as creatures of the father of all.

  12. Consideration of having the mind of Christ brings us to those words in the passage from Ephesians which refer to being "strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man." To be thus strengthened is to be drawn by divine love and mercy out of the hell of selfish pride into humility, humility defined by G.E. Mendenhall as "primarily a mode of acting toward one's fellow men; it does away with selfish pride, arrogance, and especially violence, and furnishes the possibility of peace and harmony in community."[9] In Hooker the sense of this is expressed in terms of love and mercy, God's and through God ours. It is mutual participation which finds expression in "mutual assistance" (FLE 5: 334.27), "the glue of mutual assistance" (Laws, V: 76.9). Such mutual assistance concerns justice: "that which florishing upholdeth and not prevailing disturbeth shaketh threatneth with utter desolation and ruine the whole world; justice that wherby the poore have their succour, the rich their ease, the potent their honour, the living their peace, the souls of the righteous departed their endlesse rest and quietnes" (FLE 5: 332.30-333.4). Hooker is aware of the difficulties involved in any discussion of justice, but this does not deter him from affirming its importance and locating at its heart the fundamental rule of the interdependence of all in God's creation, whereby the "good things" we possess, "may be derived unto others, those which may be wanting in one and yeat not without possibilitie to be had from some other" (FLE 5: 334.12, 14-16). Furthermore, Hooker reminds us, those in need include ourselves. Thus "justice is the vertue wherby that good which wanteth in our selves wee receyve inoffensivelie at the handes of others" (FLE 5: 334.24-26).

  13. Paul Stanwood brought to my attention three sermon fragments, found in the papers of Archbishop Ussher, which due to Professor Stanwood's careful scholarship we now attribute to Hooker.[10] One of the sermons based on the Epistle to the Hebrews 2:14-15, contains in it that which Hooker described as "The very center of Christian beliefe." He puts it succinctly: "the life and soul of the Gospell of Christ doth rest in this, that by ignominye, honor and glory is obtained; power vanquished by imbecillity; and by death salvation purchased" (FLE 5: 404.12-15). The stranglehold of Satan, pride, sin, death, and disorder was broken by the display of divine love on the cross. What was it that God there on the cross made manifest? "[T]he very summe of the whole scope of Christ in the work of our deliverance, was to display the treasures of infinite love, goodness, grace and mercy. Greater love there cannot be then this, when a man is content to bestow his life for his friends. Joh.15." (FLE 5: 406.4-8). That display illuminates the human condition of disorder, refutes the common assumption that God is the God of wrath, makes possible contrition and amendment of life (there can be no contrition without a previous awareness of God's love and mercy), and enables a life of mutual participation, Christ in us, we in Christ. And this illuminates the salvation Hooker regards in relation to the Holy Communion. In the sermon on Hebrews 2:14-15 he said: 

    The principall thing therefore which our grand deliverer would have for ever remembred is that by death he hath wrought our deliverance. For this cause the sacrament of the holy Eucharist was in such form and manner instituted, that the breaking of flesh and the shedding of blood, that is to say, the face of death might most lively appear in it. For this cause th' apostle in setting down our principall duty herein, omitteth not to speak expressly of death, as of the very weapon whereby Christ hath wrought our deliverance. As oft as ever ye doe this, Mortem Domini annunciatis, ye set forth the death of your deliverer. 1. Cor. 11. (FLE 5: 406.18-27)

    Thus shall disorder be reordered.

  14. Not all of the English adhered to the core of Elizabethan religion as expressed in The Book of Common Prayer and by Hooker, the defender and interpreter of that book. For one thing, the medieval concept of an orderly universe was under attack. But the sharp division of grace and reason, of the sacred and the profane, of fallen natures and the sovereign God of the Calvinists, was a harbinger of things to come. For the time, the golden age of Elizabeth I, the assumption implicit in Prayer Book worship and in the teachings of Richard Hooker prevailed.



1. See Booty, "Elizabethan Religion: Disorder Ordered."

2. See Spitzer (100).

3. See Donne (2: 170).

4. See Kelley (5).

5. See Cranmer (38-41).

6. Ibid. (42-43).

7. In this exposition of Hooker's teaching I rely on the Folger Library Edition of The Works of Richard Hooker. References to the Laws are given in the text by book, chapter and section numbers. References to other works are given by reference to the critical edition (FLE), volume, page, and line number. On Hooker and The Book of Common Prayer, see my introduction to Book V of the Laws (FLE 6: 183-6).

8. Hooker refers here to Cor. 12:21 and goes on to relate this to Hosea 2:21-2.

9. See Mendenhall (2: 659).

10. See Stanwood and Yeandle (33-37).

Works Cited

    2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
    (RGS, LJ, WSH, 08 May, 2001 )