The Purpose of the Book of Homilies:

The Making of a Church


By John Drury



And the office of bishops and pastors is to prayse good men for well doynge that they maye persever therein, and to rebuke and correct by the Worde of God the offences and crimes of all evill disposed persones.[i]


            This quote - tucked away in Homily #6 - reveals the purpose of the entire Book of Homilies.  The Bishops saw the compilation of the homilies as a fulfillment of their vocation to build up the Church.  The 1547[ii] Book of Homilies is therefore an indispensable document for grasping the ecclesial vision of these early Anglican churchmen.  The following is an investigation into how the many rhetorical and literary features of the Book of Homilies contribute to this ecclesial vision.  My contention is that despite its eventual decline, the Book of Homilies as a document successfully describes the Reformed piety that the Bishops aimed to instill among the English people.

            I will proceed with this investigation by first examining the historical background and development of the Book of Homilies, followed by a close reading of its form and content.  I will point out structural patterns, rhetorical devices, imagery, quotations and allusions, each building toward the vision of piety expressed in the homilies as a whole.  It is worth noting that such a focus on piety counterbalances the recent attitude toward the Book of Homilies as propaganda.[iii]  In no way would I deny the presence of propaganda.  Rather, I would like to attend to the propaganda of the Book of Homilies in relation to its explicit focus piety.  Keeping these two elements in mind, let us turn to the historical background and development of the Book of Homilies.

1. Background and Development

            Contrary to popular belief, preaching was not an invention of the Reformation.  Nor had it died out in the late medieval era.  Long before 1547, bishops sought to promote preaching.  “As early as 1281, Archbishop John Pecham ... established standards for preaching.”[iv]  The standard resource for parish priests by the 16th century was John Mirk’s Festial, which was a compilation of legends of the saints.[v]  Preaching was also known to include fables and fantastical allegories.  During the 1520’s, English bishops began publishing sermons in refutation of Martin Luther’s heresies.[vi] 

            The churchmen of the Reformation then turned this strategy on its head.  In the wake of Henry’s break with Rome in the 1530’s, the Reformers set their sights on the “use of fabulous homilies that were not biblically based.”[vii]  Richard Taverner published a series of cautiously Protestant postils in 1540.[viii]  By 1539 Thomas Cranmer had already begun compiling the Book of Homilies.[ix]  In 1542, Convocation sanctioned the compilation of a book of homilies.[x]  Bishop Bonner of London was supportive, though he wanted to limit the Reformers.  He saw to it that preachers quoted patristic sources.[xi] 

            In the early 1540’s, Henry passed over Cranmer’s homilary and instead published the more conservative “King’s Book” (1543).[xii]   Laws condemning all preaching that is contrary to its doctrine accompanied it.  Although Cranmer complied, “he had never really given up the project, and within five months of the king’s death, Cranmer was raising the issue again.”[xiii]  For the sake of balance, he asked for contribution from conservative bishops such as Bonner and Gardiner.[xiv]  Cranmer, nevertheless, wrote the sermons on justification, faith and works (#3, #4, and #5).  Therefore, when it was finally published in 1547, the Book of Homilies was a thoroughgoing though cautious Reformed homilary.

            This quick glance at the background and development of the Book of Homilies simultaneously reveals its continuity and discontinuity with its recent homiletical past.  Inasmuch as Cranmer’s explicit concern was the lack of education among the priests,[xv] he was simply fulfilling his episcopal vocation.  Furthermore, the unmistakable emphasis on virtue throughout the Book of Homilies is familiar territory for late medieval preaching.  Yet this pedagogy and piety were brought forth from different sources and were cast in a new light.  The immediate conservative reaction to the Book of Homilies was not in vain.[xvi]  The rejection of legends, saints and fables and the turn to Scriptural and patristic sources is a break from the homiletical tradition.  Furthermore, the teaching of virtues is cast in the new light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith.[xvii]  No longer would congregations be called to imitate the meritorious works of saints.  Rather, they will be called to do the good works that flow naturally from faith.

2. Structural Patterns

            The structure of the Book of Homilies is a typical homilary collection.  Taken as a whole, the homilies do not form a cohesive argument nor are they organized around a particular outline.  This is evident by simply viewing the contents as a whole:

#1  “A Fruitefull Exhortacion to the Readyng of Holye Scripture”

#2  “Of the Misery of All Mankynde

#3  “Of the Salvacion of All Mankynde

#4  “Of the True and Lively Faithe

#5  “Of Good Woorkes

#6  “Of Christian Love and Charitie

#7  “Against Swearying and Perjurie

#8  “Of the Declinyng from God”

#9  “An Exhortacion against the Feare of Deathe

#10 “An Exhortacion to Obedience”

#11 “Against Whoredom, and Adultery”

#12 “Against Strife and Contencion


            Although the term “collection” characterizes the whole, an intentional structure can be found in the first half of the Book of Homilies.  It begins with a sermon on Holy Scripture, which is a fitting point of departure for a Reformed document.  It is also an expression of the discontinuity of this homilary from its medieval background.[xviii]  Such a placement is far from haphazard.

            The next four sermons form an intricate whole.[xix]  Each sermon explicitly builds on the previous one and prepares for the next.  As a whole, these four sermons address the doctrine of salvation: why it is needed, how it comes to us, and the manner of our response.  

            The first in the series is Homily #2 “Of the Misery of All Mankynde.”  This sermon describes the pride of humanity and the penitence of even the greatest saints.  It warns the hearers of hypocrisy and recommends confession and gratitude.  It then concludes with an explicit reference to the following sermon:  “Now, how these excedyng greate mercies of God set abrode in Christ Jesu for us bee obteined, and how we be delivered from the captivitie of synne, deathe and helle, it shall more at large, with Gods helpe, be declared in the next homilie” (76).  By referring forward, Homily #2 instills anticipation in its readers, and begins this cycle of intricate relations.

            Even the title of the next sermon - “Of the Salvacion of All Mankynde” (#3) - implies a continuation of the theme of the previous sermon.  It builds on the argument that since no one is righteous, everyone must look for some other righteousness.  Enter the doctrine of justification by faith.  The jewels of Christ’s body and blood satisfy God’s justice, and we take hold of them by faith.  The sermon turns to the relation between faith and works, but leaves a full treatment of the matter for the next two sermons.

            “Of the True and Lively Faithe” (#4) piggybacks on the previous sermon by its opening sentence: “The first entrie unto God, good Christian people, is through faith, whereby, as it is declared in the laste sermon, we be justifyed before God” (91).  Homily #4 proceeds by distinguishing between two kinds of faith: one that is mere assent and therefore dead, and the other that is working by love and therefore alive.  The Homily sets forth three points:

First, that this faithe doth not lye ded in the hart, but is lively and fruitful in bringing furth good workes.  Second, that without it can no good workes be doen that shalbe acceptable and pleasaunt to God.  Thirde, what maner of good workes thei be that this fiath doth bryng furth (92).


The first point is taken up in Homily #4, while points two and three are discussed in “Of Good Woorkes” (Homily #5).  The opening words of Homily #5 make this continuation clear: “Now by Gods grace shalbe declared the seconde thyng that before was noted of faith” (103).  Such a pattern shows forth the especially close connection of these two sermons, so that they almost form one continuous sermon.  Susan Wabuda ironically points out, “the homily on faith was about good works, and the homily on good works was on faith.”[xx]  The rhetorical effect of such a close connection is an equally close association of faith and works in the minds of the hearers.

            As the cycle of sin-salvation-faith-works comes to a close, so do the references of the homilies one to another.  The following seven sermons are collected in no particular order.  Large structural comments are no longer in order.  However, it is worth noting the internal structure found within the sermons themselves.  For instance, most of the sermons begin by making a proposition.[xxi]  Most propositions are then followed by scriptural and patristic support.  However, sometimes a proposition is followed by some kind of explanation.  The explanation may proceed by means of a response to possible misunderstandings, as is found in Homily #3:

And because no man should erre by mistakyng of this doctrine, I shall plainely and shortely so declare the right understandyng of the same that no man shall justly thinke that he maye therby take any occasion of carnall libertie to folowe the desires of the flesh (83).


            Blocking a potential excuse may also follow the making of a proposition.  This can be found in Homily #1, which mentions two “vaine and fained” excuses for not reading the Scriptures: the fear of error and the difficulty of understanding (64).  The homily preempts the first excuse by explaining that error is caused by ignorance of the Scriptures.  The excuse that they are too difficult is countered by directing readers first to the easier parts of the Bible and only later to turn to the harder parts.  The rhetorical effect is that the proposed hearer is left without excuse.

            The explanation of a proposition may also contain a reply to objections.  This functions in a manner similar to the block of excuses.  Homily #7, for instance, proposes that swearing is appropriate in civil matters but not in commerce.  The sermon then offers the objection that one must swear in order to buy and sell.  The reply to this objection is that one who swears in commerce is not to be trusted, and so the hearer is impelled to not do business with those who demands oaths (130).

            Every Homily does not, however, follow this proposition-explanation method of deduction.  Some are shaped in a problem-solution structure.  Homily #2, for instance, introduces the problem of sin and its universality.  Toward the end of the sermon, a summary statement of the problem is offered: “Thus we have heard how evill we be of our selfes” (74).  Only in the final moments do we hear of the solution to the problem: “To God, therfore, must we flee, or els shall we never finde peace, rest and quietnesse of conscience in our hartes” (74).  The rhetorical effect is that hearers are moved from seeing their own pride (70) to the recommendation of humility (76).

            A similar problem-solution pattern can be found in Homily #8 “Of the Declingyng from God.”  The sermon opens with the problem that a great many people ignore God’s commands (137).  God’s response to this problem is then described: God will express his displeasure by showing his fearful countenance or by hiding his face (139).  These “threatenings of God” (139) are aimed to turn people back to God.  The human side of the solution is offered at the conclusion of the sermon.  If the hearer is the evil sort of person who commits blatant sin, then he or she should ask for mercy.  If the hearer is the slothful sort of person who makes God’s promises greater than they are, then he or she should remember the law and not just the gospel (143).  The rhetorical effect of such a structure is that hearers are taken on a ride from their “vicious living” (137) to a somber warning of the divine threat.

            The last structural pattern worthy of note is the typical manner of conclusion.  Most of the sermons end with a turn of language to the first-person-plural.  Almost every sermon ends with the phrase “Lette us ...” followed by the virtues and practices appropriate to the theme of the sermon.  To give just one example, the opening line of the concluding paragraph of Homily #9 “An Exhortacion Against the Feare of Death” reads,

Therfore, let us diligently forese that our fayth and hope whiche we have conceyved in almightie God and in oure savioure Christe waxe not faynte, nor that the love whiche we pretende to beare to hym waxe not coulde, but let us studye dayly and diligently to shewe oure selfes to be the true honorers and lovers of God, by kepynge of his commaundementes, by doyng of good dedes unto our nedy neighbors (156).


The rhetorical effect of such conclusions is to include the whole community (“us”) in the application of the sermon.

            These patterns give us a glimpse into the means used by the bishops to reform the church.  They prepare the way for the more subtle yet potentially more effective rhetorical devices present in the Book of Homilies.  To these we will now turn.

3. Rhetorical Devices

            The Book of Homilies is packed with rhetorical devices to pull its hearers into the ecclesial vision.  There is a good deal of affirming rhetoric, such that the hearers feel invited into the sermon.  For instance, the hearers are often referred to as “good Christian people.”[xxii]  Such positive rhetoric is also evident when the recommendations of the sermon are made to look easy.  For instance, in Homily #1 Scripture reading is to be pursued “conveniently” (64), and hearing alone is sufficient, although hearing and reading is better (65).

            In accomplishing its purpose, the Book of Homilies does not shy away from pathos.  As a matter of course there is considerable emotional content to be found in its pages.  Comfort is offered to parents who have lost infants by the claim that baptized infants are covered by the atonement of Christ (79).  The cost of the ransom paid by Christ’s life is lifted up in order to move the hearer to devotion (80). Similarly, love of enemies is encouraged by pointing out that Christ loved us while we were still enemies (123).  And when we fear the pain of death, the thought of Christ’s pains will “mitigate those paynes and moderate those fears” (151).  The homilies use pathos to move hearers into comfort and toward action.

            To the rhetoric of affirmation and pathos may be added the rhetoric of reward.  This is especially significant for the rhetoric of preaching, as eternal reward figures significantly into traditional religion.  The promise of future bliss is offered to those who persevere in good works (113).  Love of enemies is encouraged by the reward attached (121).  If we match Christ’s charity we will share in his eternal life (125).  Of course, the language of reward has its underside: punishment.  The danger of punishment figures significantly into Homily #10 “An Exhortacion to Obedience.”  Disobedience of rulers results in both earthly and eternal punishment (167).  The rhetoric of reward and punishment is not unique to the Book of Homilies.  Yet is plays the significant role of lifting the seriousness of the matter and increasing the appeal of the virtuous life.

            Shame is another form of negative rhetoric utilized in the Book of Homilies.  Drawing on an Erasmian motif, Homily #1 states that a Christian who does not read the Bible would be “ashamed,” just as a philosopher who does not read great philosophers would be (64).  This sermon also points to the profession made at baptism to know God’s Word (67).  Such a reference brings shame on those who have not fulfilled their obligation.  In a more subtle procedure, the Book of Homilies repeatedly describes in the third-person-plural deplorable actions of those who may very well be in the congregation.  For instance, Homily #4 pours heavy shame on “they” that think faith means liberty from good works (93).  The rhetorical effect is that hearers guilty of such attitudes or actions feel shamed out of the community.  It serves the same purpose as the Anabaptist ban, but in homiletical form.

            A powerful rhetorical device found among the homilies is association.  The rhetoric of association can be used both positively and negatively.  Positive association is less common.  Examples can be found wherein Henry VIII is said to have had “the lyke spirite unto the moste noble and famous prynces, Josaphat, Josias, and Ezechyas” (112).  Also, Isaiah is called “the evangelical prophet” (140), obviously associating him with the Protestant movement. 

            Negative association connects certain attitudes or actions with individuals or groups who are regarded negatively by the hearers.  For instance, to have faith without works is to be “deviliish” (86).  On the other hand, to have works without faith is to be no better than Jews, Heretics and Pagans (104).  One who only loves his or her friends is no better than Jews, Turks, Infidels, and brute beasts (123).  Perjurers are associated with Judas (133).

            Some of the most negative association language is used in the link between Catholics and Jews.  The history before Christ is shown to be full of mistaken departures from the Word of God.  Yet the history after Christ was even worse than before: “Never had the Jewes in their most blyndenesse so many pligrimages unto images, nor used so muche knewlyng, kissyng and censyng of them, as hath been used in oure tyme” (110).  There are also explicit connections made between papists and Pharisees (111).  The Catholics are therefore condemned for their association with Jews, and residual Catholic practices among the hearers are condemned by their association with Catholics and Jews.

            Another well-executed rhetorical device is repetition.  By using repetition, a homily can either launch an auditory attack on its antithesis or call forth praise and adoration.  An example of the former, negative use can be found in Homily #5 “Of Good Woorkes.”  In order to critique the excessive amount of holy objects used by Catholics, a near endless list is offered: “And all thinges which they had were called holy: holy coules, holy girdels, holy pardoned beades, holy shooes, holy rules, and all full of holynesse” (110).  The hearer is impressed with the absurdity of the list. 

            An example of a positive use of repetition can be found in Homily #10 “An Exhortation to Obedience.” The duty to obey civil magistrates is legitimated by the repetition of divinity in close proximity. 

“[A]ll persones having soules ... do owe of bounden dutie, and even in conscience, obedience, submission and subjection to the hygh powers, which be constituted in aucthoritie by God, forasmuch as thei be Gods livetenauntes, Gods presidents, Gods officers, Gods commissioners, Gods judges, ordeyned of God hymself, of whom thei have al their power and aucthoritie” (163).


Such repetition of God’s ordination of civil authorities has unmistakable rhetorical power.

            One final rhetorical feature of the Book of Homilies must be noted.  On numerous occasions, language is used to legitimate the authority of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities.  Such legitimization is surely for the sake of the Reformation of piety.  For instance, Homily #3 switches to the first-person-singular in order to declare, “It is not I that take awaye your synnes, but it is Christe onely” (84).  For the minister to so renounce the power of absolution is a powerful move.  However, inasmuch as it serves to legitimate the authority of the new Reformation theology, the term “propaganda” remains fitting.  Such is certainly the case when Old Testament iconoclasts are referred to as “God elect ministers” (107).  Homily #12 argues against controversy and debate, revealing the wish of the bishops to retain control over the doctrinal agenda.

            The language of legitimization is even stronger when the homilies speak of civil authority.  The long tirade in Homily #5 against the monasteries long after their dissolution functions merely to justify Henry’s actions (111).  Explicit gratitude to God is offered for Henry VIII (111).  The preacher is said to have the Word on the basis of I Tim 5, while the governor has the sword on the basis of Romans 13, and both are for the execution of God’s rebuke on the land (124).  Homily #10 begins with an extended ode to the order of nature, all for the sake of legitimizing the power of the crown to preserve this order (161).  The sermon then explicitly thanks God that England has been protected from disorder (162).

            The most obvious antithesis to civil authority was the “pretensed power of the Bishop of Rome” (168).  Some of the most creative rhetoric in the Book of Homilies is found in its attacks on the authority of Rome.  For instance, Homily #10 uses Peter’s own epistles against the claim to Petrine primacy:

S. Peter doth not say, submit your selfes unto me, as supreme hed of the Churche; neither he saith, submit your selfes from time to time to my successors in Rome.  But he saith, submit your selfes unto your kyng, your supreme head, and unto those appoynteth in aucthoritie under hym (169).


Few moments in the Book of Homilies better evidence its rhetorical wit.  Yet the full power of the Homilies cannot be seen in structural and rhetorical devices alone.  We must also consider the significance of its imagery.

4. Imagery

            The imagery of the Book of Homilies is unmistakably homely.  The earthiness of its similes and metaphors contributes to its effectiveness as a national document.  If the purpose of the homilies was to take Reformation doctrine and piety into the heart of every parish, then homely imagery may have been its most powerful tool, especially in the most rural of areas. 

            Eating and drinking are a simple yet prominent imagery found throughout the Book of Homilies.  The metaphors used to describe the essence and function of the Scriptures in Homily #1 is representative.  The Scriptures are like drink for the thirty and food for the hungry.  Hearers are discouraged from running to another well, like human tradition, and are summoned to drink from the true well (61).  In response to the excuse that the Bible is difficult to understand, the hearer is encouraged to “sucke the swete and tender milke, and differre the rest untill he waxe stonger and come to more knowledge” (65).  The conclusion encourages hearers to “ruminate and, as it wer, chewe the chudde” of the Scriptures (67).  It is this sort of imagery that reaches to nearly all hearers.

            There is also present in the Book of Homilies a good deal of horticultural imagery. Homily #2 describes us sinners as crab trees with no fruit (73).  Homily #5 takes up and extends the Johannine vine imagery to explain that those who have faith will naturally bear fruit (103).  The imagery of God’s vineyard is also expounded.  In Homily #8, “Of the Declinying from God,” the vineyard is used to describe the threat of God’s judgment.  Such imagery would find an especially warm audience in rural areas.

            The homilies make considerable use of common sense imagery that could be understood by anyone.  Homily #1 picks up Augustine’s metaphor of the Scriptures as a high palace with a low door (65).  This metaphor expresses on the hand, the height of knowledge contained in the Bible, and on the other, the entrance requirement of humility.  Homily #9 on the fear of death encourages hearers by calling bodily death a door to eternal life (149).  And in order to express the value of both the Scriptures (62) and the body and blood of Christ (81), each are referred to as precious jewels.

            In no other place is there more space given to explanatory imagery that the twin sermons on faith and works (#4 and #5).  This could be in light of the intensely practical nature of these two sermons.  The imagery may also serve to ward off error and confusion.  Works are first described as flowing forth from faith as naturally as light flows from its source (93).  Works without faith are then described as a mere painting and therefore a dead representation of the real thing (103).  One who has good works without faith is like dead man resting in a pretty tomb (105).  Faith is the foundation upon which the structure of works is build (104).  Faith is the nest in which works are placed as birds (104).  Faith is to life as works are to nourishment (105).  Therefore, one could possibly (though inadvisably) have faith without works as one could have life without nourishment.  But works are meaningless without faith as nourishment is meaningless without life.  With such a barrage of images, the hearer is bound to be caught by one of them, and therefore grasp the important relationship of faith and works.

            The importance of imagery cannot be underestimated.  Armed with such homely metaphor, the Book of Homilies was enabled to reach out the most obscure and marginal parish of the English countryside.  The intricate structure and rhetorical mastery did not lie dead without imagistic adornment.  All of these factors are in service of the building up of a true piety among the people of England.  But before concluding with a direct analysis of its descriptive vision of piety, let us examine one more literary aid to the purpose of the Book of Homilies: its use of use of quotations and allusions.

5. Quotations and Allusions

            Quotations and allusions typically serve to legitimate assertions on the basis of the accepted authority of what is quoted.  Yet the reverse is also true.  Quotations and allusions also have the rhetorical effect of legitimizing what is quoted.  If the homilies quote x, it tells the hearers that x can be trusted.  This is especially the case in a time of shifting authority.  The Scriptures are by far the most common source of quotation and allusion.  Certainly one of the aims of the homilies was to make English preaching more biblical. 

            It is worth noting the way in which the scriptures are used.  For the most part they are quoted in order to substantiate a claim made independent of their exposition.  For instance, the character of the thief crucified next to Jesus is twice picked up to explain a point.  Homily #5 notes that the thief had done no good works but only had faith (105).  Homily #9 uses the thief to make an entirely different point.  Many fear death because of the loss of earthly treasures, but one can look to thief on the right to see that in death there is no loss but only gain (151).  Drawing on Scriptural material to prove a point like this is the typical manner of Scriptural citation in the Book of Homilies.  None of the homilies begin with a text and draw a sermon from it.  All twelve are topical sermons, not biblical expositions.  This is not to say, however, that the Scriptures are lacking a prominent place.  They are quoted or alluded to on every page of the Book of Homilies.

            The use of the Deutero-Canonical books by the Book of Homilies is an interesting study.  In many ways, the Book of Homilies offer a great example of what the Articles of Religion meant when they declared that the Deutero-Canonical books are good for practice but not for doctrine.  References to these books are found in nearly every sermon.  The quotations are not taken haphazardly from just any apocryphal books, but only from the Deutero-Canonical texts.[xxiii]  Judith is held up as an example (70).  The Wisdom of Sirach is regularly quoted for practical advice.  Yet the quotation of Deutero-Canonical books is conspicuously absent from Homily #3 “Of the Salvacion of All Mankynde,” which is undoubtedly the most doctrinal sermon in the entire Book of Homilies.  For one who might wonder what the Anglican distinction between doctrine and practice with regard to the Deutero-Canonical books would look like, he or she would need not look any further than the Book of Homilies.

            After the Bible, the most oft quoted source is the early church fathers.  By far, the majority of the patristic quotations are from Augustine and Chrysostom.  But one would also hear the names of Hilary (82), Basil (82), Ambrose (82, 104), Jerome (130), and Origen (138).  Hearers would get the impression that these authors can be trusted.  More learned hearers might even take an interest in reading the Fathers for themselves.  Such a quotation procedure also softens the fears of more conservative, anti-Protestant churchmen who may fear the radical abandonment of tradition.  One can note with irony that the tirade against human tradition on the first page of the first homily (61) is immediately followed by an extended quote from Chrysostom (62).

            The interpretive tradition inherited from the Fathers and especially Augustine also figures prominently in the Book of Homilies.  Two times there are explicit uses of Augustine’s hermeneutical principles as set forth in De Doctrina Christiana.  The first example can be found in Homily #1.  Augustine is quoted as saying,

Although many thiynges in the Scripture bee spoken in obscure misteries, yet there is no thyng spoken under darke misteries in one place, but the self same thyng in other places is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacitie both of learned and unlearned (66).


Hearers are told in Augustinian fashion to focus on the perspicuous texts over the mysterious texts, and the remainder of the homilary follows this same advice. 

            The second use of an Augustinian interpretive strategy does not contain a direct quote but is unmistakable influenced by him, even if only indirectly.  Homily #8 makes use of the principles of signification used in the Augustinian tradition.  The fearful countenance of God is the sign that signifies the wrath of God, while the hiding of God’s face is the sign that signifies being forsaken by God (139).  The presence of such procedures evidences not only the influence of the Fathers but also the dissemination of their wisdom to the common people.  The education of the people by the Book of Homilies was therefore not limited solely to content of the Scriptures, but also to the wisdom of the ages regarding their proper interpretation.

            Allusions and quotations are of course not limited to the ancient biblical and patristic sources.[xxiv]  There are also extensive allusions to contemporary texts.  For instance, the trinitarian language in Homily #1 is reminiscent of the Articles of Religion (62).  The trinitarian benediction at the close of each sermon is reminiscent of the forthcoming Book of Common Prayer.  The call to communal confession would remind hearers of public confession rituals (73-74).  Both the scathing critique of monastic “proprium in communi” (111) and the danger that “all thynges shal be common” if there were no rulers (162) parallel the condemnation of common property in Article 38 of the Anglican Articles of Religion.  Finally, it is worth noting that Homily #11 draws heavily on Thomas Becon’s translation of Heinrich Bullinger’s The Christen State of Matrimony.[xxv]

            What is the significance of all these quotations and allusions?  In contradistinction to the preaching tradition focused on the saints, legends and fables, the Book of Homilies aimed to educated both preachers and congregations in the original sources.  Such an ad fontes approach illumines the humanistic pedagogy serving the Book of Homilies.[xxvi]  For the common hearers, such a sudden switch from saints and fables to the Bible and the Fathers would be both unsettling and exciting.  The ultimate rhetorical pay off is the disapproval of the former and the approval of the latter.  The piety of the Church of England is to be shaped by the original sources, not traditions and popular stories.

6. Descriptive Vision

            All the above literary features of the Book of Homilies are tools to aid its primary purpose: the building up a newly Reformed church.[xxvii]  As mentioned above, this purpose can be seen both from the angle of propaganda and from the angle of piety.  I wish to bring the element of piety into the foreground.  The presence of propaganda will certainly remain in the background, but it is not my focus here.  The promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice will always contain a political element.  This fact does not bar us from taking the description of virtue for what it is, namely, the ecclesial vision of the early Reformers of the Church of England.

            That the Book of Homilies is a document focused on virtue and vice is hard to miss.  Classic lists such as “faith, charitie, hope, pacience, chastitie” (73) can be found throughout its pages.  The language of “more and more” (63) and “daily increasing” (100) reveals a vision of the Christian life that is progressively growing.  Furthermore, the summary statements found at the beginning of section headings reveal the homilies’ descriptive purpose: “You have heard a plaine and a fruitful descripcion of ...” (123).  Such a promotion of piety fits well into the vocation of the bishops both before and after the Reformation.  As Wabuda puts it, “[T]here was a measure of continuity between late medieval and Reformation practice in that responsible bishops were continually interested in setting forth orthodoxy, the encouragement of virtue, and the suppression of vice.”[xxviii]

            What were the primary vices that the bishops sought to suppress?  The Book of Homilies evinces a sharp focus on pride.  Pride is the fountain of all sin.  From it flows all “vicious living” (137).  “Vainglory” characterizes sinful humanity (83).  There is no doubt that such an attack on pride served as propaganda to suppress disobedience and rebellion.  In fact, treason is referred to as “that moste detestable vice” (168).  But another issue is at stake here: true piety.  According to the Reformation theology promulgated by these homilies, practices of piety are deplorable when done out of pride rather than humility.  It is pride that makes one think his or her works are meritorious.  The secret to true piety is to “renounce the merite” of our works and do them out of faith, love, humility and gratitude (84).  A nearly invisible line separates true from false piety, and that line is pride.

            So what is the solution to the proud, false piety into which the church has fallen?  The initial answer is to seek true knowledge that alone leads to true piety.  The only source of true knowledge is the God’s Word, the Bible.  So the Book of Homilies envisions a church committed to the “continual readyng and meditacion of Gods Woorde” (63).  Such a people will “night and daie muse, and have meditacion and contemplacion in them” (67).  The Scriptures will serve as a mirror to tell them who they really are (70, 120).  This leads to the practice of confession.  Hearers are called to “acknowledge our selfes before God” because true knowledge of one’s self is the route to true knowledge of God (73).  If we know our sin, we can then know how great God’s redemption is.  And it is to this redemption that hearers are summoned to attend.  For the “conderynge the infinite benefits of God” will “move us to rendre our selfes unto God wholy” (87). 

            What is the context of this true knowledge that leads to true piety?  Homily #1 explicitly encourages hearers to ask one another and persevere together in the searching of the Scriptures (66).  The communal context of Scripture reading and confession are crucial to the piety promoted by the Book of Homilies.  Such a focus on community persists throughout the homilary.  There are repeated references to the second table of the Decalogue.  Lawful oaths are commended because they build up community (130).  Those who focus solely on God’s promises are told to remember the law and not just the gospel (143).  Obedience to God’s law runs throughout.  Clearly, the Book of Homilies regards ordered community as necessary for the flourishing of virtue.[xxix]

            Alongside obedience to authority in an ordered community, the Book of Homilies lays considerable stress on the virtue of patience.  In the realm of Biblical interpretation, one is recommended to defer more difficult passages until God reveals their true meaning (65).  Hearers are told to be “constant, quiet and pacient in all afliccions” (97).  When one approaches death, he or she is to be patient rather than fearful (152).  Patience serves the overall vision of piety by preparing hearers for the time it takes to develop virtue.  If the newly Reformed church is simply patient, it will see the benefits of this true piety. 

            The interwoven virtues of faith and love deserve our attention, especially since Homilies #4, #5, and #6 are wholly dedicated to them.  In much the same way as pride was the wellspring of all vice, so faith is the wellspring of all virtue.   The cardinal virtues of strength, wisdom, temperance and justice “be al referred unto this same faith” (104).  At the same time, the basis of all virtue is charitie (120).  This apparent discrepancy is understandable in light of the intimate connection made between faith and works of love.[xxx]  Lively faith is only that faith which “worketh by charitie” (92).  In terms of the vision described by the homilies, charity is obedience to God’s commandments, concern for one another, and the love of enemies.  These are the kinds practices that make up the ecclesial vision of the Book of Homilies.

            Although faith and love get their own sermons, it is the virtue of humility that permeates the Book of Homilies.  This is understandable in light of the prominence given to the vice of pride.  Only the humble person can search the Scriptures without fear of error (65).  The vocation of every person is to “humbly submit” before God (76). 

Humility is referred to as the “moste commendable vertue” (70).  If faith is the nest in which all the great virtues are laid, it is humility that is the greatest of these.

            Yet there is nothing particularly unique about the focus on humility.  It may serve to combat the proud piety of meritorious works, but it does not account for the whole pious vision of the Book of Homilies.  Does such an axiomatic virtue exist?  Is there one virtue from which the newly Reformed piety flows?  Although its frequency may be less than faith, love or humility, the virtue of gratitude may very well hold this prized position.  The first glimpse of gratitude can be found in the conclusion to Homily #1.  After all the propositions and practical advice about Scripture have been heard, there is only one thing left to say: “Let us thanke God hartely for this his greate and speciall gyft, beneficial favor and fatherly providence” (66). 

            Gratitude emerges again at the conclusion of Homily #2: “What thankes worthy and sufficient can we geve to him?  Let us all with one accorde burste out with joyfull voyces, every praisyng and magnifiyng this Lorde of mercy” (75).  Albeit in a subtler manner, every other sermon concludes with words of gratitude by means of the benediction.  As the Book of Homilies at least implicitly attests, gratitude is the one virtue that can hold the rest together in a truly Reformed piety.


            The Book of Homilies may be numbered among the key texts for unlocking the vision of the Reformers of the Church of England.  In continuity with medieval preaching, these homilies served the bishops in their responsibility to promote virtue.  Yet this virtue was recast by the revolutionary doctrine of the Reformation.  Cranmer and the other Reformers envision a church committed to true piety, done not out of pride and for merit, but out of humility and gratitude that is nestled in faith working by love.  This is the ecclesial vision found in the pages of the Book of Homilies. 




Winter 2002


Revised: 4-16-04




                [i] Ronald B. Bond, ed., Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547) and A Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1570): A Critical Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987) 124.  Hereafter cited in text by page number.

[ii] Note that I will not be treating here Elizabeth’s 1570 addition of “A Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion.”  Though it may build on the purpose of the Cranmer’s original Homilary, it is certainly an extension of its focus and far more blatant as a piece of political propaganda.

                [iii] R. B. Bond, “A Two-Edged Sword” in Certain Sermons or Homilies 3.

                [iv] Susan Wabuda, “Bishops and the Provision of Homilies, 1520 to 1547” Sixteenth Century Journal 25:3 (Autumn 1994) 554.

                [v] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 554.

                [vi] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 555.

                [vii] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 559.

                [viii] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 558, 562.

                [ix] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 563.

                [x] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 563.

                [xi] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 563.

                [xii] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 564.

                [xiii] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 565.

                [xiv] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 565

                [xv] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 560.

                [xvi] cf. J. Barrett Miller, “The First Book of Homilies and the Doctrine of Holy Scripture” Anglican and Episcopal History 66 (Dec. 1997) 437.

[xvii] Nicholas Tyacke comments that the “central reformist message of [the Book of Homilies] was that works played no part in justification” in Aspects of English Protestantism c. 1530-1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001) 46.

                [xviii] cf. S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 566 and above background summary.

                [xix] It is commonly held that Cranmer penned homilies #1 and #3-5, and John Harpesfield #2 (cf J. B. Miller, “The First Book of Homilies” 435).  However, the material and formal connections between #2 and #3 encourage the hearers to heed them as a whole, despite differences in authorship.  As the primary editor, Cranmer may have made the connections more explicit.

                [xx] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 565-566.

                [xxi] For instance, Homily #3 “Of the Salvation of All Mankynd” explicitly refers to the “propsicion - that we be justifyed by faith onely, frely, and without workes” (83).

                [xxii] cf. Bond, Homilies 91, 149, 167

                [xxiii] This is strikingly different than the more loose use of just any apocryphal texts in Medieval homilies, cf. Milton McCormick Gatch, “Two Uses of Apocrypha in Old English Homilies” Church History 33 (Dec. 1964) 379-391.

                [xxiv] Not all ancient allusions are biblical or patristic.  There are also a few references to pagan texts.  They are refered to generally as philosophy in Homily #1 (64).  An extended retelling of Plutarch’s account of Lysander and Pericles can be found in Homily #12 (196-197).  On the basis of frequency, however, these pagan references can be regarded as the exception and not the rule.

                [xxv] cf. R. Bond, Homilies 174, 178, 180, 183 and notes on 186-188.

                [xxvi] John N. Wall points out the Erasmian groundwork for the book homilies in “The Book of Homilies of 1547 and the Continuity of English Humanism in the 16th Century” Anglican Theological Review 58 (Jan 1976) 75-87, esp. 77-78.

                [xxvii] Both Wabuda (551, 566) and Miller (442) offer support that positive instruction in true piety and virtue was one of the purposes of the Book of Homilies.  They do not, however, proceed to interpret homilies accordingly.

                [xxviii] S. Wabuda, “Bishops” 551.

                [xxix] It is important to understand the reversibility of this relationship.  From the perspective of propaganda, the recommendation of obedience serves to stabilize authority and power.  From the perspective of piety, ordered community is valued because it builds virtuous people.  Nowhere else do the dialectical poles of piety and propaganda meet so tidily as with the issue of obedience to authority.

[xxx] It can also be noted that the second quote comes from Homily #6, which was probably penned by the conservative bishop Bonner, not Cranmer.  Cf. J. B. Miller, “The First Book of Homilies” 435.






Bond, Ronald B., ed.  Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547) and A Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1570): A Critical Edition.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Gatch, Milton McCormick.  “Two Uses of Apocrypha in Old English Homilies.”  Church History 33 (Dec. 1964): 379-391.

Miller, J. Barret.  “The First Book of Homilies and the Doctrine of Holy Scripture.” Anglican and Episcopal History 66 (Dec 1997): 435-470.

Shaff, Philip, ed.  The Creeds of Christendom. Vol 3. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966.

Tyacke, Nicholas.  Aspects of English Protestantism c. 1530-1700.  Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.

Wabuda, Susan.  “Bishop and the Provision of Homilies, 1520-1547.” Sixteenth Century Journal 25:3 (1994) 551-566.

Wall, John N.  “The Book of Homilies of 1547 and the Continuity of English Humanism in the 16th Century.”  Anglican Theological Review 58 (Jan 1976) 75-87.