Prayer Books and the American Revolution

Book_of_common_prayer_1662Over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Sara Georgini of the Massachusetts Historical Society examines the impact of the American Revolution on Boston Anglicans through a close reading of their prayer books.  Georgini describes the “humble prayer book” as “a key intellectual artifact of the revolution.”  In the process she also provides us with a nice little slice of revolutionary-era lived religion.

Here is a taste of her post:

Church records tell us half the tale of how people “lived” religion while turning their hearts and minds to full-scale war. But modern revolutions run on reading material, and all books have biographies. To get at early America’s shifting worship politics, let’s “track changes” in the Books of Common Prayer amended by Anglican and Episcopal laity in the 1770s and 1780s (shown here). As they changed ways of daily worship, Americans imprinted a new language of selfhood and statehood. They road-tested national rhetoric, long before they had any clear, constitutional vision of what that nation might look like. (For more, check out John Fea’s #ChristianAmerica? post, too). Parishioners moved around sacraments to suit new needs. The laity’s handwritten edits in prayer book margins—scraping off “King of Kings” and pasting over rote prayers for the royal family—operated as cultural cues for political change. At critical moments in the war, as colonists endured sieges and made sacrifices, they edited their prayer books to endorse turns in popular thought at the local level. During a holiday week when we think about declarations of independence big and small—and in a year marking the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary—the humble prayer book still serves as a key intellectual artifact of revolution.

At the same time, these volumes were signs of consensus and communion in the Atlantic World. Books of Common Prayer first reached America’s shores alongside the earliest settlers. Often, the 1662 edition printed by London’s John Baskerville was formally issued to new American churches by the Royal Wardrobe. At Old North Church in Boston, vestrymen of 1733 opened a green-baize lined trunk mailed “from the Jewell Office.” Next to sterling silver communion plate, velvet pulpit cushions, and a Bible emblazoned with the royal arms, lay a second cache. Old North vestry received two prayer books, “bound in Turkey leather strung with blue garter ribbon and trimmed with gold fringe” and a dozen more for the community to share, all “bound in Calf Gilt & filleted & strung with blue Ribbon.” Prayer books were more than highly prized signals of royal favor. These worship aids consolidated five liturgical texts: daily offices, Litany, Holy Communion, pastoral offices, and the ordinal. As Rowan Williams suggests, the Book of Common Prayer outlines theological positions, but it is “less the expression of a fixed doctrinal consensus… more the creation of a doctrinal and devotional climate.” Across the Atlantic World, Anglo-American clergy used them to convey a community’s civilization, and learning. In fractured parishes, buying prayer books was often the sole purchase that everyone agreed on.

Read the entire post here.