Monday, August 20, 2012

How rodents carried out the will of God

Puritans versus the Book of Common Prayer

© Christy K Robinson

The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition
The Book of Common Prayer has been used by Anglicans since 1549. It contains the liturgy for various worship and sacramental services, including baptism, marriage, funeral, and communion (Eucharist) ceremonies, as well as the scripture readings for the holidays of the church year, and of course, prayers for all occasions. The book has been updated over the centuries and decades, but some phrases, particularly in the wedding service, remain virtually unchanged: “dearly beloved,” “until death do us part,” “ashes to ashes,” and many others.

Non-conformists like the Puritans (who considered themselves reforming members of the Church of England) resisted or refused use of the BCP on the grounds that the Anglican church had not broken completely with the Roman Catholics at the Reformation. Puritans pointed to the priests’ garment (the surplice), bowing to the communion bread and wine (idolatry because the Eucharist were symbols, not God’s flesh and blood), the use of musical instruments and vocal harmony in services, and the stained glass and religious art, as proof that the Reformation had not put off these distractions for pure and holy worship of God. The Book of Common Prayer was too ritualized for Puritan tastes.

William Laud, Bishop of Bath, Wells, and London in the 1620s, was a “favorite” of King Charles I of England, and although he held some beliefs in common with Puritans and had at one time given them a measure of support or tolerance, he became increasingly authoritarian in his administration of church discipline. In 1633, he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his restrictive and punitive policies in pursuit of uniformity actually spurred the Great Migration of Puritans from England to North America.

The Book of Common Prayer was not a favorite in Massachusetts Bay Colony, a theocracy ruled by Puritan/Congregationalist magistrates and ministers. Nor was it approved in Plymouth, New Haven, or Connecticut Colonies. It wasn’t banned because the Church of England was nominally the state religion, but neither was it used in New England churches in the mid-17th century.

Because Rhode Island colonists were exiled from other colonies for their dissidence to Puritanism, the BCP was never an issue there. From its inception in 1638, Rhode Island separated civil and ecclesiastical powers and its citizens enjoyed freedom of religion.

The BCP bound together with Psalms and the Greek
New Testament
, in the same way John Winthrop Jr.'s
book was bound. The mouse ate the part of the book that was
exposed to him, which would have been the BCP, not the Bible.
Winthrop's miracle story is humorous when you know
how the book was bound.
John Winthrop Sr., governor of Massachusetts Bay colony for most of his nineteen years in Boston, was an attorney and magistrate, and one of the investors in the Massachusetts Bay Company. He ordered government on Puritan beliefs and with his business and ministerial partners, created a theocracy. Winthrop kept a journal intended to be a historical record of the founding of the colony. Many of the events he reported were infused with moral conclusions, like this little gem below. Notice that he doesn’t actually criticize the Book of Common Prayer—he only wonders at the strange occurrence. The reader is left to conclude that even vermin were directed by God in their foraging.

December 15, 1640—“About this time there was a thing worthy of observation. Mr. Winthrop the younger [the governor's son], one of the magistrates, having many books in a chamber where there was corn of divers sorts [wheat, barley, rye, Indian corn], had among them one wherein the Greek [New] testament, the psalms, and the common prayer were bound together. He found the common prayer eaten with mice, every leaf of it, and not any of the two other touched, nor any other of his books, though there were above a thousand.” ~ Journal of Gov. John Winthrop

It seemed miraculously clear to John Winthrop Sr. that God had made his will plain on the matter of the Book of Common Prayer and what it was good for: mouse chow.

On the other hand, the Anglican hand, the mice could be considered highly selective in their choice. The winter stores of grain were not good enough for these critters. No, they knew Jesus' proverb that  “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’" Matthew 4:4.

In the English Civil War, Parliamentary forces took Archbishop Laud captive. He was imprisoned for four years and executed in 1645. The BCP was outlawed during the reign of Parliament and the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, and replaced with the Directory for Publique Worship.

When Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, the BCP was brought back for use in Anglican churches and revised. The Act of Uniformity was passed on 19 May 1662, and the Book of Common Prayer returned to use in July.

Fast-forward to the 21st century: The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, tweeted on 20 June 2012, “We are celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer today in Parliament. 350 years young and not out!”

Christy K Robinson, author of this Dyer website, is also the author of these books:
·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Hutchinson, American Founding Mother (2018)


  1. Thanks you, a very interesting post! Anyone wishing to find out more about the 350th anniversary, there is a site here: - and there is a Prayer Book Society:
    Historical fiction fans will also have read about the Prayer Book's principal author, Thomas Cranmer, in Hilary Mantel's multi-prize winning WOLF HALL.

  2. Thanks for referring me to this article, Christy. A different perspective on the politicization of church worship in the seventeenth century.


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