Commandment Boards and Catechesis

Recently my friend John Wallace, an avid church-crawler, posted on Facebook a photograph he had taken of the old commandment boards from the original building (built 1752-3) of Trinity-on-the-Green, New Haven, CT.

The commandment or decalogue boards originally hung behind the Communion table. Though not very familiar to most Anglicans today, they were a staple of Anglican church interiors before the late 19th century. The old building is gone — the communion boards are all that remain of it. Worshipers at Trinity-on-the-Green now assemble in the first American church designed in the “Gothic Style” (built between 1814-16); as they come to the rail to receive the sacrament, they approach an imposing stone reredos, designed by Charles Coolidge Haight and carved by Lee Lawrie (who later carved the reredos in St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue). The reredos, dedicated in 1912, depicts Christ, with the Blessed Virgin and her cousin Elizabeth on either side of him (Dzeda, 2002, “Trinity Walk Through). While this 1912 reredos is likely a more familiar picture of Anglicanism today, it would not have been prior to the late 19th century; instead, commandment boards were ubiquitous.

In 1560 and 1561, Queen Elizabeth ordered that the text of “God’s Precepts,” the Ten Commandments, be displayed on the eastern wall of every church in England (Doran and Durston, 2002, p. 50); this order was reaffirmed by her successor James I in the 1604 Canons, which required “that the Ten Commandments be set up upon the East-end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same” (Canon LXXXII). Two other catechetical texts — the Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer — were usually set up along with the commandments (for further discussion of this see Willis, 2017, p. 297-317 and MacCulloch 1992, p. 9).

Another friend and church-crawler, Edoardo Fanfani, also recently posted photographs of many of the Wren churches of London. Here is one he took of St. Stephen Walbrook. In 1666, when the Great Fire destroyed eighty-eight of London’s parish churches, Charles II commissioned a thirty-three-year-old Christopher Wren, new head of the Office of Works, to erect fifty-one new buildings designed with the prayer book liturgy in mind (rather than pre-Reformation churches refitted for the reformed liturgy). In the Restoration, the Reformation model established a century before was followed — each of these magnificent new churches featured boards displaying the Decalogue, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer above the Communion table (many were replaced by altarpieces after being damaged during the WWII bombings).

What was the rationale behind this design? Why did the commandments have such a prominent place in Anglican churches? Why were they placed above the holy table? This placement of “God’s Precepts” in church interiors directly reflects the place of the commandments in the prayer book.

The commandements show up in two prominent places in the prayer book: in the catechism and in the Communion office. These two are not unrelated, as indicated by this rubric “And there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he can say the Catechism, and be confirmed” (found after the Confirmation liturgy; that is how the rubric reads in 1552, 1559, and 1604, while in 1662 it reads, “And there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed” — “readiness” was measured by the catechism). This rubric indicates the aim of the catechism to lead from the font to the table.

The prayer book catechism was built around three texts, the same three texts displayed above the table. The catechism begins with the baptismal identity: the renunciation of the dominion of the devil and death and the embrace of God’s Kingdom, both its Creed and Code, its pledge of allegiance and its standard of behavior. After these are recited and explained, the catechist tells the child, plainly and frankly, “know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the commandments of God.” What then is the child to do? To learn to call upon God in prayer, primarily in the form of prayer given by Christ himself, “Our Father, etc.” That is where the catechism ended until 1604, when a set of questions on the sacraments was added. The new final question is “What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper?” To which the answer given is, “To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lifely faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.” This answer points right back to the three texts just recited — the statement of faith, the standard of charity by which behavior is measure, and the model of Christian prayer, the pleading of divine mercy. It also points ahead to the table — “a thankful remembrance of his death” — above which those very same texts are displayed. The placement of the boards reinforces the teaching of the catechism.

The usefulness of the catechism as a tool for preparation is also seen in the exhortations in Communion. The three exhortations all emphasize preparation for reception, which involves self-examination, repentance, and prayer. The third exhortation, read every Communion Sunday says:

Consider what St. Paul writeth to the Corinthians, how he exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that bread, and drink of that cup: for as the benefit is great, if with a truly penitent heart and lively faith, we receive that holy Sacrament (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood, then we dwell in Christ and Christ in us, we be one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the daunger great, if we receive the same unworthily.

By what measure were communicants to examine and prepare themselves? By the three texts learned in the catechism. To facilitate this preparation, these texts are built into the liturgies for Morning and Evening Prayer and Communion. The daily office calls for the use of the Lord’s Prayer (twice in each office, four times daily) and the Apostle’s Creed (twice daily); the Communion office begins with the Lord’s Prayer and proceeds to the commandments. Though Communion was usually only taken a few times a year, the first half of the service, Antecommunion, was read every Sunday. Every Sunday the minister read the Ten Commandments to the people and after each of the first nine they responded: “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law”; to the last the reply is “Lord, have mercy upon us, and write these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.” The liturgy teaches how the commandments function as a tool for preparation. It begins with a reading of the commandments, and, because they are displayed above the table, they come into prominence again as the faithful draw near to the table to partake, reminding communicants that they approach the Most Holy God.

In the 16th century, when the boards were first installed, most people in England could not read, but we can well imagine they would have been told what was painted on them, so that the meaning of their placement was clear: the wedding garment required of those who approach is faith and righteousness, which the Lord himself provides. We can also image they might have been useful to clergy who taught the children of the parish the catechism (and how to read). By the mid-17th century, when Wren’s churches were erected, literacy had increased a good deal; for those who could read the text on the boards is likely too small to see from the nave; nevertheless, when they came forward the words would have come into focus — and, of course, they were familiar enough that there would be little need to read every word to recall the text and be affected by it.

The connection between the commandments and the table works in the other direction too: the close proximity of the table to the commandments influences how the Christian perceives the law. We should never think of God’s holy precepts without also recalling Christ’s cross, lest we despair. No, the Christian should always think of God’s law in relation to Christ’s death on the Cross for our innumerable violations of those precepts, to fulfill all of their righteous requirements, and to make us holy as He is holy. The commandments, then, play a key role in how Communion is to be understood and received. Learned by heart before confirmation, read at the opening of the Communion liturgy every Sunday, and displayed permanently above the table, they express God’s holiness and our need of his grace as we take and eat in remembrance that Christ died for us and feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.


Drew Keane

Drew Keane is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. He served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church from 2012 to 2018. His current research focuses on residual orality in 16th C. English religious prose.


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