John Boys and the Tradition of Prayer Book Commentary

For Anglicans, commentary on our liturgy has been — more than in any other tradition — one of the main vehicles for exploring, explaining, and debating our doctrine. This has led to some unfortunate exaggerations, like the false notion that Anglicans don’t have a theology, only set forms of prayer. Nevertheless, as Archbishop Ramsey liked to say, Anglicans do have a habit of doing theology to the sound of church bells (The Anglican Spirit, 1991, p. 9) and most of us have come to think of this habit as a virtue. As a result, commentaries on the Common Prayer reveal a great deal about Anglicanism.

Philip Tovey observes that “[p]rayer book commentary is a particularly Anglican genre” that emerges in the seventeenth century (Anglican Confirmation 1662-1820, 2016, p. 14). It is generally thought that the earliest book-length Prayer Book commentaries are published in the Interregnum in response to the immediate need to defend the abolished liturgy of “the church of Elizabeth and James” (a phrase that comes into common use in the 1630s). So it is claimed in the introduction to Paul Marshall’s masterful Prayer Book Parallels (1989) and in Arthur Middleton’s Fathers and Anglicans: The Limits of Orthodoxy (2001, p. 81). This claim, however, seems to be mistaken. In 1609 John Boys (1571–1625; Dean of Canterbury from 1619) published the first of several book-length studies of the reformed English liturgy (all gathered together into Boys’ Workes in 1922), placing the earliest publication of a book-length Prayer Book commentary back more than thirty years before the civil war, in the Jacobean period.

Addleshaw (The High Church Tradition, 1941) helped to establish the popular narrative of the emergence of the genre of Prayer Book commentary. He provides a list of what he calls “the most eminent High Church writers on liturgy in the seventeenth century.” His use of “High Church” is, of course, an anachronism, as the earliest use of this party label does not appear until nineteen years after the Restoration, but his list includes three pre-civil-war works: Richard Hooker’s (1553-1600) Ecclesiastical Polity V (1597), Lancelot Andrewes’ (1555-1626) notes (first published in 1854), and John Cosin’s (1594-1672) notes (first published in 1710 in Dr. Nicholl’s Commentary). Hooker provides extensive comments on the Prayer Book in Book V of the Lawes (1597), so much so that we might regard this as the earliest published commentary, but since the defense of the liturgy only forms one part of a larger argument, rather than being the exclusive focus of the book, it is generally not counted as the first in the genre (moreover, if we do count it as a publication in the genre, then we probably ought also to count Whitgift’s 1574 Defence of the Answer to the Admonition, against the Reply of Thomas Cartwright). The annotations of Bishops Cosin and Andrewes are not published until long after the Restoration, so their influence before then is limited to a small number in a personal network.

The surprising omission is John Boys’ The Minister’s Invitatorie, being an exposition of all the principall scriptures used in our English liturgie: together with a reason why the Church did chuse the same (1609), An exposition of the dominicall Epistles and Gospels used in our English liturgie throughout the whole yeere: together with a reason why the Church did chuse the same (1610), and An exposition of the festival Epistles and Gospels, used in our English liturgie: together with a reason why the Church did chuse the same (Part I, 1614; Part II, 1615). Written for ministers, these expositions generated great demand, going through a number of editions in quick succession. The several books in this series were first published together in 1622 as The Workes of John Boys, Doctor of Divinity and Dean of Canterbury (which also went through several editions and was even translated into German). Perhaps Addleshaw is unaware of John Boys’ commentary, perhaps his approach — which focuses on the Prayer Book as a means of setting forth the Scriptures — fails to fit Addleshaw’s understanding of the genre, or perhaps Boys fails to fit Addleshaw’s definition of “High Church” (though if that were true, one would imagine L’Estrange would not make the list either). Whatever the reason, Boys slipped out of the story.

In 1645, the Long Parliament outlawed use of the Book of Common Prayer and required use of the Directory of Public Worship in its place, a text which describes the general components of church services without providing a lectionary or scripted prayers. Two very different commentaries on the abolished Prayer Book appear in the following decade. Anthony Sparrow, a clergyman of Laudian loyalties who in 1645 was removed from the rectorship of Hawkendon parish in Suffolk for reading the illicit Common Prayers in services. In 1655, Sparrow publishes A rationale or practical Exposition upon the Book of Common-Prayer of the Church of England. His commentary is a popular-level apologia that forwards Jewell’s thesis (in Apology for the Church of England) that the English prayer book is, reasonable, free of superstition, and consistent with primitive Christianity. Sparrow defends the idea of set forms or prescribed liturgy generally, drawing on arguments first advanced by Hooker Lawes V, and his perspective on the Prayer Book is distinctly Laudian. A very different kind of work appears in 1659, the layman Hamon L’Estrange’s The alliance of divine offices, exhibiting all the liturgies of the Church of England since the Reformation, as also the late Scotch service-book. Unlike Sparrow, L’Estrange is not interested in defending Laudianism; for example, though not required by the Prayer Book rubrics or 1604 Canons, Sparrow emphasizes the communion rails, while L’Estrange only once mentions mentions them, and that in a quote from the canons of the Council of Toledo, given in the course of explaining the origins of the invitation “draw near with faith” (contrast, too, L’Estrange’s discussion of the rubric that the Communion table be placed in the middle of the chancel or church during Communion time with Sparrow’s omission of any reference to that rubric). Much more than an apologia (though it is that too), L’Estrange provides the first historico-critical commentary on the Prayer Book, the first to use parallel columns to compare different editions. The approach is informed by Thorndike’s 1642 Of Religious Assemblies, which Marshall identifies as the earliest English work of historical liturgiology. Both of these works are referenced in Charles Wheatly’s 1710 work, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer. Shaped by Sparrow, Wheatley also gathers together insights from L’Estrange, Comber, Nicholls, and Cosin (though not without original insights), but of John Boys he shows no awareness. Weatly became the standard for Prayer Book commentary for more than a century after its publication.

The neglect of Boys’ work appears to be a great loss. His expositions (primarily written for other ministers, since Latin and Greek sentences are not translated) generated great demand, going through a number of editions in quick succession. The dedicatory epistle to King James in the collected Workes, Boys says “I for my part auow to the world, that from my youth vp vnto my gray haires, I did euer esteeme, as a second Bible, the booke of Common Prayer, in which (as I haue prooued) every tittle is grounded vpon Scripture, euery Scripture well applied, euery good application agreeable to the most ancient and best reformed Liturgies in all ages.” He concludes The Minister’s Invitatorie with almost the same phrase (clearly one with which he was pleased) —

Thus I have briefly surueied all our English Commnion [sic] booke, the which (as Hierome said of Iohns Apocalyps) Tot habet sacramenta, quot verba: euery tittle is grounded vpon Scripture, euery Scripture well applied, euery good application agreeable to the most ancient and best reformed Liturgies in all ages (Boys’s Works, 1629, p. 68).

This view of the Prayer Book, of course, was a point of considerable controversy, as those whom he calls “Novelists” were less than persuaded that the liturgies were so entirely grounded upon the scriptures as to warrant being thought of as a “second Bible.” In 1604, Manchester curate, Ralph Adams, was presented to his ordinary by some of his parishioners, for (among other things) saying “that the Book of Common Prayer is no scripture” (Richardson, Puritanism in North-West England: A regional study of the Diocese of Chester to 1642, 1972, p. 40), which (of course) suggests that many of his parishioners shared Boys’ view.

His focus on the use of Scripture in the Prayer Book does not exclude considerable engagement with other sources. For example, in discussing the biblical origins of the Gloria patri, he also shows how early it begins to appear in liturgies, then refers curious readers to Bellarmine and “that Oxenford of learning, Master Richard Hooker.” His marginal references reveal that he was extremely well-read in contemporary continental Protestant (particularly Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, Martyr, Beza, Luther, and Melancthon) and Roman writers (particularly Bellarmine, Cajetan, and Erasmus), as well as medieval (particularly Bernard, Aquinas, Lombard, and Anselm), and patristic sources (particularly, Augustine, Jerome, Cyprian, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Eusebeus). Of his own countrymen, he most frequently cites William Perkins, William Fulke, and Richard Hooker. Judging from his extensive marginal references, it is not surprising to learn that the Dean died surrounded by his books (Dictionary of National Biography).

As indicated in his dedicatory epistle, Boys frequently highlights “agreeable to the most ancient and best reformed Liturgies in all ages” in particular, noting how the reformed liturgical customs of England and Scotland align. For example, near the end of his comments on the sursum corda, he notes that it

is no rag of Rome, no peece of Popery, but used in all Liturgies of the ancient Church; and that which may content the Novelist most, it was borrowed (as Master Fox thinkes) not from the Latine, but from the Greeke Churches. Howsoever, it is exceeding fit: for Almighty God in his holy seruice requires our heart principally, So giue me thy heart: so that when we come to his Temple, specially to his table, euery one must say with Dauid, I lift vp my soule to thee. For as the Church of Scotland truly ) the only way to receiue worthily the Lords Supper, is to lift vp our minds by faith aboue all things worldly and sensible, and thereby to enter into heauen, that we may finde and receiue Christ, where he dwelleth, a point well vrged also by our Church: Hom. concerning the worthy receiuing of the Sacrament: part the first.

Similarly, concerning the Gloria in excelsis, Boys observes

It was first vsed in the Communion (as it is thought) by Thelesphorus a good man, and a glorious Martyr, anno 254 Ianuar. 5. That which followeth in our Communion Booke, we praise thee, we blesse thee, was added by that famous Bishop Hilary: singing it first in his owne Church, anno 340. and after brought into the Churches by Pope Symmachus, anno 510. the Churches of Scotland vse the like forme of thankes at their Communion. And therefore the Novelist can mislike nothing in this Hymne, but that which all other like most, Antiquitie.

References to the Church of Scotland must be meant to knock the legs out from under the argument that the Church of England was insufficiently Reformed because references to Scotland cluster together with references to those whom Boys calls “the Novelists.” Polemic is certainly present, but it never feels like the focus; his polemical points are made in passing. Boys’s views seem to be similar to Archbishops Whitgift and Bancroft (both of whom gave him preferment) but his commentary does not feel like a continuation of Whitgift’s debate with Cartwright, and his work isn’t framed as apologia, like Hooker’s is. More of Boys’s polemical comments are aimed at “the Papists” than the Novelists. As the above samples also show, he’s stylistically quite different from Hooker, who delights in rhetorical exuberance and the periodic sentence. Like William Perkins, Boys’s writing shows the clear influence of Peter Ramus and Francis Bacon (both of whom show up in his extensive references), even down to the frequent use of braces to visually display relationships between ideas.

Boys sees the Prayer Book as a vehicle for setting forth God’s Word, and the annual sequence of Collects, Epistles, and Gospels to be used at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the primary means by which that is accomplished. The vast majority of his nearly 1,000 page Workes is devoted to commentary on the Epistles and Gospels. Whereas Sparrow (forty-five years later) gives a few sentences on each Sunday’s Epistle and Gospel, Boys has half a dozen to a dozen pages for each. It seems as if some of these began as sermon notes — at the conclusion of the comments on All Saints, a note is added indicating when and where it was preached.

As I am writing this piece a few days after the feast of the Circumcision of Christ, I will give some highlights from the six pages Boys writes on that festival, which provides a representative of his whole style.

Boys begins with the Epistle, Romans 4.8 “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sinne, &c.”

Our Apostle confirmes in this Chapter that doctrine which he deliuered in the former, namely, that a man is not iustified by the workes of the Law, but freely by grace through faith: and this hee proues in our Text by two reasons especially: 1. From Dauids testimonie, Blessed is the man, &c. 2. From Abrahams example, We say that faith was imputed unto Abraham for righteousnesse, &c. Now Paul mentioneth Abraham and Dauid in this controuersie, because their workes were most glorious among the Iewes, in so much as they called Abraham father, and David is stiled a man according to Gods owne heart. The patterne then of Abraham accounted righteous before God by faith, and the precept of Dauid, affirming that our blessednesse consists in the remission of our sinnes, and not in the perfection of our vertues; are both exceeding fit, and well accommodated vnto the present purpose. …

This makes against Osianders deified righteousnesse, as also the Popish inherent iustice, for God is our righteousnesse, and Christ our holinesse, I Cor. I.30. Being iustified freely by grace, through faith in him who iustifieth the vngodly. … See Epistle 25 Sunday after Trinitie.

Whereas it is obiected, that the blessed man is iustified by workes in part, because in him spirit there is no guile, as the text runnes in Dauid, howsoeuer omitted here by Paul: Augustine answereth aptly, that the blessed man hath in his heart no guile, for that he doth not dissemble his sine, but humbly confesse his faults. … Euery Christian may say with our Apostle, When I am weake, then am I strong. And God also saith vnto such as feele their infirmities, as he did vnto Paul, My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is made perfect through weaknesse, 2 Cor. 12. 9. And therefore the true Penitent brags not of his vertues as the Pharisie, but of his infirmities as Paul, acknowledging ingenuously that his happinesse consists in the remission of his sinnes.

He proceeds to a discussion of the relationship between Abraham’s circumcision and righteousness, addressing the apparent conflict with James 2.21. “Wherefore then serued Circumcision? It was vnto him a signe and a seal of the righteousnesse of fiath, verse 11.” Then he provides one of the Ramist charts to elaborate on the definition of circumcision as sign and seal. “Signum” and “A Seale” are give as two categories. A brace next to the first is then divided into five categories: memoratiuum, representatiuum, distinctiuum, demonstratiuum, praefiguratiuum. The second brace, aligned with “A Seal” has four categories:

For that it is an [sic] witnesse of faith receiued.

As being an expresse signe of the thing signified, Abraham beleeued his seed should be multiplied, & ideo congruenter accepit fignum in membro generationis.

As sealing vp secredtly this mysterie, that the Sauiour of the world should be borne of the seed of Abraham.

Because it was a confirmation of Gods promise to father Abraham, as the Letters Patent of Kings are sealed for better assurance. Vt obsignaret iustitiam fidei, to seal the righteousnesse of faith in his heart.

This leads to a discussion of “the true doctrine of Sacraments against Anabaptists, ascribing too little to them, and Papists attributing too much.” His explanation aligns with references the “Anglican Confess. art. 25” as well as drawing on “the words of reuerend Hooker”and Augustine. At the end of the paragraph he refers readers to his comments on the Epistle for the 13th Sunday after Trinity.

Next Boys turns to the Gospel, Luke 2.15, “And it fortuned, as soone as the Angels were gone away from the shepherds into heauen, &” observing that although

this text commends vnto your consideration a great many of remarkable vertues of the glorious Angels in preaching Christ, of the good sheperhds in seeking Christ, of blessed Marie the Virgin in keeping Christ, and his mother in her louing armes, as his handmaid in her lowly heart; yet the more proper and proportionable parts, accommodated vnto the present Feast, are principally two: 1. The Circumcision of Christ. 2. The imposition of his name Iesus.

Much more space is devoted to the first than the second. “In the Circumcision of Christ obserue these three points:”

  1. The time when, the eighth day.
  2. The part where, implied here, for that Christ was cicumcised as another childe: but expressed in the first Lesson allotted for this morning Prayer, Genes. 17.11 to be the foreskin of the flesh.
  3. The cause why, should be, that, (as in the words following) after the Law.

Each of these three is then discussed. Five reasons are given why Christ was circumcised:

  1. To shew that he was of the seed of Abraham, Heb. 2.16
  2. To declare himselfe a member of the Iewish Church, in which euery man-child was circumcised.
  3. To demonstrate that he had true flesh, against Manicheus: and such a flesh as was not of the same substance with his Deity, Coessetiale destati corpus, against Apollinarius: or fetched from heauen, as Valentinus imagined; he was I say circumcised, to shew that he was made of the seed of man according to the flesh, Rom. 1.2.
  4. For that he was the truth, of which Circumcision was a type, Vt figuram ipse veritas finiret.

But the principall reason is insinuated in the Text, for that the Law required that euery man-child should be circumcised. He therefore was circumcised to shew his obedience to the Law.

Regarding the naming of Christ, Boys refers readers to his comments on the Gospel for the Sunday after Christmas and the Epistle for the Sunday next before Easter, then says “I will end here with a diuine sonnet of an ancient friend and accurat Poet.”

Iesu, thy loue within me is so maine,

And my poore heart so narrow of content,

That with thy loue my heart wellnigh is rent:

And yet I loue to beare such louing paine.

O take thy crosse, and nailes and therewith straine

My hearts desire to his full extent,

That thy deare loue therein may not be pent:

But thoughts may haue free scope thy loue t’explain.

Ah now my heart more paineth then before,

Because it can receiue and hath no more.

O fill this emptinesse, or else I die:

Now stretch my heart againe and now supply.

Now I want space, now grace to end all smart,

Since my heart holds not thee, hold thou my heart.

He doesn’t identify the poet, but I’ve seen the poem attributed elsewhere to William Alabaster. They certainly could have been “ancient friends,” as they were studying at Cambridge at the same time (Alabaster began his studies three years before Boys, but was still there when Boys matriculated in 1586). After giving the poem, Boys concludes with the text of the collect for the feast, without commenting on it.

The study of the Prayer Book remains one of the primary means by which we Anglicans think through our doctrines and so the tradition of Prayer Book commentary provides one of the best windows through which to view the identity and development of Anglicanism. In this essay, I have aimed to show that we must revise the way in which we tell the story of the emergence of that quintessentially Anglican genre, Prayer Book commentary, to include the neglected work of John Boys. I hope the samples provided leave you eager to read more of Dean Boys’ exposition on the scriptures used in the Book of Common Prayer and prompt reflection on his understanding of the Prayer Book as a means for setting forth and engaging with the Word.


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, and he is a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews.


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