The “Books of Homilies” hold a special place within Anglicanism. They are enshrined in Article XXXV of the 39 Articles as, “The Second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.”
As such, their role should be significant in helping us understand our identity as Anglicans, yet they have been neglected, in large part due to the fact that they do not fit neatly in the categories Modern Anglicans place themselves into. In some ways, they are what we would describe as Catholic, in others, quite Reformed. Their language can be harsh at times; human beings are frequently referred to as “miserable” and “wretched.” A deep well of knowledge lies within, however, and we believe that the time has come to return to resources such as these, with the hope of working towards a more cohesive Anglicanism.
The Homilies arise out of the ancient tradition of homiliarium, collections of well-known homilies, usually with particular themes to match the liturgical calendar. Inspired by the Lutherans, who had used collections of postils (homilies) to spread Lutheranism, Thomas Cranmer devised the first Book of Homilies in July of 1547. It served two purposes: to educate both the laity and clergy in the new doctrines of the faith, and to fill the gap in preaching created by reform. The first Book of Homilies was so popular, and had such a potent effect, that when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne 12 years later, she and her bishops immediately commissioned a second book. While the first Book of Homilies deals with broader “Protestant” themes, such as Justification by Faith, the second one is unequivocally Anglican.
If you were an Englishman living in the 16th or 17th centuries (and quite frequently in the 18th as well), you likely knew the Homilies like the back of your hand. Their preaching was required and given special status in the Elizabethan Injunctions. You would be catechized in the worthy receiving of the Sacrament, knowing that “at this His table we receive not only the outward Sacrament, but the spiritual thing also: not the figure, but the truth: not the shadow only, but the Body: not to Death, but to Life: not to destruction, but to salvation.” You would hear “that no doctrine is so necessary in the Church of God, as is the doctrine of repentance and amendment of life,” and on Christmas you would be asked to “confess him with our mouthes, praise him with our tongues, believe on him with our hearts, and glorify him with our good works.” To have such riches ringing in the ears of every man, woman, and child for decades, even centuries, is something we can only dream of today.
Over the next few months, we will be publishing the Homilies, beginning with the second book. The source is an official reprint from 1859, which contains light updates to both spelling and punctuation, yet still preserves the original text. Our hope is to make them freely accessible to all, and soon we plan to make Word and PDF copies available for download as well. As this is a transcription of the 1859 reprint, we make no claim of ownership: please use and or print however you may please.