Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XXIV

Article XXIV.

Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth.

IT is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church to have Publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

De loquendo in Ecclesia lingua quam populos intelligit.

LINGUA populo non intellecta, publicas in Ecclesia preces peragere, aut Sacramenta administrare, Verbo Dei, et primitivæ Ecclesiæ consuetudini plane repugnat.

Section I. — History.

THE Article itself appeals to the custom of the primitive Church. The testimony of the fathers we must naturally expect to find only incidentally; for, unless the custom of praying in a strange tongue had prevailed in early times, the idea would probably never have occurred to them, and so they would not be likely to say anything against it. There are however several important proofs to be found, that such a custom did not prevail, but that prayers were offered up in the churches in the vernacular tongue.

Greek, Latin, and Syriac were languages spoken by the great bulk of the nations first converted to Christianity; and therefore the earliest liturgies and translations of the Scriptures were sure to be in these tongues. But moreover, the Egyptians, Ethiopians or Abyssinians, Muscovites, Armenians and others, had liturgies in the vernacular.[1]

The sacred Scriptures were early rendered into the tongues of the nations which had been converted to the faith. Even before the coming of Christ, we know that the Scriptures were translated into Greek for the Alexandrian Jews, and into Chaldee for the Jews of Palestine, to whom their original Hebrew had become obsolete. Under the Gospel the Syriac translation of the new Testament is by many ascribed to the age of the Apostles; at all events, it is a very early work. Latin versions were scarcely, if at all, posterior to the Syriac. Thus the numerous tribes which spoke Greek, Latin, or Syriac, had from the beginning the Scriptures, as well as the common Prayer of the Church, in languages understood by them. Moreover, there were very early versions into the Coptic, Sahidic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Armenian, Gothic, Sclavonic, and Anglo-Saxon; a fact too well known to require proof.[2]

Again, we have evidence from the writings of the fathers, that the custom of the primitive Christians was, that the whole congregation should join in the responses and in the singing of psalms and hymns; a custom which proves that both the psalms and the liturgies must have been in intelligible dialects.[3] For instance, St. Cyril writes, “When the priest says, ‘Lift up your hearts,’ the people answer, ‘We lift them up unto the Lord;’ then the priest says, ‘Let us give thanks unto the Lord,’ and the people say, ‘It is meet and right.’”[4] St. Chrysostom says, that “Though all utter the response, yet the voice is wafted as from one mouth.”[5] And St. Hilary speaks of people standing without the Church, and yet able to hear the voice of the congregation within, offering up prayer and praise.[6] So the emperor Justinian in one of his laws especially enjoins bishops and presbyters, in public prayers and Sacraments, to speak, not secretly, but with such a voice as may be well heard by the people.[7]

But, beyond all this, we have plain testimonies of the fathers, that both the Scriptures were read and the prayers offered in a tongue intelligible to the assembled multitude. Justin Martyr says, that, among the early Christians, “the commentaries of the Apostles and writings of the prophets were first read; and then, when the reader had ceased, the president made an oration exhorting the people to remember and imitate the things which they had heard.”[8] Such an exhortation would have been useless, if the language in which the writings of the Prophets and Apostles were read had not been a language familiar to the congregation. There is a well-known passage in Origen,[9] where he asserts, that, “the Greeks used Greek in their prayers, the Romans Latin, and so every one in his own language prays to God, and gives thanks, as he is able: and the God of all languages hears them that pray in all dialects, even as if all spake with but one voice.” From Jerome we learn, that sometimes more than one language was used in the same service, because of the presence of men from different nations. He says, that, “at the funeral of Paula, the Psalms were sung in Greek, Latin, and Syriac, because men of each of those languages were there.”[10] Indeed, eminent schoolmen and Roman Catholic divines, as Lyra, Thomas Aquinas and Harding, have fully allowed that in the primitive Church prayers were offered up in the vulgar tongue, that the people might be the better instructed.[11]

The way in which the use of a dead language for public worship came in, is pretty obvious. The Romans, as masters of the western world, strove to impose their own language on their colonial subjects. Thus the common tongue of Europe was Latin. The ecclesiastics were in constant connection with Rome, the centre of civilization, the chief city of Christian Europe. Thus the language most generally understood became too the language of liturgical worship. By degrees, out of the ancient Latin grew the French, the Italian, the Spanish, and other dialects. Still the old Latin liturgies were preserved, and for a long time were, with no great difficulty, understood. By this time the clergy throughout the western Church had become still more closely united to Rome. More too of mystery had grown over men’s minds with regard to the Church’s sacred ordinances. Hence all things conspired to make the clergy willing to leave in the language of the central city the prayers of the distant provinces. And thus the change, which became needful when men’s languages had changed, was never effected. A feeling too that, as the Church was one and yet universal, so there should be but one universal tongue in which her prayers and praises should go up to God, lent a colouring of piety and poetry to the old custom of having Latin liturgies. And so till the Reformation, no efficient attempt was made to reform what many must have deemed an error, and to make the worship of God, to people as well as priests, a reasonable service.

When this question came to be discussed in the Council of Trent, it was forbidden by an anathema to say that the mass should not be celebrated in any but the vulgar tongue, or the consecration not performed in a low voice.[12] And though in modern times some prayers are offered in the churches of the Roman communion in tongues understood of the people, yet the mass is never celebrated except in Latin, both to avoid profanation, and lest the very words which are supposed to have been used from the beginning should lose any of their force or sacredness by translation.

Section II. — Scriptural Proof.

IT is not likely that there should be very much said in Scripture on this subject. The Bible seldom suggests, even to condemn, errors into which men had never fallen. Certainly, however, we can find no trace among the Jews of the use of prayers in an unknown tongue, nor yet among the Apostolic Christians.

The only case in point appears to be that of the exercise of the gift of tongues among the Corinthian Christians. The purpose for which that miraculous power was conferred, was evidently, that the Gospel might be preached by unlearned men to all nations, peoples, and languages. Some of the Corinthian converts, having received the gift by the laying on of the hands of the Apostles, used it to ostentation, not to edification, speaking in the congregations in languages not understood by those who were present. St. Paul rebukes this in the xivth chapter of his first Epistle; and there incidentally shows, that prayer in a tongue not intelligible to the congregation is contrary to the due order of the Church and the will of God. This is especially observable in verses 14‒17: “If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else, when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing that he understandeth not what thou sayest?” So again ver. 19: “In the Church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” And ver. 28: “If there be no interpreter, let him” (i. e. the person who can speak only in a tongue unknown to the hearers) “keep silence in the Church; and let him speak to himself and to God.”

All these arguments seem as clearly against having liturgies in a dead language, as against the custom which had grown up in the Church of Corinth, of using the gift of tongues when there was none to interpret them. Prayer is to be with the understanding, not with the spirit only. Prayer and thanksgiving are not to be offered publicly in words, to which the unlearned cannot say Amen. A man may pray in such words in private to God, but not publicly in the Church. The reason assigned is, “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (ver. 33). And the general rule laid down is, “Let all things be done to edifying” (ver. 26).

No arguments from expediency seem fit to be set against such decisions of the Apostles. Now the only arguments of any weight for retaining Latin in the Liturgies are arguments from expediency. For instance, it is said, Latin is a general language, and so, well for the whole Church to use. But it is more true to say, that it is generally unknown, than that it is generally known; for it is only the learned in all lands that understand it; the masses of the people (who have souls to be saved as well as the more instructed) do not understand it anywhere. It is said, that the holy services are kept from profanation by being veiled in the mystery of a difficult tongue. But it is surely more profanation, when people mutter sacred things, or listen to them being muttered, without understanding them, than when they reverently and intelligently join with heart and mind in solemnizing them. It is said again, that the use of the dead language fixes and preserves the sacred services; so that words used from Apostolic times are still used by the Church; and the mass is celebrated in the same syllables in which it was said by the primitive bishops. This, if extended to the whole service of the mass, is not strictly true; for the Roman missal does not actually agree with the various primitive liturgies, which primitive liturgies have considerable varieties among themselves. If the statement be confined to the very words of consecration; then surely we ought to use, not Latin, but Greek, in which these words are to be found in the new Testament. If these be any virtue in the very words themselves, we are no nearer the original, if we say, Hoc est Corpus Meum, than if we say, This is My Body.

In short, the custom of having prayers in an unknown tongue appears to have originated in a kind of accident, but to have been perpetuated by design. It originated in the Latin becoming obsolete in Europe, and the prayers not being translated, as the various European dialects grew up. It was then found to be a means of keeping up mystery, and so priestly power; and therefore it was preserved. But it is evidently without authority from Scripture, or from the primitive Church.


  1. See Usher, Historia Dogmatica de Scripturis et Sacris Vernaculis, cap. VIII. sect. V., where he proves this from the confession of eminent Romanist divines.
  2. See Bingham, E. A. Bk. XIII. ch. IV. § 5; Horne, Introduction to Scriptures, II. pt. I. ch. II.
  3. See Usher, as above, cap. VIII. sect. IV; Bingham, E. A. Bk. XIII. ch. IV. sect. II.
  4. Catech. Mystagog. V.
  5. Homil. in 1 Cor. xiv.; Homil. XXXVI. juxta fin.
  6. “Audiat orantis populi, consistens quis extra ecclesiam, vocem; spectet celebres hymnorum sonitus; et inter divinorum quoque sacramentorum officia, responsionem devotæ confessionis accipiat.” — Hilar. In Psalm. lxv.; Usher, ubi supra.
  7. Justinian, Novell. 137. See Usher, as above.
  8. Apolog. I. p. 98.
  9. Origen C. Celsum, VIII. 37.
  10. Hieron. Ad Eustochium, Epitaphium Paulæ Matris, juxta fin. Tom. IV. Part II. p. 687.
  11. Lyra, in 1 Cor. xiv. 17; Aquinas in 1 Cor. xiv. Vol. XVI. fol. 84; Harding, Contra Juellum, Art. 3, sect. 28. See Usher, as above; Jer. Taylor, Dissuasive, pt. I. ch. I. sect. 7; Bingham, Bk. XIII. ch. IV.
  12. Sess. XXII. Can. 9. See also Sarpi, Hist. of the Council of Trent, p. 540.


E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

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