Edited By Zachary Guiliano and Cameron Partridge
6. Preaching to the Choir: Understanding Worship in an Aural Culture
John N. Wall
IN HIS detailed description of worship in the Church of England, written not quite two decades after the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion and the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer of 1559, William Harrison gives this account of how parishioners learned their parts in the services of the Book of Common Prayer. The “minister,” Harrison notes:
saieth his service commonly in the body of the church with his face toward the people…by which means the ignorant do not only learn divers of the Psalms and usual prayers by heart, but also such as can read do pray together with him, so that the whole congregation at one instant pour out their petitions unto the living God for the whole estate of His church in most earnest and fervent manner.1
From Harrison’s description, as well as from our knowledge from other sources of literacy rates in early modern England, we recognize that congregations in early modern England consisted of both the “ignorant” (i.e., the class of non-readers) and “such as can read.” In fact, most congregations were almost certainly composed of significantly more non-readers than readers.2 Although the concept of literacy is itself complex, most estimates of literacy for England in this period put the rate among men at about thirty percent to forty percent.3 Given population estimates of approximately 4 million adult residents for England in 1600, and assuming a male/female population split of about fifty percent...
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