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Judith Maltby

'Of necessity there must be some rules': 

The Bible and Public Worship in England, 1559-1660

Judith Maltby, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford


The sheer scale of the scholarly enterprise carried out in elite centres of learning which produced the King James Bible in 1611, can obscure the fact that the chief aim of the project was to produce a text that would become familiar to the entire population of England, learned or unlearned.  The bible in early modern England was not only read but heard; as the frontispiece of the KJB made explicit:  it was "appointed to be read in churches."  It was aural as well as an oral text.  Parish worship was, in the words of John Craig, a "soundscape."[1]  We are familiar with accounts of domestic devotional practices of the period which included reading the bible out- loud:  an exercise which often brought all the social elements of the household together.  However, the way most English people encountered the bible was when it was read aloud in public worship in parish churches, another context which cut across age, gender and social standing.   The Epistle Dedicatory to the King James Bible maintained that the aim of the translators was that "God’s holy Truth [will] be yet more and more known unto the people’ professing the ‘great hope that the Church of England shall reap good fruit thereby."[2]  This goal was to be accomplished in no small part by the new translation’s key role in public worship.


That said, there appears to be remarkably little in primary sources or secondary scholarship on the experience of hearing the bible read aloud in corporate worship.  Arnold Hunt’s recent book, The Art of Hearing, suggests that many of the godly considered the sermon preached to trump the bible heard – a remarkable development in the Reformation idea of sola scriptura.[3]  This brief paper will explore to place of the bible as an aural text in public worship.  What might the placing and choice of the scriptures in public worship implicitly tell us about a theology of biblical aurality in public worship?  I am very much at the beginning of exploring these issues and look forward to comments from colleagues at the Folger conference.

[1]John Craig, ‘Psalms, groans and dogwhippers:  the soudscape of worship in the English parish church, 1547-1642’ in Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, eds Will Coster and Andrew Spicer (Cambridge, 2005). 

[2]‘The Epistle Dedicatory’ in The Bible:  the King James Bible with The Apocrypha, ed David Norton (London, 2006), p. xxvi.

[3]Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing:  English Preachers and their Audiences 1590-1640 (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 19-21. 

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