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The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

(Lives of Great Religious Books)

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  371 ratings  ·  88 reviews
While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . ." or "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published September 29th 2013 by Princeton University Press (first published January 1st 2013)
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James Smith
Jan 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Marvelous read and a lovely little book. Jacobs weaves history, theology, and politics in this "life story" of the BCP. Confirmed one of my deepest worries: that I'm an Anglican at heart. ...more
Douglas Wilson
Oct 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: theology
Really good book. I will be reviewing it some time in the future for Books & Culture.
Mark Jr.
Jul 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audio, 2017
Once official religious words get firmly established, people get nervous about any changes to them. Understandably. What John Henry Newman called "the temper of innovation," change for change's sake, is disruptive to social harmony. And when Christianity is the official religion of a nation civil peace is therefore tied to it—and people are even more nervous about change. Understandably.
This is precisely what has happened in England over the centuries. A complex of factors—especially the advent
Jan 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A surprisingly fascinating history of an enduring book. It was hard to put down.
Laura Clawson
Sep 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
A pretty good overview of book of common prayer with church history bits thrown in. The audio book version is terrible, but then again, Jacobs is hard to read out loud. 🤷🏼‍♀️
Robert D. Cornwall
I was born, baptized, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer (1928) was our guide to worship for my family until I jumped ship in high school. The current BCP appeared after I had left, but even prior to that the priest at our church was using a variety of experimental and more modern Eucharistic services.

Alan Jacobs a professor of the humanities at Wheaton College takes us on a gentle (and at times not so gentle) journey through the story of this masterpiece of religio
Nov 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating history of the BCP. Initially, Jacobs presents the political, theological and communal reasons for the birth of the Book of Common Prayer. Once this foundation is laid, he carries you through the inevitably fraught history that followed all the way to modern times. Presenting the the four-fold tensions of king, church, parliament and lay-person, you are given the whole conflict that has both kept the book alive as well as caused much contention in the Church of England - ev ...more
Misael G
Mar 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Well-written, enjoyable history of the Book of Common Prayer. Never would have imagined how much turmoil and strife such a book, one meant to help people pray and read the Bible, could have caused. I also learned a ton about the history of the Anglican + Episcopalian churches (which to be quite frank, I didn’t know much about).

I do wish that at points he could have gotten even more specific about some of Cranmer’s sources in writing the liturgies. That said, thoroughly enjoyed and loved the endi
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating history of a book that's seen more controversy and conflict than I'd ever have suspected from what has always seemed to be something of a comfortable feature of church life in the English-speaking world.

My only frustration was not with the book itself but with the audiobook. The reader used several weird pronunciations, especially of some fairly common biblical names/terms, which I found distracting—and detracting from the book's ethos. Alan Jacobs knows of what he speaks. The reade
Katrin V
Oct 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
I am not sure why it took me 3 years to get Into this little volume! It is a wonderful short history of how BCP came to be and has been changed. The political and spiritual compromises and retaliation are amazing, and perhaps a lesson for current politicians. Jacobs has some flashes of humor which lighten the dense chapters. Who would guess that Boots, the chemists, had printed their own BCP, or that there is a ‘Star Wars ‘ prayer or LEGO liturgy?
Jon Beadle
Jun 12, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. Great book! Nice and short and committed to an objective view of the history. The section featuring Henry VII was my favorite.
Lane Fusilier
Superb writing, as appropriate for a history of the BCP! Well worth my time.
Nov 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
American academic Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor in the honours program of Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco. Texas. He was previously the Clyde Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he almost became an institution in his own right, spending thirty years in the post. He has been compared to CS Lewis: a fair comparison, given his interests in classical literature and religion. He has, in fact, written on Lewis, with particular reference to his children’s bo ...more
Dan Glover
Jan 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Anything I've ever read by Alan Jacobs has been enjoyable and reading his biography of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was no exception. Having been in the Anglican Church of Canada in the past, our family is familiar with both the Prayer Book services and those of the Alternative Book of Services. It was therefore of personal interest to learn more about how the "high" and "low" services came to be. But even for those with no previous personal connection, this entry in Princeton University Pres ...more
Bryce Doty
Mar 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
My relationship with the Anglican church can only be described as that of the briefest of flings during my early twenties. Despite its brevity, the relationship left me with a lasting affection for Rowan Williams, the liturgy, and the sit-com Rev.. What on earth I am doing with a 1559 and a 1662 BCP on my shelves God only knows. Mediating the experience of worship through standardized orders and language, liturgy, was at the time a completely foreign experience for me, but one which served as a ...more
Oct 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
A few centuries of british history in 200 fascinating pages through the life of the Book of Common Prayer. If the phrase "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today" sounds familiar, you have the Book of Common Prayer to thank. It's the Church of England's liturgical map of life--from birth to death and beyond, and for every year in between. Jacobs highlights the writers and printers, the rulers and priests, while exploring some of the most contested aspects of a book which has been at the cente ...more
Feb 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This was Marvelous! Absolutely fascinating. As a long-time Episcopalian I didn't expect to learn nearly as much as I did. Turns out that many things which I thought were "always" part of the service and liturgy are actually 19th and 20th century changes to a much more pared-down, Reformation service. Jacobs is a wonderful writer, and the book never (for me, at least) bogs down into dry detail. As well as the people you would expect to find here (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer, Oliver Cromwell, ...more
Anthony Rodriguez
Jan 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A quick, interesting read on one of the most influential books in the English language and one I love. Jacobs is a great writer and his ability to summarize complex issues was very much on display. I read this book for fun (NERD ALERT!) and indeed had a lot of it.
Chris Schutte
Apr 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
As an Anglican priest I enjoyed reading this - a lot of great historical, theological, and liturgical insights
May 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
An excellent little history of this important, enduring liturgy. Particularly recommended for new Episcopalians (or Anglicans) like myself. Well written and interesting.
Olanma Ogbuehi
Dec 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
I very much enjoyed this potted history of the Book of Common Prayer. It offers a glimpse of the events, and key players surrounding the English Reformation. The story moves at a fair pace, leaving the reader wanting to delve deeper into some of the more comprehensive histories of the English church, the monarchy, the English Reformers and those who opposed them.

There was some new information about the conduct of the liturgy in the English churches prior to the Act of Supremacy. It was a fascina
Sep 14, 2018 rated it liked it
I read this for a class. specifically, a professional writing class. What does this, a biography on the book of common prayer, have to do with professional writing? that's a very good question. none of us in the class have any clue. It's fine.

The book itself is actually not that bad. not my first choice of book--I really don't care much about the Book of Common Prayer--I'm not Episcopalian. but Alan Jacobs is a talented writer. He has a way with words, and, though I found myself struggling a lo
Jul 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I've read Jacobs' "How to Think" and his "In the Year of Our Lord 1943", both excellent works from different angles. I anticipated this bio of the BCP highly and wasn't disappointed. The BCP has a living impact upon people, not merely in the realm of worship where BCP author Thomas Cranmer desired its primary focus. The language (and that of Tyndale's New Testament) shaped the English people and has a forceful effect upon the word choice and usage of Shakespeare, and yet the BCP has shown itself ...more
James Korsmo
Dec 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a relatively interesting look at the history and development of the Book of Common Prayer. Jacobs does a good job of tracking the book's development. At the same time, it proves an interesting lens through which to learn about the history of global Anglicanism and the influence of the Reformation in Great Britain. Jacobs does convey something of the relation that everyday people have to the book, but I thought this could have been explored in more detail. He did certainly give me a fres ...more
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This short book provides a history of the writing of the English Book of Common Prayer during the Reformation, as well as tracing its history in England and its former colonies up to the present. Although well-researched, the book is written in an accessible manner to the average reader. The author does a good job of showing the changes in the prayer book over the centuries, and explaining their theological foundations. He explains the authors' desire that the book would become part of a culture ...more
Travis Timmons
Jan 27, 2021 rated it really liked it
A delightful book!

I've spent two decades in the company of the Book of Common Prayer (as an Anglican before I became Catholic; however, I still use the BCP regularly). Jacobs' filled in so much of the historical context and "versioning" history of the prayer book. He tackles the theological and political issues of the prayer with equal skill, while navigating readers through the convoluted publishing and revision differences with good faith.

The only missed opportunity was the current context,
Mar 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Jacobs gives us a fairly short but readable account of the Book of Common Prayer, including its history, the debates it fueled, its evolution over the centuries, and even its printers since Thomas Cramer was its chief creator. I found the chapters the BCP's emergence into our modern world, its decentralized proliferation across the globe, and its main controversies to be the most engaging. If you are an Anglican, this will help illumine not just the key non-biblical text we reference but also ou ...more
Clint Lum
Feb 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Typical Jacobs: learned, clear, and witty. This book helpfully traces the typographical and cultural history of one of the most influential books in Christendom the last half millennium. I highly recommend for any Christian to read and for anyone at all who enjoys history.

Jacobs shows the Book of Common Prayer's link to both the past and the present. The Church has seemingly mastered the latter and could take lessons in the former from the Anglican Church.
Jul 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Another fascinating, illuminating and thought provoking book from Alan Jacobs. As always, I feel more literate, cultural and historical, having read his writing. Elegant and witty, sharp and broadly knowledgeable, he manages to give readers a true sense of history and its impact on today in a few hundred pages. If you have any interest in church history, religious history or just the Christian faith, this is a worthwhile read.
Feb 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I was hesitant to start a biography of a book, but Jacobs drew me into the dramatic [hi]story of The Book of Common Prayer. While the vocabulary was something of a challenge for me, I loved all that I learned. A true history, this book presented cause and effects, differing viewpoints, and connections with other world-wide contexts.
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I grew up in Alabama, attended the University of Alabama, then got my PhD at the University of Virginia. Since 1984 I have been teaching at Wheaton College in Illinois. My dear wife Teri and I have been married for thirty years. Our son Wes begins college this fall, and to our shock, decided to go to Wheaton. I think he will avoid Dad, though.

My work is hard to describe, at least for me, because i

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