The Very Picture of (Non-)Conformity(?)

As part of the 2021 IJBS Blog Series, Drew Nathaniel Keane (@dkeaneGSU) Senior Lecturer at Georgia Southern University examines, through religious iconography, the complex realities of administering the Lord’s Supper in early modern England.

This woodcut, likely familiar to any student of early modern English religion, illustrates the difficulty of sorting out the boundaries of religious conformity (see Figure 1). It first appears in Lewis Du Moulin’s The Understanding Christians Duty (1660), and then again some fourteen years later in the second edition of Eniautos (1674).[1] Although both were published after the Restoration, the woodcut appears Jacobean,[2] but regardless of when it was cut, it raises an interesting question: should the service depicted be labeled as conformist or non-conformist?

Figure 1. Anon, Eniautos. Or, A Course of Catechizing (London, 1674), p. 276. Part of a series of woodcuts illustrating the various rites and rituals of the Established Church in seventeenth-century England.      

The two works in which it appears point towards conflicting answers. Du Moulin, a Huguenot who became Camden Professor of History at Oxford in 1646, from which he was ejected at the Restoration, earned a reputation as a pugnacious polemicist.[3] The Understanding Christians Duty argues against those who avoided participation in ‘the Holy Sacrament of the Supper of the Lord.’ Aware of his reputation, the epistle to the reader pleads that they ‘not judge of my Book by my Person, but of my Person… by my Book.’ The work references such non-conformist favorites as John Calvin and William Perkins (a moderate conformist), and outspoken non-conformists William Ames and Arthur Hildersham. And yet, it quotes approvingly from the Articles of Religion, ‘no other then the very Catholick Doctrine of the Church of England.’[4] The anonymous Eniautos is a year-long course on the Prayer Book Catechism that draws freely from a list of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline divines whose views on questions of conformity are diverse — William Perkins, Thomas Rogers, Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Edward Reynolds, James Ussher and others — but does not include any who might be called extreme non-conformists.

Turning to the image itself, the black academic robe worn by the presider might signal a ‘church puritan.’ Use of the surplice became a critical dividing line during the period. Conformists regarded the surplice as adiaphora (i.e., indifferent to salvation), therefore, within the scope of civil authorities to require it during divine service. In 1650, Du Moulin even argued for the authority of the State in such matters.[5] By strict definition, anyone officiating without the surplice (whether through principled defiance, apathy, or laziness) was a non-conformist. Principled non-conformists saw the surplice as so associated with ‘popery’ that it necessarily implied sacerdotalism and would mislead the ‘ignorant’ (a key category in debates over adiaphora), making it too dangerous to regard as indifferent. Yet, even conformist ministers wore their scholar’s gowns to preach, which signaled qualification for the task that was regarded by all parties as the quintessence of an ordained ministry.[6] So, it is understandable why even a minister favorable toward the authorized liturgy might regard the scholar’s gown as more indicative of his role and the essential unity of sermons and sacraments than the surplice. Many ministers who accepted the essential indifference of it may have wished for the requirement to be lifted.

At the level of the parish, what constituted conformity had more to do with what the Ordinary enforced than the letter of the law. Many Elizabethan and Jacobean visitation articles required no more than use of the surplice sometimes.[7] An incumbent might have believed he was only required to wear the surplice to administer the Lord’s Supper (which he might only do a few times a year) or during a visitation (which may come only triennially). The publication of this woodcut in such a clearly conformist work as Eniautos suggests that the lack of the surplice was not seen as definitively indicative of non-conformity.

The orientation of the table also warrants attention. It is set length-wise in the chancel as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer and Canon 82 (of the 1604 Canons) — the commandment boards are visible on the east wall (also required by Canon 82). Lancelot Andrewes ridiculed this arrangement, saying it made the communion table look ‘more like an oyster board.’[8] Despite deriding what the Prayer Book required, Andrewes seemingly became the doyen of what Peter Lake termed ‘avant-garde conformity,’ a curious label since avant-garde is by definition non-conformist. In 1616, the Dean of Gloucester, William Laud relocated the table to an altar-wise position, so offending his bishop, Miles Smith, that he never set foot in the cathedral again.[9] In 1640 Archbishop Laud and other avant-garde bishops sought to establish this as the new standard of conformity, writing it into Canons approved by Convocation, though not Parliament (then dissolved by Charles I).[10] But in 1660 the 1604 Canons were restored, not those of 1640, though many of bishops favored the altar-wise arrangement and it was widely observed. Thus, it is difficult to know whether the length-wise table arrangement seen in this woodcut would have suggested conformity or non-conformity, though likely it read differently to different eyes.

The presider appears to be reading from the Prayer Book.[11] The physical codex itself often served as a trigger for principled non-conformists who objected to public worship mediated through text. Judith Maltby recounts a story of John Hacket who memorized the Prayer Book funeral service so as to use it without offending his flock of conscientious objectors to the printed liturgy.[12] Those who heard the service — without the visual trigger of the book — warmly thanked him for his particularly compelling words, not knowing they were not his own. The prominent presence, therefore, of the Book of Common Prayer on the table points towards conformity.

The posture of the communicants could not have gone unnoticed. The first Prayer Book (1549) allowed for kneeling, sitting, or standing to receive the sacrament, but the second (1552) prescribed kneeling only. Zealous Scottish preacher and royal chaplain John Knox made a last-minute attempt to have the requirement deleted, but Cranmer succeeded in retaining it, adding after the initial print run a rubric explicitly disavowing and denouncing Eucharistic adoration (the so-called ‘black rubric’).[13] While most rubrics are merely instructions necessary for officiating services, this rubric argued against potential misunderstanding. Given low literacy levels, few could read this note, but the key was the parish priest — if he was convinced, he could provide whatever instruction was needed with the full persuasiveness of the viva voce. Nevertheless, even conformist ministers like George Herbert still worried about kneeling. Herbert concedes that the duly prepared communicant has a right to sit at God’s board for the Supper, but argues kneeling better expresses the humility and inadequacy that even the worthy communicant (i.e., one who had met the requirements for participation) must feel.[14] But, after having made the case for kneeling, he advises that, if some still refuse to kneel, the minister should not stir up conflict by pressing the issue. In The Understanding Christians Duty,Du Moulin treats the matter of posture as wholly indifferent, though he seems to favor sitting. Nevertheless, he admonishes those who refuse to receive the sacrament at all if they are forced to kneel: ‘why… wholly omit a necessary substantial Duty of Divine Institution, because that another doth in some unnecessary Circumstantial Point vary from a prescribed Humane Forme of Administration?’[15]

This woodcut combines signals typically associated with conformity and non-conformity, and so resists easy classification. Its use in both Du Moulin’s work, which would have appealed more to non-conformists, and Eniautos, an explicitly conformist text, highlights the limited utility of tidy labels — both those that partisans hurled at each other in their struggles over the Established Church and those that later scholars apply in an effort to make sense of those conflicts and combatants. It serves as a reminder that conformity was always a moving target in relation to which individuals and communities had complex and variable relationships.


[1] Lewis Du Moulin, The Understanding Christians Duty (London, 1660), frontispiece; Anon, Eniautos. Or, A Course of Catechizing (London, 1674), p. 276.

[2] My attempts to find an earlier instance of its use have, as of yet, yielded no fruit.

[3] See Nicholas Tyacke, ed., Seventeenth-Century Oxford, The History of The University of Oxford Volume IV (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 348.

[4] Du Moulin, The Understanding Christians Duty, p. 93.

[5] See, for example, Lewis Du Moulin, The Power of the Christian Magistrate in Sacred Things (London, 1650).

[6] Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 19.

[7] Patrick Collinson The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London: Cape, 1967), pp. 67-68; Kenneth Fincham, ‘Clerical Conformity from Whitgift to Laud,’ in Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, 1560-1660, ed. by Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), pp. 125-158 (p. 147).

[8] Nicholas Tyacke, ‘Lancelot Andrewes and the Myth of Anglicanism’, in Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, ed. by Lake and Questier, pp. ix-xx (p. xv).

[9] Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke, Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 1547-c.1700 (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 116.

[10] George Yule, ‘James VI and I: Furnishing the Churches in his Two Kingdoms’, in Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Honour of Patrick Collinson, ed. by Anthony Fletcher and Peter Roberts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 182-208 (pp. 197-201).

[11] It is unlikely that this is a Bible, as a non-conformist minister — who favored extemporaneous discourse drawn from the learned storehouse of the memory — would be unlikely to need to read from the Bible while presiding at the communion table as the presider in the woodcut is.

[12] Judith Maltby, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 7.

[13] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 526.

[14] George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, or, the Country Parson (London, 1652), p. 92. Also see Elizabeth McLaughlin and Gail Thomas, ‘Communion in The Temple’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 15.1 (1975), 111-124.

[15] Du Moulin, The Understanding Christians Duty, pp. 96-97.