Preparation for Holy Communion
in the eighteenth century


It is sometimes thought that the Eucharist played little part in the devotional life of the Church of England before the Tractarian movement of the nineteenth century. The caricature of ‘The sleeping congregation’ engraved by that notable anti-clericalist, Hogarth, has been seen as typical of the eighteenth-century Church of England. And this picture of worldly laxity appears to be confirmed by the pages of the most famous clerical diarist of the century, Parson Woodforde, whose journal tells of a life of hunting and dining with his neighbouring squires.

But there is another tale to tell about the eighteenth-century Church. Charles Wesley’s hymns on the Eucharist show a devotional life which was centred on the receiving of the sacrament. Samuel Johnson prepared for receiving Holy Communion with great thoroughness. Although in general people did not receive the sacrament as often as they do now, that does not mean that they had a lower regard for Holy Communion.

In fact receiving Holy Communion was perhaps the greatest focus of piety within the Church of England throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was an opportunity to examine one’s life, and to put things right that had gone awry. Churchmen understood the aim of the Christian life to be to grow in holiness. Receiving Holy Communion was both an incentive to and a means of becoming holier.

Andrew Bonwicke

One example might serve to illustrate the place which receiving holy communion had in the devotional life of the Church of England. Ambrose Bonwicke was a young man admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge in 1710. When Bonwicke made his first holy communion he prepared himself by ‘examination’ of his life. He made resolutions to avoid the sins which he felt most inclined to, and wrote his resolutions down in a list, adding new ones as needed. One of them reads, ‘To avoid rash anger, I’ll endeavour to gain a contempt of worldly trifles; not be eager about my meat, bear wrong, and remember that the greatest affronts I can suffer are less than my deserts.’

In listing his resolutions against sinning, Bonwicke was following the advice of Edward Lake’s Officium Eucharisticum, a manual of devotion first published in 1677. Bonwicke had a copy of this book bound especially with blank pages at each end so that he could add his own prayers and quotations from other works which he found useful in his devotions. He transcribed prayers and meditations from the works of Bishop Beveridge and Robert Nelson, and from the anonymous Whole Duty of Man, for him to use when he received communion. Bonwicke’s practice was by no means an isolated case. The great devotional writer William Law, who came up to Cambridge a few years before Bonwicke, compiled a numbered list of ‘Rules for my future conduct’ that resemble Bonwicke’s resolutions in several ways, and may also have been part of a preparation for holy communion. The Officium Eucharisticum went through numerous editions, as did other devotional manuals that offered guidance for preparation for Holy Communion.

Lake on preparation

These books had to avoid being so rigorous that they deterred people from receiving the sacrament at all. On the other hand, they wanted to encourage a correct preparation for receiving the sacrament. The Officium Eucharisticum was written for Princess Mary when Lake was her chaplain, and it presumed a leisured life with time for quiet contemplation and private prayer. It made no pretensions to originality, but drew on the ancient liturgies, and on the writings of Bishops Andrewes and Cosin, and Archbishop Laud. Lake recommended setting aside the Friday before receiving communion as a day of fasting and abstinence, rising at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to say morning prayer and spending the following hours in self-examination. He listed a catalogue of sins to help the penitent in examination of conscience, and suggested committing to writing the sins you found yourself guilty of. He also provided a penitential office of psalms and prayers for Friday, and suggested auricular confession for those who required ‘farther Comfort or Counsel’. Sorrow for sin and resolution against sin was also aided by additional meditations.

The worthy communicant should also show charity to all men by intercession (many prayers of intercession are provided) and by giving to the poor, ideally devoting some of his goods for that purpose before retiring to bed on Friday night. The bond of love between the Church on earth and the saints in heaven is affirmed in strong terms, with prayers that we may ‘still continue in their holy communion, and enjoy the comfort thereof while we are on earth.’ Having spent Saturday in pious reading, the worthy communicant would receive the sacrament aided by private prayers and meditations at different parts of the service. The public worship of the Church was enriched by private devotions: eighteenth-century churchmen did not just ‘pray the liturgy’, but used it as the setting for their own interior prayers.

Lake’s expectation of his readers is for monthly communion, but it is clear that if communion was available more frequently, the opportunity should be taken, even if the preparation was not as thorough. The monthly self-examination before receiving communion was a sort of distillation of the ‘habitual preparation’ all Christians should have at all times to receive Christ.

Kettlewell’s Help

The Officium Eucharisticum was written in the dissolute atmosphere of the royal Court, and it is perhaps therefore understandable that it was amongst the most rigorous guides to receiving communion in the Church of England. More comforting was John Kettlewell’s Help and exhortation to a worthy communicating, first published in 1683, and reprinted well into the eighteenth century. Kettlewell wanted to reassure those who were inclined to avoid communicating because of fear of damnation if they received unworthily. He argued that in order to receive the Lord’s Supper worthily, we ought to remember Christ’s precious blood shed as a ransom for our sins. And this would make us ‘be humbled under the sense of our own unworthiness’. So feeling unworthy should not prevent us from receiving Holy Communion; indeed, it was evidence of our worthiness.

Kettlewell also included ‘heads of self-examination’ in his book. But, whilst Lake advised devoting a whole morning to self-examination, the time given by Kettlewell to recollecting sins is brief: he suggests it should be done during the preparation of the bread and wine. At this time the communicant was advised to make to God promises and resolutions to amend his life. But penitence was only one prerequisite for worthy receiving. As important was ‘discriminating the Lord’s body’: we needed to distinguish between the Lord’s Supper and common food. Kettlewell emphasized that the Lord’s Supper was ‘a Feast upon Sacrifice’. And, like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, those who feasted on the offering were the ones who shared in the covenant. So those who received were confirming their sharing in the New Covenant which Christ ‘purchased for us by his death’.

Since we have received so many benefits from the death of Christ, it followed that in receiving the sacrament we must also have faith and an ardent love for Jesus. ‘We must love the thoughts of him, and be most kindly affected towards him, or else we shall shew ourselves utterly unworthy of him.’

Kettlewell’s message was aimed at those who avoided the sacrament because they were over-scrupulous, or over-fearful, and he therefore emphasized the benefits of receiving communion, whilst still insisting on the need to grow in holiness. The only thing, which would make someone an unworthy communicant, would be an unrepentant persistence in some ‘damning sin’. But this was perilous enough to his soul whether he communicated or not, and made him equally unworthy to ‘do any Thing else that shews them to be a Christian’. Receiving communion was not an especially dangerous undertaking.

Other writers

Other high church devotional writers also emphasized the benefits over the dangers of communicating. Nathaniel Spinckes’s excellent True Church of England-Man’s companion in the closet reiterated much of Kettlewell’s advice. Noting the consequences of receiving unworthily, it added, ‘the sentence of God is equally severe against those, who, being invited, refuse to come; for he hath said, That they shall not taste of his supper.’ Spinckes’ work also contains help for self-examination, and prayers for faith and charity, to be said before receiving. In addition there are included short prayers to be said ‘At going to the Altar’, ‘At the Offertory’, ‘At the Consecration’, and so on.

Robert Nelson’s popular work The practice of true devotion perhaps expressed best this tradition which saw receiving holy communion as part of a whole life devoted to God. He maintained that

… the best preparation for the Sacrament, is a life governed by the precepts of the Gospel; for he that really believes the Christian Religion, and makes it his constant business to perform what our Saviour has enjoined, has all that substantial Preparation which qualifies Christians to partake in this holy Ordinance, and ought therefore to receive when any Opportunity presents.

Unrepentant sinners were not fit guests at God’s table, but ‘all sincere Christians, who are wearied and grieved with the burthen of their sins, ought not to be discouraged’ because it was at the altar that they would ‘meet with that strength and assistance which is so necessary to enable them to lead that holy life which they purpose for the time to come.’ Nelson’s book also contained prayers to use when preparing for communion, and at different points in the communion service. There was evidently a demand from the laity of the Church of England for private prayers and devotions for them to use during the liturgy, and these manuals provided the faithful with them.

Towards frequent communion

Nelson’s and Spinkes’ emphasis on the benefits of holy communion was accompanied by a movement within the Church of England towards more frequent communion, and away from the elaborate and lengthy preparations for a seasonal reception of the sacrament. In some ways this echoed the Counter-Reformation thinking of Frances de Sales, whose Introduction to the devout life was one of the most popular Roman Catholic texts amongst Anglican churchmen. The case for frequent communion was championed by William Beveridge, who became bishop of St Asaph in 1704. His book The great necessity and advantage of frequent communion argued that daily communion was appropriate for some, and noted that the Prayer Book made provision for a celebration of communion on weekdays. Beveridge emphasized the simplicity of the Christian duty of self-examination, and maintained that all that was necessary to know about preparation for communion could be found in the Prayer Book Catechism. If ‘upon due examination’ Christians found themselves to have true repentance, faith and charity, then they should not doubt that they ‘are fit to receive the Holy Sacrament, and ought accordingly to do it.’

Those who advocated frequent communion had perhaps a stronger, more objective understanding of the benefits, which were received in the sacrament. Certainly writers such as Kettlewell were no less serious about the sacrament, and about the need for holiness of life, than those who advocated a more elaborate preparation. Nor should the differences between these different writers be overstated. Edward Lake, Robert Nelson and William Beveridge were bound together, literally, between the covers of Ambrose Bonwicke’s devotional manual. In practice English churchmen turned to various authors for help in their devotions, and it was as they knelt before the altar that the meditations and prayers plucked from various places would be gathered and offered.

Eighteenth-century devotion is a hidden tradition these days to most Anglicans. This is unfortunate, because it is a rich devotional tradition, and much of it is centred on receiving holy communion. Predating the Evangelical and Tractarian movements, this tradition is the common patrimony of orthodox Catholic and Evangelical Anglicans. It remains a resource that is yet to be rediscovered.

Andrew Starkie is the Assistant Curate of St Bartholomew’s, Long Benton in the Diocese of Newcastle.