This article was written by Brian T. Hartley (Greenville College) as part of the Sites of Cultural Stress from Reformation to Revolution Summer 2003 NEH Institute directed by David Cressy and Lori Anne Ferrell. For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

The Eucharist

The word "Eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanksgiving." It is commonly used to describe the central act of worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and disseminated among the faithful in remembrance of Christ's Last Supper with his disciples. During the sixteenth century, the understanding of the Eucharist and its meaning were heavily debated. While this was one of the differences that fueled the separation of Protestantism from Catholicism, by the second generation of Reformers it was clear that there remained distinct differences among Protestants themselves. Roman Catholics remained wedded to the doctrine of transubstantiation as a way of explaining what took place (the belief that the bread and wine physically change into the flesh and blood of Christ that was first officially recommended by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and adopted formally in 1551–52 by the Council of Trent). Protestants, however, differed in their interpretations. A Lutheran position advocated consubstantiation, or, that a real or corporeal presence coexists with the bread and wine; the more radical Zwinglian position, that has oftentimes been called "memorialist," viewed the Eucharistic act as purely symbolic.

The advent of printing not only made available a new forum for carrying on the debate regarding the Eucharist, but provided an opportunity for the wider distribution of liturgical forms for use in worship. The various official English prayer books reflect this Eucharistic battle, with the first edition (1549), published during Edward's reign, still retaining the word "Mass" in its title. In it, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's words of administration allow for a somewhat ambiguous understanding: "the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life." By the time of the second edition (1552), the earlier phraseology has been replaced with, "Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving." In addition, a rubric was added which sought to clarify that kneeling at Holy Communion was not meant to imply any kind of adoration to the host, further distancing the liturgy from that of Roman Catholicism.

The official prayer book was revised in Elizabeth's reign, and the 1559 edition restored a combination of the words from the first two books which remains in use today. Now the two phrases spoken at the administration were joined in a way which introduced an even greater level of ambiguity, which furthered Elizabeth's attempts at creating a broader definition of the church but would later fuel the fires of those who insisted on a more precise definition and a narrower vision of the English national ecclesiastical institution.

Some of the hotter sorts of Protestants even undertook moving the altar (or communion table) from the chancel and installing it in the nave—a place around which the community of faith was expected to gather. At stake in this movement of parish furniture stood the ongoing debate over the nature of the Eucharist: was it a sacrifice, a memorial of a table meal, or something in between? While the Elizabethan compromise held for a couple of generations, by the seventeenth century, Archbishop William Laud sought to restore an emphasis on the sacramental life. This was viewed with great horror by many of the more Puritan-oriented divines and eventually led to outright division. In the wake of the outbreak of war in the 1640s, soldiers engaged in breaking up the altar rails that Laud had imposed, as a symbol of their disgust with such attitudes. The ability of the liturgy and symbolism of the Eucharist to divide remained intact.

Brian T. Hartley

Greenville College

Suggestions for further reading:

Booty, John E., editor. The Book of Common Prayer 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Folger Shakespare Library, 1976.

Brooks, Peter Newman. Thomas Cranmer's Doctrine of the Eucharist: An Essay in Historical Development. Second edition. London: Macmillan, 1965.

Collinson, Patrick. The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559–1625. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400–c. 1580. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Dugmore, C. W. The Mass and the English Reformers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1958.

Fincham, Kenneth, ed. The Early Stuart Church, 1603–1642. Hampshire: Macmillan, 1993.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.