Reformation of Prayerbooks

The Humanist Transformation of Early Modern Piety in Germany and England

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Chaoluan Kao
Refo500 Academic Series
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
    , November
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is a fine study of Reformation prayerbooks and their functions in developing and nurturing popular piety during the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth century European Reformations.

Chaoluan Kao gives attention to this unique spiritual literature as it developed out of medieval prayerbooks, transforming them to present a pattern of piety that influenced emerging Protestant Reformation movements and were important in later periods after Protestantism was established. Her focus is on seventeen English texts from Anglican and early Puritan groups plus seven German texts growing out of Lutheran communions used for consulting and reference. She notes that “the lack of Reformed prayerbooks in this project is due to the fact that the Reformed church did not offer prayerbooks for private use but only for liturgical purpose at that time” (20). Calvin’s treatises on prayer provides supplemental material. Kao’s study shows the correspondences with medieval materials but also their divergences on issues of the form of prayers since Protestants began to establish patterns for daily prayer and a focus on prayer for needs of individuals facing different circumstances.

Luther’s prayerbooks were redesigned throughout his life. They provided ways for the reformer to call on laity to support the Reformation (24). These books were popular and gained an international audience. Early Protestant prayerbooks in England sought to articulate a clear Reformation faith during the Tudor period. With the changes in reigns from Edward VI to Mary, prayerbooks were adapted to reflect the reigning monarch’s preferences.

As Reformations continued, “the mission of early modern Protestant prayerbooks had been shifted from the promotion of Reformation propaganda to the development for different reader’s personal piety including women and young students” (33). Kao’s book gives helpful attention to prayerbooks and women’s spirituality, especially in her sixth chapter, “Godly Companionship—Women’s Piety in Early Evangelical Prayerbooks.” As a whole, the transformation of medieval prayerbooks to those of the early modern period meant the “new era produced a different form of prayerbooks that shifted from traditional spiritual handbooks to new private spiritual resources” (55).

The ways these transformations happened and the various expressions of new, Protestant prayerbooks forms the core of Kao’s book. The new piety focused on the scriptures and the concerns of laity about their Christian lives in the world. Given varieties of culture and religious contexts, laypersons had differing spiritual interests, expectations, and needs for expression. The result was that “various formats and contents of prayerbooks emerged in different places and time periods” (163). This recognition helps expand our notions of piety as being not only expressions of theological convictions but also as the response of people to their present cultural and religious situations.

Humanist-trained authors drew on different sources than their medieval predecessors and introduced new materials—including from biblical, patristic, and ancient philosophical sources. These were all in service of developing an emerging Protestant piety that “emphasized individual, evangelical, cultural, and social themes” (164). A goal was an inner union with God in Christ and a response to the Word of God in scripture. Attention of Protestants was on “texts” and not images or mystical practices. “Spiritual reading” and “prayerful reading” were forms of prayer. They functioned as spiritual exercises combining reading and prayer in devotional activities.

This is a rich volume providing an overall narrative of the development of Reformation prayerbooks as well as a wealth of specific details on spiritual authors and their works. The book has places where stronger editorial and syntactical attention are needed. Five tables in the appendix provide various helpful summaries of the prayerbooks. In all, Kao illuminates this topic in substantial and enlightening ways. Her work provides valuable attention to specific titles while also furthering our recognitions and understandings of ways these prayerbooks were influential for forming piety in inter-confessional ways across early modern Europe.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald McKim is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chaoluan Kao is lecturer in religious studies and theological studies at Merrimack College, Massachusetts.


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