Fig. 1 – Detail of painting titled ‘Worship Service in Trier Cathedral’ by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, 1838. Image via Stadtmuseum Simeonstift Trier, public domain.
The following is a short illustrated summary of the paper, in article form. It is given here for the benefit of readers who wish for an introduction to the research before reading the full paper.
The tradition of reading portions of the holy scriptures during the Christian liturgy is an ancient one, stretching back to the time of the apostles. The selections and arrangement of specific scriptural readings varied between geographic regions and liturgical traditions, but generally included letters and writings of the apostles as well as selections from the four gospels and other parts of the New and Old Testaments. In the Roman Rite, a regular and standardized cycle of readings (the “epistles and gospels”) for use at Mass was established by the sixth and seventh centuries.
Surviving commentaries, homilies, and manuscript lectionaries demonstrate that this cycle of liturgical scripture readings remained basically unchanged from the early medieval period until the liturgical reforms in the mid-twentieth century. The texts and arrangement of the epistles and gospels of the Roman Rite have been widely recognized and praised –even by non-Catholics– as a masterful summation of the Bible and Christian doctrine: German Protestant theologian Ernst Ranke considered them to be “the greatest perfection of liturgical art,” by which the Catholic Church endeavored “to make the congregation familiar with a very extensive portion of Scripture,” and that “the abundance of texts and the ingenious arrangement cannot be praised too much.”
Despite the beauty of the epistles and gospels texts, it is commonly thought that the laity did not regularly hear or understand the liturgical scripture readings because they were read by the priest in Latin at the altar (and not to the people in their own language). It is a widespread belief in both scholarly and popular historical accounts that, in the decades and centuries before the Second Vatican Council the laity had “little or no engagement with the scripture readings” and that “[s]cripture was foreign territory to most pre-Vatican II Catholics—Protestants knew their Bible, Catholics celebrated their Mass.”
There were some notable efforts to improve access to the vernacular scriptures in the immediate years before the council. In 1936, Bishop Edwin V O’Hara (the pioneering figure behind the creation of the 1954 English Ritual) started the project to create a new, modern translation of the New Testament for the use of Catholics. The work was finally published to national acclaim in 1941 under the auspices of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. O’Hara also commissioned a special project alongside the wider translation effort: a book of the Sunday liturgical scripture readings for use from the pulpit, so that the priest could recite the epistle and gospel in English before the homily.
This companion volume, using the new Confraternity translation, was also published in 1941 as The Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and Holydays by William H. Sadlier of New York City. This pulpit version of the epistles and gospels was initially adopted by 72 American dioceses, and soon spread throughout the United States and Canada (a similar book, using Ronald Knox’s bible translation, was published in 1945 for pulpit use in England and Wales). The 1941 Confraternity version was quickly incorporated into hand missals for the laity, allowing them to read the same scripture text in the pew as they heard from the pulpit and studied at home.
Fig. 2 – From the front matter of a St. Joseph Hand Missal for the laity, demonstrating how the use of the Confraternity scriptures from the pulpit was designed to be integrated with the experience of the readings in the hand missal. Photo via the author.
Two decades after the publication of the Confraternity version, the practice of reciting the scriptures from the pulpit began to change in the light of modern developments. In 1958, Pius XII instituted the role of lay “commentators” who could read the vernacular texts of the epistle and gospel via a microphone and loudspeaker, in addition to offering running narration and explanation for the ceremonies of the mass. A few years later, the need to recite the scriptures in translation was eliminated by the liturgical changes which followed the council. Ultimately, even the ancient cycle of the epistles and gospels was replaced by a series of new lectionary books and revisions which remain ongoing even to the present day.
A NEW STUDY
But the custom of reading the Sunday scripture readings in the vernacular from the pulpit did not originate with O’Hara and the 1941 pulpit edition of the Confraternity translation. Rather, this was an ancient tradition which had been practiced throughout English-speaking lands since at least the 900s.
In a new study, titled The Epistles & Gospels in English: A history of vernacular scripture from the pulpit, I offer the first comprehensive survey of this practice between 971 and 1964. The paper investigates this custom across five distinct historical eras, concluding with the first liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council. The paper includes a number of valuable translations and is heavily illustrated with images from twenty manuscripts and rare books, including several that have never before been available to the public.
ENGLISH EPISTLES & GOSPELS IN THE MEDIEVAL AGES
The very earliest surviving manuscript collections of English homilies demonstrate that the custom of reciting the Sunday gospel in the vernacular was already established and widely practiced by the late 900s. The Blickling Homilies, first published around 971, and Aelfric of Eynsham’s Catholic Homilies, first published around 995, both contain English translations of the entire Sunday gospel placed at the beginning of the homily for the benefit of the laity.
Fig. 3 – Details from English homilies containing a vernacular translation of the gospel reading. At left, the Blickling Homilies (Princeton University Library M 71, folio 6v) for Quinquagesima Sunday; at right, Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 343, folio 56v) for the First Sunday of Lent.
There were a large number of English homily collections published in the following centuries which contained English translations and commentary on the Sunday scripture readings. Examples include the Ormulum (circa 1180), the Northern Homily Cycle (circa 1315), John Mirk’s extraordinarily popular Book of Festivals (produced in manuscript and print from the 1380s to the 1530s), and editions like the “Dominical gospels and of other certain great feasts” found in manuscripts Harley 2276 and Royal 18 A XVII (circa 1450).
Fig. 4 – Details from English homilies containing the vernacular translation and commentary on the liturgical gospels. At left, the Ormulum (Bodleian Library MS. Junius 1, folio 009v-010r); at right, John Mirk’s Festial (Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 340, folio 98v).
This wasn’t merely an English phenomenon. Rather, the English custom was part of a pan-European tradition of reciting the Sunday epistle and gospels in the vernacular for the benefit of the faithful. Between the late 1300s and the early 1500s, hundreds of editions of vernacular epistles and gospels were published (running to hundreds of thousands of copies) under a variety of titles, including Epistolae et evangelia, Postilla super epistulas et evangelia, and Postilla seu enarrationes.
These books were used by children at school, laity in the pews, and by priests in the pulpit across Europe. Editions survive in German, Italian, Dutch, French, Croatian, Spanish, Danish, English and more (they were even produced in the indigenous vernaculars in the New World, like the Nahuatl-language Incipiunt Epistolae et Evangelia produced in Mexico in the 1500s). The custom of reciting the Sunday liturgical scriptures in the vernacular was so widespread that, as attested to be numerous contemporary accounts, many layfolk (even the poor and uneducated) came to memorize much of the epistle and gospel cycle and associate the readings with the different parts of the liturgical year.
Fig. 5 – Examples of European vernacular epistle & gospel books, published under the title of ‘Epistolae et evangelia. At left, a 1487 edition in Italian (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze Magl. C.5.10); at center, a 1486 edition in Dutch (Koninklijke Bibliotheek 168 G 33); at right, a 1495 edition in German (Bridwell Library Special Collections 06285).
Even Martin Luther himself attested that practice was widespread throughout Catholic Europe before the Reformation. Speaking of how God had preserved certain essential elements in the true church even despite “abomination” of the papacy, Luther said (in passages which to my knowledge have never before been translated into English, emphasis added):
… in this Church, God remarkably and effectively preserved: [i] Baptism; [ii] next, the text of the Gospel, recited from the pulpit and in sermons in the vernacular of any country […]
Since, I say, the office of the word is the greatest, the highest worship of God in the Church, Christ even in preserving it against the devil, against every falsehood and hypocrisy, administered it more effectively, no doubt, such that the Papists themselves […] the fiercest enemies of Christ, and most pernicious Pharisees against the doctrine of grace, nevertheless publicly recited the name of Christ and the text of the Gospel from the pulpit, not only in Latin but also in the local vernacular of any people throughout the whole world.
ENGLISH EPISTLES & GOSPELS IN TIMES OF PERSECUTION
In the fraught and violent decades which followed the English Reformation, Catholics in the British Isles became a persecuted and dwindling minority. Catholics who refused to join the Church of England became known as “recusants” and were targeted by a series of punitive laws and persecutions. Despite these sufferings and difficulties, we still find new English vernacular translations of the epistles and gospels for Catholics published in these years like The Pystles and Gospels, of euery Sonday, and holy Daye in the yere (Paris, 1538 & Rouen, 1538) and The epystles and gospels of euery Sondaye (Rouen, 1555).
When the Rheims English Catholic translation of the New Testament was published in 1582, it included a feature which would play an important role in the history of the epistles and gospels in English. The book included a table listing the epistles and gospels for each Sunday and Holy Day as well as Ember Days, and other feasts. The table gave the page numbers at which the reader would find the English translation of the scripture reading assigned to each day, and the text of the scripture itself throughout the bible was annotated with marks and notes in the margins to specifically demarcate which sections were the epistles or gospels for which day. The feature was designed for use by both laity and clergy, allowing for convenient access to the scriptural readings at home, in the pew, or in the pulpit:
Fig. 6 – Page details from the 1582 Rheims New Testament. At right, the Table of the Epistles and Gospels which is found is found immediately after the conclusion of the book of Revelations on page 745. At left, an example from page 199 shows how the Epistle and Gospel readings were noted in the text of the scripture itself. Scans via Google Books. Public domain.
While detailed accounts of the celebration of Mass during these years of persecution are scarce, evidence suggests that the Douay-Rheims Bible was used by priests to recite the scriptures to their flocks in English using this table feature. For example: one copy of the Rheims New Testament, owned of William Dawson (a priest ordained in 1631), shows that he annotated the book extensively. With respect to using the English translation of epistles and gospels at Mass, he:
augmented the Table of Gospels and Epistles, correcting the lection references for certain feast days and adding new ones; he also inserted the Latin acclamations that the people were to recite before and after the priest read the Gospel: “In principio evangelii, dit: Gloria tibi, Domine. In fine: laus tibi xpe [Christe].” In other words, this Bible was an instrument not only for the missionary to prepare the Mass, but also to help the laity to participate in it with him.
Fig. 7 – Page details from the 1582 Rheims New Testament owned by William Dawson, showing his inscription on the Table of Epistles & Gospels to add the congregational vocal responses for the proclamation of the gospel. Images courtesy of the University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections, shelfmark BCL S12. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.
ENGLISH EPISTLES & GOSPELS IN THE MODERN ERA
With the dawn of the nineteenth century came the renewal of a trend which had been present throughout the medieval ages: bishops and councils urging priests to proclaim the scriptures in English to their congregations during the celebration of Sunday Mass. In 1791, Bishop John Carroll opened the first synod for the church in the United States at St. Peter’s pro-cathedral in Baltimore. Regulations for Sunday Mass were prescribed in the Synod’s 17th Statute, which directed that the more solemn forms of sung and high Mass should be celebrated whenever possible, that it was desirable for some vernacular hymns and prayers be sung by the congregation, and that a vernacular translation of the gospel was to be recited before the sermon.
Fig. 8 – Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, Baltimore, by Thomas Ruckle, 1801. Image courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture (1981.51). This seems to be the only surviving pictorial representation of the first Catholic Cathedral of Baltimore, where the Synod of 1791 was held.
Similar regulations were issued by the bishops of Great Britain in 1822 and Ireland in 1826, and similar decrees would be regularly renewed throughout the English-speaking world in the subsequent decades. These decrees also inspired an outpouring of new books to assist priests in this task. Many publishers began to print specialized “pulpit use” versions of the Epistles and Gospels. These were popular with the clergy because they were designed for liturgical use, easy to hold and read in the pulpit, utilized the specific translations permitted by the hierarchy, and created a more standard experience across parishes and dioceses for the faithful in the pews.
A few examples include:
- The Epistles and Gospels, prepared expressly for pulpit use by a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne. Fr. Pustet & Co. New York. 1885.
- The Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use. Prepared by order of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. Fr. Pustet & Co. New York. 1893.
- The Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use. English and German Text. Second and Enlarged Edition. Milwaukee. 1893 (This edition was published simultaneously in the same year by four separate publishers: Diedrich-Schaefer Co., M.H. Wiltzius & Co., Hoffman, and Zander).
- Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use. Edited by Very Rev. Richard O’Gorman. Benziger Brothers. New York. 1906.
- Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and Festivals, Pulpit Edition. Burns & Oates. London. 1915 & 1916.
- The Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use. Edited by Rev. Ferdinand Bogner. Leo A. Kelly. New York. 1922.
Fig. 9 – Title page of the Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use, published by M.H. Wiltzius Co. of Milwaukee in 1893. Scan via Archive.org. Public domain.
Following the publication of the Confraternity New Testament in the US, and the Knox version in the UK, publishers continued issuing pulpit editions which incorporated the new scripture versions. Examples include:
- The Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and Holydays. Prepared with the addition of brief exegetical notes by the Catholic Biblical Association of America. W.H. Sadlier, Inc. New York. 1941 & 1947
- The Epistles and Gospels for Sundays & festivals throughout the year in the version authorized for public use by the archbishops and bishops of England & Wales. Burns & Oates. London. 1945, 1946, 1947, 1962
- The Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and Holydays. With dogmatic, moral, homiletic and liturgical sermon outlines by John C. Selner. Benziger Brothers. New York. 1947
- The Epistles and Gospels for pulpit use on Sunday and Holy Days. Catholic Book Publishing Company. New York. 1951 & 1958.
- The Epistles and Gospels for Sundays, holydays and more prominent feasts. In accordance with the restored order of Holy Week and the most recent liturgical changes and additions. Benziger Brothers. New York. 1960.
This article has been only a brief summary and overview of the history of the epistles and gospels in English contained in the full paper. There are many other things which were not included here, like an account of how epistle and gospel books sustained the faith and worship of the Catholic laity on remote American frontiers and (in once instance) even resulted in the vocation of the Bishop of Raleigh! There are also more anecdotes waiting to be discovered by future researchers, which are not included in the initial version of the paper, like the annual tradition of the Archbishop of Portland asking all priests to read the gospel in vernacular every day during Lent.
Fig. 10 – Detail from the Lenten Regulations for the city of Seattle and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, published in The Catholic Northwest Progress, February 15, 1901, page 8. This was included in the Lenten Regulations annually between at least 1901 and 1929. Scan via Washington Digital Newspapers. Public domain.
This new study demonstrates that, contrary to both popular and scholarly narratives, there was a long-standing and popular tradition of Catholics priests reciting English translations of the Sunday scripture readings from the pulpit for the benefit of the laity during the Mass. We can now see that significant numbers of the laity –throughout many lands and ages– had regular and meaningful vernacular engagement with the Roman Rite’s ancient cycle of epistles and gospel readings, allowing them to memorize large amounts of scripture and participate deeply in the annual liturgical cycle. All of this offers new insights into the history of pastoral care for the laity and cannot but transform our understanding of the lived experience of Catholic communities throughout the English-speaking world over the past 1,000 years.
 Ernst Ranke, Das kirchliche Perikopensystem aus den ältesten Urkunden der Römischen Liturgie dargelegt und erläutert. (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1847), page 400. Translation by Rev. John M. Lenhart, O.M.Cap, “The Bible as the meditation book of Medieval Laity,” The Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. 101, no. 3 (1939), page 195.
 John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy, “A Synoptic Look at the Failures and Successes of Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms.” Church Life Journal, December 1, 2022.
 Martin Luther, De missa privata et unctione sacerdotum libellus (Vitebergae, 1534). The folios of this work are not numbered, but the quoted text appears on pages 71-72 and 96 if counted manually from the first page of text which begins “Toto hoc tempore.”
 Daniel Cheely, Opening the Book of Marwood: English Catholics and Their Bibles in Early Modern Europe (Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations, 2015), pp 244-245.
 “Dein Missa cum cantu solemniter celebretur; et solemnioribus diebus, si fieri potest, assistentibus Diacono et Subdiacono… Finito Evangelio legantur preces praescriptae pro omnibus ordinibus et felici statu Reipublicae; Evangelium item proprium illius diei lingua vernacula…Optandum est ut inter officia hymni aliqui aut preces lingua vernacular cantentur.” See Concilia Provincialia Baltimori habita ab anno 1829, usque ad annum 1840 (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1842), pp 15-16.
Get notified when we release future articles and research features by signing up for our email list!