Words, words, words: religious terminology

Disputatious scholars
Disputatious scholars

One of the thorniest problems facing the writer of historical fiction is choosing words that mediate between the usages of the past and the present. Words not only arise (fax, email) and die (pettifogger, gleek), they shift in meaning. “Pretty” used to mean “cunning, crafty,” for example.

Religious terms are especially problematical, especially when your novel turns on the subject, like Death by Disputation does. Nowadays we have a whole raft of words identifying the person who conducts a service in a church: preacher, parson, minister, priest, reverend, pastor. (And rabbi and imam, but they don’t figure in my story.) In England and thus in my story world, we also have vicars, curates, and rectors. Which is which? And which did what back in the day?

Elizabeth’s clergymen were referred to as priests. Unfortunately, that term also denoted the villainous seditious purveyors of Catholic contraband. Now it means only the Catholic variety of sermon-giver. That means I couldn’t use that term for the established church without cruelly confusing my readers, who suffer enough from my linguistic indulgences.

Many of the other terms seem to be more or less interchangeable, at least to one of my free-thinking upbringing. Ain’t got no vicars in Texas. In the sixteenth century, however, each term denoted a particular type of cleric, with significant status differences — always important to observe.

So I looked them all up. In case anybody really cares, I include the definitions from the OED at the end of this post. Combining the facts (the definitions) with my own sense of perception and judgment about contemporary meanings, I decided to call my lower-echelon clerics ‘parsons,’ the guy in the college chapel ‘chaplain,’ and the plush positions my college Fellows aspired to ‘vicars.’ I avoid the detail of ‘rector’ and used ‘curate’ to designate a status intermediate between ‘curate’ and ‘vicar.’ Vicars get a percentage of the tithes, which could be substantial. They might take their cut and use a tiny portion to pay a substitute to do the actual work: a curate.

Precisely what is a Puritan?

The other terminological problem had to do with terms for varieties of Protestant. These prickly religious issues are so far in our past, so unimportant to us now, that we don’t learn much about them. We don’t know that Presbyterians used to be the wild-eyed radicals, meeting secretly in back rooms with a lookout on the corner, plotting to elect their own deacons. (Wait; plotting to what?) You heard me. Electing your own church officials smacked of dangerous populism. These august persons ought properly to be appointed by bishops and uh, sub-bishops… there are a lot of positions in the official church hierarchy. I don’t learn these things until I have to.

Anyway, plotting to elect your own church leadership was a threat to the monarchy, ultimately. Treason, baby; don’t go there. But for us, Presbyterians are the middle of the middle, universally regarded as the Protestant sect least likely to revolt. Besides, I would have to explain with great tediosity that Presbytery means “government by a council of elders” yada yada blah blah blah. And then I would have to explain that Presbyterianism was usually concomitant, but technically orthogonal to Calvinism. You could be a Calvinist and not be a Presbyterian. You don’t think Lady Bacon wanted a general election, do you? But this is not drama; this does not advance our plot. It’s called “information dumping,” which is what blogs are for!

So who are those people, those trouble-making gadabouts, those hair-splitting, nit-picking, fault-finding zealots? They called themselves “the godly,” with the deliberate insinuation that others were ungodly. That’s drama; pretty much everybody wanted to strangle them. The ungodly referred to the godly as ‘precisians,’ because they were overly precise in their interpretation of the bible. I hate that word. My mind’s ear rejects all possible pronunciations and it really doesn’t mean anything anymore. So I use the word ‘puritan,’ newly coined in Elizabethan times. John Whitgift wrote, “This name Puritane is very aptely giuen to these men, not bicause they be pure no more than were the Heretikes called Cathari, but bicause they think them selues to be mundiores ceteris, more pure than others…”

I also use the term ‘nonconformist,’ even though it’s slightly anachronistic. The first citation for that term is 1618, but it didn’t catch on until later in the seventeenth century. It strikes at the heart of the conflict, however; nonconformity was the problem. I’ve talked about that already too. The word ‘nonconformist’ has positive connotations for us now, so it’s a bit of a twist to use it for the bad guys.


Vicar: One who takes the place of, or acts instead of, another; a substitute, representative, or proxy….In early use, a person acting as priest in a parish in place of the real parson or rector, or as the representative of a religious community to which the tithes had been appropriated; hence, in later use in the Church of England, the incumbent of a parish of which the tithes were impropriated or appropriated, in contrast to a rector.   Now also a priest who is a member (team vicar) of a team ministry under the leadership of a team rector.

Rector: Originally: an incumbent of a pre-Reformation or Church of England parish where the tithes were retained by the incumbent (cf. vicar) (now hist.); (later) the incumbent of a parish where this was formerly the case. Now also: (Anglican Church) a member of the clergy who has charge of a parish; (also) the leader of a team ministry.

Parson: A vicar or any other beneficed member of the clergy of the Church of England; a chaplain, curate, or any Anglican clergyman; a minister or preacher of any Christian denomination, a clergyman. Sometimes with pejorative connotation.

Curate: A clergyman engaged for a stipend or salary, and licensed by the bishop of the diocese to perform ministerial duties in the parish as a deputy or assistant of the incumbent; an assistant to a parish priest.

Bacon's essays: Of Unity in Religions

Most of the troubles in England in the sixteenth century, apart from things like plagues and famines, were caused by disagreements about religion. Bacon advocates unity in this essay, to our non-surprise. Everyone in those days believed that everyone ought to believe the same thing in pretty much the same way. Still, Francis Bacon was prescient in so many areas, it’s a bit disappointing that he failed to forsee the satisfactory solution of pluralism. Let everyone believe whatever they want, within broad civil limits, and make it impolite to talk about religion with people outside your own religious circle. Works for us.

Zuni dancer
Zuni dancer

This essay begins with the observation that heathens did not suffer from divisions of religion. “The reason was, because the religion of the heathen, consisted rather in rites and ceremonies, than in any constant belief.” By “constant belief” he must mean “established doctrine.” This is an intellectual’s complaint. If you read Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin; 2012), you’ll get the sense that the religion of most ordinary folks consists of rites and ceremonies, along with a vague general sense of a supernatural Somebody watching you. Your culture, related by your community’s priests and/or shamans, will tell you if that Somebody is with you or against you and how you ought to behave in order to retain the Somebody’s good regard. Only intellectuals dither about doctrine. Thomas’s book is awesome, by the way. The version I’ve linked to is a recently issued paperback, a mere $18 at Amazon, but also available at any university library. If you have the slightest interest in the way superstition and science rubbed shoulders in sixteenth century England, you must read it. It’s chock-full of fascinating anecdotes as well.

Anyway, back to Bacon.  When he says “heathen,” he means ancient Greeks and Romans, not contemporary shamanistic religions. He doesn’t know anything about the latter, but he knows his classics inside out.

Heathen god Neptune with his heathen mer-horses.
Heathen god Neptune with his heathen mer-horses.

The essay goes on to discuss the fruits of unity, in two long paragraphs that I find rather dense and unprofitable. He makes a point he made often in the advice letters he wrote to ministers of state, that nothing promotes atheism and skepticism like dissension inside the church. Remember that back in his day, “atheism” meant something more like “wild, lawless, outside the bounds of decent society,” not “lack of belief in gods” as it does today. Your sixteenth century atheist was a mad criminal, not a science-minded skeptic. Modern thinkers like Bacon and Ralegh believed in a Christian God, but without the elaborate architecture of heaven and hell populated thickly with angels and demons. Their God was almost an ideal of the Good, rather than a supernatural being. Almost; not quite.

“As for the fruit towards those that are within; it is peace; which containeth infinite blessings. It establisheth faith; it kindleth charity; the outward peace of the church, distilleth into peace of conscience; and it turneth the labors of writing, and reading of controversies, into treaties of mortification and devotion.” That’s the other side of the coin. And surely it is easier to be charitable toward people who agree with you.

Then Bacon tries to define the bounds of unity, how they should be determined. His main point is that “Men ought to take heed, of rending God’s church, by two kinds of controversies.” The first is getting into a lather about adiaphora, things indifferent. Is it really that important if you do or do not wear your hat in church? The second is making important things so complicated that nobody can understand them. He doesn’t give examples, but probably the whole consubstantation vs transubstantiation business falls into this class. The important thing is for worshippers to share in the act of communion; what exactly is going on with that bread and wine is not something the average worshipper needs to fret about.

Last, Bacon cautions, “Concerning the means of procuring unity; men must beware, that in the procuring, or muniting, of religious unity, they do not dissolve and deface the laws of charity, and of human society.” Don’t be like Spain, in other words, converting people by torture and conquest. Although he uses Mahomet as his example, the criticism of Spain is clearly implied.

“Muniting” is new to me. OED unhelpfully cites this passage in Bacon as the sole example. Circularity! But it defines “munite” as “To fortify, strengthen, protect.” I think I’ll refrain from adding that word to my repertoire. It sounds like you’re humming like a robot while saying “unite,” which doesn’t mean the same thing at all.

And that’s that. Not one single juicy quote in this longer-than-usual essay. Aren’t we glad to leave this whole religious controversy in the past where it belongs? Now let’s get out there and dance! 

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