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.

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