1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Homily

HOMILY, a simple religious address, less elaborate than a sermon, and confining itself to the practical exposition of some ethical topic or some passage of Scripture. The word ὁμιλία from ὁμιλεῖν (ὁμοῦ, εἴλω), meaning communion, intercourse, and especially interchange of thought and feeling by means of words (conversation), was early employed in classical Greek to denote the instruction which a philosopher gave to his pupils in familiar talk (Xenophon, Memorabilia, I. ii. 6. 15). This usage of the word was long preserved (Aelian, Varia Historia, iii. 19); and the ὁμιλήσας of Acts xx. 11 may safely be taken to assign not only a free and informal but also a didactic character to the apostle Paul’s discourse in the upper chamber of Troas, when “he talked a long while, even till break of day.” That the “talk” on that occasion partook of the nature of the “exposition” (דרשה) of Scripture, which, undertaken by a priest, elder or other competent person, had become a regular part of the service of the Jewish synagogue,[1] may also with much probability be assumed. The custom of delivering expositions or comments more or less extemporaneous on the lessons of the day at all events passed over soon and readily into the Christian Church, as may be gathered from the first Apology (c. 67) of Justin Martyr, where we read that, in connexion with the practice of reading portions from the collected writings of the prophets and from the memoirs of the apostles, it had by that time become usual for the presiding minister to deliver a discourse in which “he admonishes the people, stirring them up to an imitation of the good works which have been brought before their notice.” This discourse, from its explanatory character, and from the easy conversational manner of its delivery, was for a long time called ὁμιλία rather than λόγος: it was regarded as part of the regular duty of the bishop, but he could devolve it, if he thought fit, on a presbyter or deacon, or even on a layman. An early and well-known instance of such delegation is that mentioned by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. vi. 19) in the case of Origen (216 A.D.).[2] In course of time the exposition of the lesson for the day came more frequently to assume a more elaborate character, and to pass into the category of a λόγος or even φιλοσοφία or φιλοσόφημα; but when it did so the fact was as far as possible denoted by a change of name, the word ὁμιλία being reserved for the expository or exegetical lecture as distinguished from the pulpit oration or sermon.[3] While the church of the 3rd and 4th centuries could point to a brilliant succession of great preachers, whose discourses were wont to be taken down in shorthand and circulated among the Christian public as edifying reading, it does not appear that the supply of ordinary homiletical talent kept pace with the rapidity of church extension throughout the Roman empire. In the smaller and remoter communities it not uncommonly happened that the minister was totally unqualified to undertake the work of preaching; and though, as is curiously shown by the case of Rome (Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. vii. 19), the regular exposition of the appointed lessons was by no means regarded as part of the necessary business of a church, it was generally felt to be advisable that some provision should be made for the public instruction of congregations. Even in Jerome’s time (De Vir. Ill. c. 115), accordingly, it had become usual to read, in the regular meetings of the churches which were not so fortunate as to possess a competent preacher, the written discourses of celebrated fathers; and at a considerably later period we have on record the canon of at least one provincial council (that of Vaux, probably the third, held in 529 A.D.), positively enjoining that if the presbyter through any infirmity is unable himself to preach, “homilies of the holy fathers” (homiliae sanctorum patrum) are to be read by the deacons. Thus the finally fixed meaning of the word homily as an ecclesiastical term came to be a written discourse (generally possessing the sanction of some great name) read in church by or for the officiating clergyman when from any cause he was unable to deliver a sermon of his own. As the standard of clerical education sank during the dark ages, the habit of using the sermons of others became almost universal. Among the authors whose works were found specially serviceable in this way may be mentioned the Venerable Bede, who is credited with no fewer than 140 homilies in the Basel and Cologne editions of his works, and who certainly was the author of many Homiliae de Tempore which were much in vogue during the 8th and following centuries. Prior to Charlemagne it is probable that several other collections of homilies had obtained considerable popularity, but in the time of that emperor these had suffered so many mutilations and corruptions that an authoritative revision was felt to be imperatively necessary. The result was the well-known Homiliarium, prepared by Paul Warnefrid, otherwise known as Paulus Diaconus (q.v.).[4] It consists of 176 homilies arranged in order for all the Sundays and festivals of the ecclesiastical year; and probably was completed before the year 780. Though written in Latin, its discourses were doubtless intended to be delivered in the vulgar tongue; the clergy, however, were often too indolent or too ignorant for this, although by more than one provincial council they were enjoined to exert themselves so that they might be able to do so.[5] Hence an important form of literary activity came to be the translation of the homilies approved by the church into the vernacular. Thus we find Alfred the Great translating the homilies of Bede; and in a similar manner arose Ælfric’s Anglo-Saxon Homilies and the German Homiliarium of Ottfried of Weissenburg. Such Homiliaria as were in use in England down to the end of the 15th century were at the time of the Reformation eagerly sought for and destroyed, so that they are now extremely rare, and the few copies which have been preserved are generally in a mutilated or imperfect form.[6]

The Books of Homilies referred to in the 35th article of the Church of England originated at a convocation in 1542, at which it was agreed “to make certain homilies for stay of such errors as were then by ignorant preachers sparkled among the people.” Certain homilies, accordingly, composed by dignitaries of the lower house, were in the following year produced by the prolocutor; and after some delay a volume was published in 1547 entitled Certain sermons or homilies appointed by the King’s Majesty to be declared and read by all parsons, vicars, or curates every Sunday in their churches where they have cure. In 1563 a second Book of Homilies was submitted along with the 39 Articles to convocation; it was issued the same year under the title The second Tome of Homilies of such matters as were promised and instituted in the former part of Homilies, set out by the authority of the Queen’s Majesty, and to be read in every Parish Church agreeably. Of the twelve homilies contained in the first book, four (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th) are probably to be attributed to Cranmer, and one (the 12th) possibly to Latimer; one (the 6th) is by Bonner; another (the 5th) is by John Harpsfield, archdeacon of London, and another (the 11th) by Thomas Becon, one of Cranmer’s chaplains. The authorship of the others is unknown. The second book consists of twenty-one homilies, of which the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, 9th, 16th and 17th have been assigned to Jewel, the 4th to Grindal, the 5th and 6th to Pilkington and the 18th to Parker. See the critical edition by Griffiths, Oxford, 1869. The homilies are not now read publicly, though they are sometimes appealed to in controversies affecting the doctrines of the Anglican Church.

  1. See Philo, Quod omnis probus liber, sec. 12 (ed. Mangey ii. 458; cf. ii. 630).
  2. Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. vii. 19) mentions that in Alexandria in his day the bishop alone was in the custom of preaching; but this, he implies, was a very exceptional state of matters, dating only from the time of Arius.
  3. To the more strictly exegetical lectures the names ἐξηγήσεις, ἐξηγήματα, ἐξηγητικά, ἐκθέσεις, were sometimes applied. But as no popular discourse delivered from the pulpit could ever be exclusively expository and as on the other hand every sermon professing to be based on Scripture required to be more or less “exegetical” and “textual,” it would obviously be sometimes very hard to draw the line of distinction between ὁμιλία and λόγος. It would be difficult to define very precisely the difference in French between a “conférence” and a “sermon”; and the same difficulty seems to have been experienced in Greek by Photius, who says of the eloquent pulpit orations of Chrysostom, that they were ὁμιλίαι rather than λόγοι.
  4. Manuscript copies are preserved at Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Frankfort, Giessen, Cassel and other places. It was first printed at Spires in 1482. In the Cologne edition of 1530 the title runs—Homiliae seu mavis sermones sive conciones ad populum, praestantissimorum ecclesiae doctorum Hieronymi, Augustini, Ambrosii, Gregorii, Origenis, Chrysostomi, Bedae, &c., in hunc ordinem digestae per Alchuinum levitam, idque injungente ei Carolo M. Rom. Imp. cui a secretis fuit. Though thus attributed here to Alcuin, who is known to have revised the Lectionary or Comes Hieronymi, the compilation of the Homiliarium is in the emperor’s own commission entrusted to Paul, to whom it is assigned in the earlier printed editions also. A comparison of different editions shows that the contents increased with the ever-growing number of saints’ days and festivals, new discourses by later preachers like Bernard being constantly added.
  5. Neander, Church History, v. 174 (Eng. trans. of 1851).
  6. An ancient English metrical homiliarium is preserved in the library of the university of Cambridge. Earlier versions of it have existed, and a portion of perhaps the earliest copy, dating from about the middle of the 13th century, was published in 1862 by Mr J. Small, librarian to the university of Edinburgh.