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History of the Daily Devotional Reading of the Bible

28th December 2008

I am curious if anyone in the blogosphere is familiar with when the notion of daily devotional reading of the Bible for average everyday Christians became popular? When did this become the cornerstone of individual piety and spirituality?

It was obviously after the Reformation and the appearance of Bible translations in the vernacular (quite a bit after, I would think), but more importantly it would have to do with socio-economic factors and literacy rates.

I am preaching on the devotional reading of Scripture in the near future and wanted to provide a historical perspective on Bible reading as a spiritual discipline. I want to emphasize that while personal reading of the Bible is important, reading in community is essential and is more in line with the history of the Church.

Any thoughts?


12 Responses to “History of the Daily Devotional Reading of the Bible”

  1. John Says:

    As far as the English Bible, if you count the Biblical passages in the Book of Common Prayer (which was read daily), then it goes back at least to the early 1500s.

    We know the traditional 7 prayer hours of the day go back to New Testament times.

    The Liturgy of the Hours may go back to the earliest church. But, throughout the first millennium, it was primarily a practice of monks who could read Latin.

  2. John Says:

    Apparently, the answer to the question of when the practice of daily Bible reading began is back to the disciples and Jesus. It may have not been practiced by all people in all societies throughout history, but it did begin at the origin of Christianity:

    From the Liturgy of the Hours Wikipedia entry:

    The early Christians continued the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at certain hours of the day or night. In the Psalms we find expressions like “in the morning I offer you my prayer”; “At midnight I will rise and thank you” ; “Evening, morning and at noon I will cry and lament”; “Seven times a day I praise you”. The Apostles observed the Jewish custom of praying at the third, sixth and ninth hour and at midnight (Acts 10:3, 9; 16:25; etc.). The Christian prayer of that time consisted of almost the same elements as the Jewish: recital or chanting of psalms, reading of the Old Testament, to which were soon added readings of the Gospels, Acts, and epistles, and canticles such as the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Other elements were added later in the course of the centuries.

  3. John Says:

    From The Liturgy of the Hours FAQ [PDF File]:

    All Christian prayer, including the
    Divine Office, has its roots in Jewish prayer, which is based upon
    the singing of the psalms at fixed times and the reading of Holy
    Scripture. Setting out from this Jewish tradition, Christians during
    the first centuries of the Church developed four basic times of
    prayer in common: morning and evening prayers, daytime prayers,
    and night prayers. Generally, only the first two were practiced
    regularly by the Christian community, and from the outset they
    were liturgical; i.e., they were formalized, had structure, and were
    prayed communally.

  4. Tyler Williams Says:

    Thanks for the replies thus far. What I am wondering is when the practice of the average *individual* Christian reading the Bible by him or herself started.

  5. Russell Williams Says:

    I agree with the previous post that there’s a strong heritage of daily devotional activity. But I was under the impression that within the English church the emergence of the noncomformists and particularly was significant in the Methodist tradition.

    But I wouldn’t claim to be widely read. Looking forward to further comments.

  6. Russell Williams Says:

    Apologies that the previous post made no sense. What I meant to write was:

    …impression that personal (as opposed to liturgical) bible reading within the English church came with the emergence…

    Apologies once again.

  7. John Says:

    Since the daily practice of reading scripture goes back to the earliest Christians, I imagine it was adopted by the “average” Christian when scriptures became available to them and they became literate. The Bible was not available to the commoner until the invention of the printing press (1450). The Gutenberg Bible was the first book ever printed. Once Bibles were available to the commoner, it would only have been a matter of literacy for daily Bible reading to begin. I don’t have any data, but I would bet it became a common practice among “average” Christians sometime in the 1500s–maybe late 1400s.

  8. Jim Watts Says:

    Tyler:

    The problem is that using words like “average / individual Christians” introduces a subjective bias. Do you really think the average Christian, or even the average evangelical, reads the Bible daily? Have you got the Gallup polls to prove it? And even if you do, can you believe what people tell pollsters? So given the uncertainty even with contemporary social-science research tools, it’s quite impossible to talk about “average” behavior in earlier times.

    The more interesting (and controllable) question is: when did regular (daily) private bible study emerge as an ideal? And when is there evidence that at least some people were trying to live up to it? The answers given by your other respondants began to sketch that out. I would point particularly to the late middle ages / early renaissance (before the Reformation!) when the monastic tradition of lectio divina (which, by the way, since it was performed in community, did not require individuals to be literate in order to participate) seems to have been laicized with the popularity of the books of hours. Not only are many manuscripts and early printed books of hours extant from those centuries, but contemporary portraits frequently shows their subjects reading books of hours. For example, note that paintings of the annunciation from the late middle ages on almost always show Mary with an open book in her hands or beside her. Thus the ideal of lay devotional reading seems well ensconsed in late medieval Christianity.

    Of course, it’s apparent a thousand years earlier in rabbinic Judaism …

  9. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Jim. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at, though obviously I was not clear enough. I am interested in when individual devotional reading emerged as an ideal. I am not sure that it would have been before the Reformation, since the key is to have inexpensive copies of the Scriptures available for the masses in an accessible language.

  10. Professor Says:

    Мог бы долго с вами спорить на эту тему :)

  11. Gilbert Wesley Purdy Says:

    Thomas More and family read the Bible daily but in Latin (which More’s wife did not understand). They were by no means alone and many from the bougeoisie read it in the Wycliffe translation. Nor were the English alone. The Dutch were avid readers of the Bible, though I am not familiar with the date of the first Dutch translation. As for average man (and woman) on the street, America was the first society to have general literacy and there was a Bible in nearly every home.

    If you are asking when the first daily schedules were issued for readers to follow systematically, in private, from translations in their own language, I suspect the Bible tract societies were the originators of the practice, first in the 1830′s, and, then, in wide distribution, in the 1870′s.

  12. Bill Heroman Says:

    Just a thought – try digging up the origins of the British Bible Society and the American Bible Society, around 1900-ish(?). It would be interesting to see if they used the term devotional or it’s equivalent in their early literature.