This post continues a series about Percy Dearmer‘s 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, published by Mowbray.

These are the previous posts in the series:

Percy Dearmer on the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 1

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 2

In Chapter 4 of his book, Dearmer discusses the development of service books for public worship.

There is a lot of material to cover, so today’s post will look at what he wrote about the earliest Christian worship, from the time of the Apostles to the 2nd century AD. Emphases mine below.

The earliest Church services were:

unfixed in character … and largely extemporary.

Once services became more fixed, they were written down. That said, there were no prayer books like the ones we have today. What was written were likely to be short formularies, which were important to say or to pray during worship. Unfortunately, only a few have survived:

None of the very earliest books (so far as we yet know) have survived; for one thing, as must always be remembered, the last great Persecution of the Christians by the Emperor Diocletian (303) included a systematic destruction of Christian literature ; but an early book by Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, in Egypt … of about the year 350, was discovered at Mount Athos in 1894, and it is quite possible that scholars may discover something yet earlier. Little service books, or liturgical notes, may have been written in the md [first?] century, or even in the time of the Apostles; for it is probable that there were some fixed formulas in the earliest services, and sentences which look like quotations of these exist in the Epistle of St. Clement (c. A.D. 96), and in the 2nd century Didachè.

I wrote about the Didache in 2009. It included more on Christian practice for non-Jewish peoples who were converting. For example, abortion was unknown in Jewish society at that time but was common among the ancient Greeks. Abortion was not part of Scripture because it was unknown to the Jews. The Didache covers social practices that were not part of Scripture but practised by non-Jewish converts.

It is possible that some books of the New Testament, outside of the Gospels, contain verses that were part of the earliest public worship:

A baptismal creed is given in Acts viii. 37, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”: it is only in some of the texts, and may also belong to the 2nd century. Many scholars think that some verses from St. Paul are really liturgical formulas, e.g. “Wherefore he saith, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. v. 14); and “He who was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (1 Tim. iii. 16), which latter looks very like a quotation from what came to be called the Anaphora or Canon of the Eucharist, and may have been part of the words which St. Paul used himself when he celebrated, just as “The grace of our Lord,” in 2 Cor. xiii. 14, was perhaps a form of blessing which he was in the habit of using.

Verses from the Book of Revelation were used in early Christian hymns:

The reader will find it interesting to look these out for himself— Rev. iv. 8-11, v. 9, 10, 12, 13, vii. 12, xi. 17, xii. 10-12, xv. 3-4, xix. 1, 6-7, 2 Tim. ii. 11 – 13; and, besides Eph. v. 4, perhaps i. 3 – 14, and the prayer in Acts iv. 24-30.

Below is Revelation 4:8-11. I’ve highlighted the relevant verses, which are part of a hymn sung today — although it is much more recent than the early Church — Holy, Holy, Holy, which dates from 1826:

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.”

The Gospels had their part to play in providing content for canticles, which are generally sung, and the Gloria:

There are also the great Canticles given us by St. Luke in the first two chapters of his Gospel— Magnificat, Benedictus, Gloria in Excelsis, and Nunc Dimittis

Anglicans still use canticles in traditional services, such as Morning Prayer.

Next time: how worship developed in the Apostolic Age