By Mike Patterson
St. Luke’s is a handsome red-brick Episcopal church in Newtown, Pennsylvania, featuring a tall bell tower, sparkling white shutters and an eye-catching cherry red front door. Founded in 1832, it has since fallen on such hard times that replacing worn-out prayer books was a financial challenge.
“Even before the pandemic, we had been in dire need of new prayer books,” the Rev. Trey Kennedy, interim priest in charge, said via email. “Though we lacked the extra funds to make a purchase, the desire to replace them grew steadily. We needed support to get new ones.”
The Diocese of Pennsylvania put the church in touch with the Bible and Common Prayer Book Society, a New Jersey-based organization that donates Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals to Episcopal churches around the world.
St. Luke’s applied and soon had “over 70 new prayer books in our pews,” Kennedy said. “The Prayer Book Society could not have been more generous in aiding us.”
The donation came at an opportune time for the church. Kennedy had been leading the congregation in formation on worship and why the church does certain things on Sundays. “Because of these sessions, our participants in particular were excited to have the new prayer books and even helped in placing them in our pews,” he said.
“Along with all of St. Luke’s, I could not be happier with the Bible and Common Prayer Book Society and their great and important work for the church,” he said.
The New York Bible and Prayer Book Society was founded in 1809 under the leadership of Trinity Church, the first American publisher of the Book of Common Prayer, and the Diocese of New York to disseminate Bibles and prayer books to churches in the diocese, especially those starting in the vast wilderness that lay west and north of Albany. It is among the oldest Episcopal organizations in existence.
“Still in existence. That’s the important piece,” the Rev. Dr. David G. Henritzy, director of the society, said in a telephone interview.
Anticipating the need for prayer books, Trinity Church leaders had already built an endowment and looked forward to providing prayer books as early as 1797.
Much credit for sparking the society goes to the Rev. John Henry Hobart, a 34-year-old assistant rector of Trinity Church in New York City who wanted to replicate the prayer book societies in Great Britain. Hobart believed the study of the Bible should be assisted, and the best commentary was the Book of Common Prayer.
Hobart eventually was elected the third Bishop of New York and was one of the cofounders of General Theological Seminary and Geneva College. He died on September 12, 1830, and was buried in Trinity Church. The Episcopal Church remembers Hobart on the anniversary of his death.
In 1816, the Auxiliary New York Bible and Common Prayer Book Society was formed to assist the initial society in its work. The auxiliary and society merged in 1837.
By 1856, the organization had published prayer books in English, French, and German, and hoped to soon have an edition in Spanish.
In addition to providing Bibles and prayers books to churches and congregations in the diocese, the society also published the prayer book until Church Publishing Inc. was founded in 1918 and soon took over its publication.
Funded by donations and earnings on its endowment, the society purchases the books it donates. “We do not buy, sell, or give used books,” Henritzy said.
In 2021, it donated 2,040 books, including 600 prayer books in Spanish, 600 in English, 75 Bibles, and 115 La Biblias. It also donated 650 supplemental hymnals.
Most of the donations are to replace prayer books at churches like St. Luke’s, he said.
“Frequently, it’s to replace worn-out books,” he said. “It does happen that church buildings get destroyed by fires or floods, and those books have to be replaced.”
But he finds the most fulfilling aspect of the society’s work is helping “priests who are starting new congregations, and equipping them with everything they need,” Henritzy said.
One trend is the request for Spanish-language books. “Half the books we distribute are for Spanish-speaking congregations,” he said.
For example, the society donated 70 Hymnal Flor y Canto to Iglesia El Buen Pastor of Durham, North Carolina, the oldest Hispanic congregation in the Diocese of North Carolina. The majority of its parishioners are Mexicans, Hondurans, and Ecuadorians.
“We’re located in a vulnerable area of Durham,” said the Rev. Ricardo Medina. Although he’s been vicar only a few months, attendance has jumped from 37 to 40 each Sunday to 107 to 115.
“We’re a small church and lacked the resources to acquire them,” Medina said. He believes having the hymnals in Spanish “incorporates the faithful into the liturgy and praise through music. The faithful feel enthusiastic and say they feel joy in the Eucharist while they sing.”
In addition to supporting Spanish-speaking congregations in the United States, many of the congregations the society supports are in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Down through the years, the society has also contributed to the publication of Italian, German, and Spanish editions, including a prayer book in Chinese and English.
Applying for books is straightforward. “We need the request and support from the diocesan bishop,” Henritzy said.
Occasionally, he receives requests that he must decline, such as from parishes that are no longer affiliated with the Episcopal Church. “The ministry that we do is exclusively for the Episcopal Church,” he said.
Congregations are grateful for the donations, he said.
“Some send photos of people smiling and holding the books,” he said. “Everybody is very grateful for that assistance with worshiping on Sunday morning. A book ties the congregation together.”
The donations also can take a burden off of priests who are preparing Sunday services on their computers and printing them off, rather than relying on prayer books in the pews.
The society recently began working with Church Publishing to provide free access to the company’s RitePlanning, an online tool for planning liturgies and creating parish bulletins.
How many books has the society donated since its founding? “I couldn’t even begin to guess,” Henritzy said. “Surely many thousands.”
For more information, visit biblesandprayerbooks.org.