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March 6, 2021

Prayer for the Dead

Prayer for the Dead

By John Henry Blunt,
of the Church of England

A custom which has prevailed in many nations, and may be regarded as founded on the instincts of human nature; for when the soul departs into the unseen world it is natural for survivors to pray for its welfare on the same principle that we pray for each other's wellbeing and happiness in this world.

The doctrine and practice came, however, to the Christian Church through the Jews. Christianity, it must be remembered, is not a new religion or the primary revelation of the Divine Will. God revealed Himself to mankind from an early period, and though especially to one nation only, still a revelation of His will had been made, the leading particulars of which were necessarily unchangeable, though, as regards certain unessential points, suited to the Jews only. Christianity, it might therefore be supposed a priori, would not essentially differ from Judaism, each proceeding from the same unchangeable Author. But the connection of the two religions is still closer and more intimate: one was the type and the other the antitype, and thus Christianity may be said to be Judaism in its complete and perfect form and development: signs and types changed into corresponding realities, and the teaching of the Law and Prophets imposed in their full significance and meaning [Matt. v. 17-19]. We cannot therefore expect to find in Christianity what may be called a new revelation of the Divine Will or a complete system of truth, nor can we doubt that the Apostles taught the doctrines or usages of existing Judaism (which generally they were commanded by our Lord to receive (see Matt, xxiii. 2, 3), unless they were manifest corruptions of the Divine Law. But by the fact of their teaching them, such doctrines or usages were stamped with Divine authority or sanction.

This explains the fact, that although prayer for the dead prevailed in the Church from the earliest period, and is at least indirectly confirmed by the teaching of the New Testament, yet we do not find that it was expressly commanded by our Lord and His Apostles. Prayer for the dead was a Jewish custom for many ages before our Lord's coming, and it was incorporated by Apostles and inspired teachers into the practical system of the Christian Church. That it was the usage of the Jewish Church more than one hundred years before Christ is clear from the well-known passage in Maccabees, where Judas, offering a sin-offering, "made a reconciliation for the dead that they might be delivered from sin" [2 Macc, xii. 43-45] — a statement, from which the belief of the Jews may clearly be inferred, that certain sins committed in this world and now unrepented of, may be forgiven in the world to come. If this be denied the offering of Judas was useless or unprofitable, and the belief that the dead can be benefited by prayer, on which the practice is founded, necessarily falls to the ground.

But the efficacy of prayer for the pardon of the sins of the departed, is clearly intimated by our Lord's teaching in the Gospels: He implies that some, though not all, sins which are here committed, may be forgiven in the world to come; and thus teaches that prayer for the dead rests on a true and certain foundation, and there can be no doubt that He thus, implicitly at least, sanctions the usage. View together these truths — that sin committed in this world may be forgiven in the world to come, and the efficacy of prayer is all-prevailing, since our Lord assures us that whatsoever we ask the Father in His name, He will grant to us — and the inference is undeniable. The love of survivors indeed will not ask for a positive command to pray for departed relatives; natural affection alone will complete the argument and irresistibly enjoin the precept.

Our Lord says that "whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come" [Matt. xii. 32], whence, by only excluding from forgiveness in the world to come the sin against the Holy Ghost, He may be understood to imply that less offences may be forgiven: such is the interpretation of ancient, and also of some eminent modern, commentators. We are also told to agree with our adversary whilst we are in the way with him (i.e. during the present life), since otherwise we shall be cast into prison, and not come forth till we have paid the last farthing [Matt. v. 27], where it is obviously implied, that when, but not until, the debt is discharged, we shall be delivered from prison — a "prison" never signifying according to Scriptural usage the place of eternal punishment.1

Again, St. Peter in his first epistle, speaking of our Lord's descent to Hades, says that He preached the Gospel [iii. 19, 20, iv. 6] to the Antediluvians who were then in prison. They had been disobedient in the days of Noah, and perished at the Deluge, God bringing the Flood upon the world of the ungodly [2 Pet. ii. 5]. Our Lord announced the glad tidings of redemption to them, and thus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah [ix. 11], that Messiah by the Blood of His covenant would deliver the prisoners out of the pit where there is no water, — a kind of prison often used in the East. It cannot be supposed, with the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles before us, that prayer for the dead is necessarily fruitless or unavailing; or that imperfect Christians, or those to whom the Gospel has not been preached, are altogether beyond the hope of mercy and forgiveness.

The first Christian writer who mentions prayer for the dead is Tertullian: but he speaks of the usage as well-known and long established in the Church: thus he says that prayers were annually offered on the birthday of the martyrs or the day of their martyrdom:2 he explains "paying the last farthing" that the soul pays something in the delay of the resurrection,3 and speaks of a widow praying for the soul of her husband.4 St. Augustine often alludes to the universal usage of the Church to pray for all regenerated in Christ (i.e. the baptized), though whether, or in what degree, prayer would be profitable and availing, depended upon the present life.5 And St. Chrysostom says that it was not in vain enjoined as a law by the Apostles that a memorial of the dead should be made in the solemn mysteries, as knowing that great gain resulteth to them and great assistance.6 Aerius, a heretic of the fourth century, first alleged that the practice was useless. It is only in the present life, he argued, that a man can do anything, as pray and give alms; and such prayers set aside the necessity for a holy life, since, if the prayer and almsgiving of others can avail for the departed, their own good works whilst on earth are not really needed. The reasonings of Aerius were answered by St Epiphanius7 and St. Augustine,8 who vindicated the apostolicity of the universal usage of the Church.

Prayer for the dead was especially, though not exclusively, connected with the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the names of the living, and also of the dead who were commemorated, being read from what were called Diptychs by the deacon, when the Eucharistic sacrifice was offered.9 We find in all extant liturgies prayers for the pardon of the sins and the rest of the departed; there being no liturgy in use for fifteen hundred years after Christ, in which the immemorial usage of the Church was not recognised. It was first laid aside in the sixteenth century by Calvin and others, (though allowing that it was the usage of the Primitive Church,) mainly for subjective reasons, as they are called, such as that if a man died in a state of grace he had no need of prayer for his soul's welfare, or if he died in sin prayer could not benefit him, but must necessarily be unprofitable and useless; and also in opposition to the doctrine of purgatory. The Church of England recognizes the doctrine of prayer for the dead,10 which, though fallen into popular desuetude, has not at any time, since the Reformation, been wholly lost or forgotten.

1 Olshansen thus comments on Matt. v. 26: "That we are not to understand eternal punishment under "not come out of prison till he has paid the last farthing," but only a transition state is shewn, first by 'prison', which never denotes the place of eternal punishment, and also by 'until', which points to a definite limit." And more fully in his note on Matt, xviii ,4, where he says, "The formula "deliver into prison till he has paid all that is due," still demands here our especial consideration in its connection with the creditor. Already at Matt. v. 26, we remarked that it would not denote everlasting punishment; in the words 'until' it is implied obviously that a limit is fixed.... The 'prison' here is thus Hades, the general assembling-place of the dead who did not die in the Lord, but all of whom it does by no means follow shall sink into eternal condemnation."

2 De Corona, c. 3.
3 De Anima, c. 58.

4. De Exhortatione Castitatus, c. 11.
5 De Cura pro Mort. lib. i. c. 17.

6 Comment. in Philip. hom. 3.

7 Hares. 55 site 75.

8 De Hatresibus, 53.

9. Apost. Constit. lib. viii. c. 12; St. Cyril, Lat. Myst. v. 8; St. Chrysos. Com. 41 in 1 Cor.

10 Thus "in the office of the judge promoted by Breeks v. Woolfrey, it was held that the following inscription 'Spes mea Christus,' 'pray for the soul of J. "Woolfrey,' 'it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead' [2 Macc. xii. 46] ... was not illegal, as by no canon or authority of the Church in these realms had the practice of praying for the dead been expressly prohibited. Vide Stephen's Book of Common Prayer with notes, where Sir H. Jenner's judgment on the above case, of which the summary is quoted is given at full length. Inscriptions on tombs with prayer for the souls of the departed from 1547 to 1782 are given in Hierurgia Anglicana [pp. 820-1].

From Dictionary of Doctrinal and Historical Theology, 1870.