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5. Prayers for the Dead

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XX. Funeral Rites and Ceremonies

5. Prayers for the Dead

Our author appears to have omitted this peculiarity of the early Christians. But it is discussed at length by Riddle, who has brought many authorities to illustrate the sentiments and practice of the fathers on this subject, some of which are given below, with the result of his investigation of this subject.

Tertullian (died, 220), in his treatise on the Soldier's Chaplet, speaks of prayer for the dead as a custom of the church at the time of his writing that treatise, which was probably not long after the year 200: "We make anniversary oblations for the dead, for their birthdays," meaning, the days of their death. In another of his works the same author says, that it was the practice of a widow to pray for the soul of her deceased husband, desiring on his behalf present refreshment or rest, and a part in the first resurrection; and offering annually an oblation for him on the day of his falling asleep, i.e. his death. And elsewhere he represents a bereaved husband as praying for the soul of his deceased wife, and offering annual oblations for her. 

Origen (d. 254) tells us, that Christians in his time "thought it right and useful to make mention of the saints in their public prayers, and to improve themselves by the commemoration of their worthies. 

Cyprian (d. 258) affirms, that in his time it was the practice of Christians to offer oblations and sacrifices of commemoration for martyrs, on the anniversary days of their martyrdom, with thanksgiving; and he refers also to the oblations and supplications, or deprecatory prayers, on behalf of other departed members of the church. In another place Cyprian says, "When we have departed hence, there is no place left for repentance, and no effect of satisfaction." 

Arnobius, in his treatise against the heathen, written probably about the year 305, speaking of the prayers offered after the consecration of the elements in the Lord's supper, says that Christians prayed for pardon and peace, on behalf of the living and the dead. 

Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), reports the prayer made after consecration of the elements at the holy communion, in these words: – "We offer this sacrifice in memory of all those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that God by their prayers and intercessions may receive our supplications; and then we pray for our holy fathers and bishops, and all that have fallen asleep before us, believing that it is a great advantage to their souls to be prayed for, whilst the holy and tremendous sacrifice lies upon the altar." (Catech. Mystag. 5, n. 6.)

The same writer furnishes evidence, that in his time many persons doubted the efficacy of prayer, as a means of procuring benefit to the dead. "I know many," he observes in the same book, "who say, what profit does the soul receive that goes out of this world, either with sins, or without sins, if you make mention of it in prayer?"

Gregory of Nazianzum (d. 390), prayed, that God would receive the soul of his brother Caesarius. (Greg. Naz. Oral. 10.) Archbishop Usher quotes the following passage from this father, in testimony of his dissent from the opinion that the dead could be profited by the prayers of the living: "Then in vain shall one go about to relieve those that lament. Here men may have a remedy, but afterwards there is nothing but bonds, or all things are fast bound." (Greg. Naz. in Carm. de Rehits Suis.) It may be observed, that this passage proves only that Gregory esteemed prayer of no avail to those who may die in sin.

In the writings of Ambrose (d. 397), we meet with prayers of that father, on behalf of the deceased Theodosius and Valentinian, and his own brother; and we find him giving instructions to a Christian not to weep for a deceased sister, but to make prayers and oblations for her. (Ambros. De Ohitu Theodosii; De Obit. Valentin.; De Obitu Fratris; Ep. 8, ad Faust.) The same author affirms, in another place, that "death is a haven of rest, and makes not our condition worse; but according as it finds every man, so it reserves him to the judgment that is to come." (De Bono Mortis, c. 4.)

Aërius appears to have been the first who publicly protested against the practice of praying for the dead; which he did upon the ground of the uselessness of such prayers to those who were the subjects of them. His objections were met by Epiphanius, (d. 403,) who maintained (Haeres. 75), first, that prayer for the dead was useful, as testifying the faith and hope of the living, inasmuch as it showed their belief that the departed were still in being, and living with the Lord; and secondly, as a further argument, that "the prayer which is made for them does profit, although it do not cut off all their sins; yet, forasmuch as whilst we are in the world we oftentimes slip, both unwillingly and with our will, it serves to signify that which is more perfect. For we make," continues he, "a memorial both for the just and for sinners; for sinners, entreating the mercy of God; for the just, (both the fathers and patriarchs, the prophets, and apostles, and evangelists, and martyrs, and confessors; bishops also, and authorities, and the whole order,) that we may serve our Lord Jesus Christ from the rank of all other men, by the honor that we do unto him, and that we may yield worship unto him."

Chrysosiom (d. 407,) speaking of the death of the wicked, says, "They are not so much to be lamented, as succoured with prayers, and supplications, and alms, and oblations. For these things were not designed in vain, neither is it without reason that we make mention of those that are deceased in the holy mysteries, interceding for them to the Lamb that is slain to take away the sins of the world; but that some consolation may hence arise to them. Neither is it in vain that he who stands at the altar, when the tremendous mysteries are celebrated, cries, 'We offer unto thee for all those that are asleep in Christ, and all that make commemorations for them.' For if there were no commemorations made for them, these things would not be said. Let us not therefore grow weary in giving them our assistance, and offering prayers for them,"

Jerome (d. 420) says, "While we are in this present world we may be able to help one another, either by our prayers or by our councils; but when we shall come before the judgment seat of Christ, neither Job, nor Daniel, nor Noah, can entreat for any one, but every one must bear his own burden." (Lib. iii. Comment, in Galat. c. 6.)

On the whole, therefore, it appears, that from the time of Tertullian, at least, and probably from a still earlier date, the church was accustomed to offer prayers for the dead. Many teachers of the church during the third and fourth centuries sanctioned this superstitious practice; some of them encouraging a belief that the prayers of the living were a means of procuring certain imaginary benefits for those who had died in sin, as well as for those who had departed in the faith; but others affirming that the dead could derive no benefit from the prayers of survivors. So that while it was the erroneous opinion that prayers and oblations ought to be made for the dead, and was the received and universal doctrine of the church, it was yet a question among christian doctors, on which they were allowed to differ, whether the dead received any profit from such prayers. The entire abandonment of a custom so much at variance with divine truth was reserved for that brighter period in the history of the church, in which "the Bible, the Bible alone," began (perhaps for the first time since the commencement of the second century) to be recognized as the sole depositary of the principles of our religion, and the only unerring guide of christian practice.

When the prayers of the early church were offered on behalf of persons supposed to have died in the faith, who were regarded as about to enter into happiness. Christians were understood to beseech God that he would receive those persons to himself; – they gave thanks for their deliverance out of this sinful world; – they petitioned for the divine forgiveness of all remains of sin and imperfection in the departed; – they intended to offer a tribute of respect and affection to the deceased, and to testify their own belief of the immortality of the soul and a future life; – and they sought to procure for their departed friends the blessings of an early share in the millennial reign of Christ upon earth (which was confidently expected by the early Christians), – as well as favor at the day of judgment, (when they supposed that all men would pass through a fire of purgation,) – and an augmentation of their reward and glory in the state of final blessedness.

It is certain also, that prayers were offered for those who had died in sin, in the hope of mitigating their sufferings, or rendering their condemnation more tolerable. (Chrysost. Horn. 3, in Phil.; Conf. Horn. 21, in Act.; Horn. 32, in Matt.; August. Enchirid, ad Laurent, c. 110; Paulin. Ep. 19; Athanas. Qaest. ad Antioch.'ix. 34; Prudent. Cathemerin. Carm. 5, De Cereo Paschali.)

Oblationes pro defunctis, pro natalitiis, annua die facimus. – Tertull. De Corona Militis, c. 3.

Pro anima ejus oral, et refrigerium interim adpostulat ei, et in prima resurrectione consortium, et ofFert annuis diebus dormitionis ejus. – Id. De Monogamia, c. 10. – Jam repete apud Deuni pro cujus spiritu postules, pro qua oblationes annuas reddas. – Exhort, ad Castit. c. 11. – Tertullian held that every little offence of the faithful would be punished by delaying their resurrection. Modicum quodque delictum mora resurrectionis luendum. – De minima, c. 58.

Meminisse sanctorum sive in collectis solennibus, sive pro eo ut ex recordatione eorum proficiamus, aptum et conveniens videtur. – Orig. lib. ix. in Rom. 12.

Celebrentur hie a nobis oblationes et sacrificia ob commemorationes eorum Cypr. Ep. 37, al. 22, ad Clerum. – Sacrificia pro eis semper, ut meminisiis, ofFerirnus, quoties martyruin passiones et dies ailniversaria commemoratione celebramus. – Ep. 34, al. 39. – Non est quod pro dormitiond ejus apud vos fiat oblatio, aut deprecatio aliqua nomine ejus in ecclesia frequentetur. – Ep. 66, al. 1.

Quando isthinc excessum fuerit, nullus jam locus poenitentiae est, nullus satisfactionis effectus. – Cypr. ad Demetrian, § 16.

Cur immaniter conventicula nostra dirui meruerint? In quibus summus oratur Deus, pax cunctis et venia postulatur, magistratibus, exercitibus, regibus, familiaribus, inimicis, adhuc vitam degentibus, et resolutis corporum vinctione. – Arnob. Adv. Gentes, lib. iv.


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