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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Litany

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a solemn form of supplication to God. The word is derived from λιτανεια , supplication. At first the use of litanies was not fixed to any stated time; but they were employed only as exigencies required. They were observed in imitation of the Ninevites with ardent supplications and fastings, to avert the threatened judgments of fire, earthquake, inundations, or hostile invasions. The days on which they were used were called rogation days. Several of these days were appointed by the canons of different councils, till the seventeenth council of Toledo decreed that litanies should be used in every month. Thus, by degrees, these solemn supplications came to be used weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays, the ancient stationary days in all churches. As to the form in which litanies are made, namely, in short petitions by the priest with responses by the people, St. Chrysostom derives the custom from the primitive ages, when the priest began and uttered by the Spirit some things fit to be prayed for, and the people joined the intercessions, saying, "We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord." When the miraculous gift of the Spirit began to cease, they wrote down several of these forms, which were the original of our present litanies. St. Ambrose has left us one, which agrees in many particulars with that of our own church. About the year 400, litanies began to be used in processions, the people walking barefoot, and repeating them with great devotion. It is pretended that several countries were delivered from great calamities by this means. About the year 600, Gregory the Great, from all the litanies extant, composed the famous sevenfold litany, by which Rome, it is said, was delivered from a grievous mortality. This has served as a pattern to all the western churches since; and to it ours of the church of England comes nearer than that of the Romish missal, in which later popes have inserted the invocation of saints, which our Reformers properly expunged. These processional litanies having occasioned much scandal, it was decreed that in future the litanies should be used only within the walls of the church. Before the last review of the Common Prayer, the litany was a distinct service by itself, and used some time after the morning prayer was ended. At present it forms one office with the morning service, being ordered to be read after the third collect for grace, instead of the intercessional prayers in the daily service.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Litany'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/l/litany.html. 1831-2.

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