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Bible Encyclopedias
Prayers for the Dead

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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Wherever there is a belief in the continued existence of man's personality through and after death, religion naturally concerns itself with the relations between the living and the dead. And where the idea of a future judgment obtains, prayers are often offered on their behalf to the Higher Powers. Prayers for the dead are mentioned in 2 Maccabees xii. 43-45, where the writer is uncertain whether to regard the sacrifice offered by Judas as a propitiatory sin-offering or as a memorial thank-offering, a distinction of great importance in the later history of the practice. Prayers for the dead form part of the authorized Jewish services. The form in use in England contains the following passage: "Have mercy upon him; pardon all his transgressions. .. Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life." The only passage in the New Testament which is held to bear directly on the subject is 2 Tim. i. 18, where, however, it is not certain that Onesiphorus, for whom St Paul prayed, was dead. Outside the Bible the proof of the early use of prayers for the dead has been carried a step farther by Professor Ramsay's discoveries, for it is now impossible to doubt the genuineness of the copy (contained in the spurious acts of the saint) of the inscription on the tomb of Abercius of Hieropolis in Phrygia (see Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii. vol. i. p. 492 sqq.). The 1 9th line of the inscription runs thus: "Let every friend who observeth this pray for me," i.e. Abercius, who throughout speaks in the first person: he died in the latter part of the 2nd century. The inscriptions in the Roman catacombs bear similar witness to the practice, by the occurrence of such phrases as "Mayst thou live among the saints" (3rd century); "May God refresh the soul of. .."; "Peace he with them." Among Church writers Tertullian is the first to mention prayers for the dead, and that not as a concession to natural sentiment, but as a duty: "The widow who does not pray for her dead husband has as good as divorced him." This passage occurs in one of his later Montanistic writings, dating from the beginning of the 3rd century. Subsequent writers similarly make incidental mention of the practice as prevalent, but not as unlawful or even disputed (until Aerius challenged it towards the end of the 4th century). The most famous instance is St Augustine's prayer for his mother, Monica, at the end of the 9th book of his Confessions. An important element in the liturgies of the various Churches consisted of the diptychs or lists of names of living and dead who were to be commemorated at the Eucharist. To be inserted in these lists was an honour, and out of the practice grew the canonization of saints; on the other hand, to be excluded was a condemnation. In the middle of the 3rd century we find Cyprian enjoining that there should be no oblation or public prayer made for a deceased layman who had broken a Church rule by appointing a cleric trustee under his will: "He ought not to be named in the priests' prayer who has done his best to detain the clergy from the altar." Although it is not possible, as a rule, to name dates for the exact words used in the ancient liturgies, yet the universal occurrence of these diptychs and of definite prayers for the dead in all parts of the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries tends to show how primitive such prayers were. The language used in the prayers for the departed is very reserved,and contains no suggestion of a place or state of pain. We may cite the following from the so-called liturgy of St James: "Remember, 0 Lord, the God of Spirits and of all Flesh, those whom we have remembered and those whom we have not remembered, men of the true faith, from righteous Abel unto to-day; do thou thyself give them rest there in the land of the living, in thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise, in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our holy fathers, from whence pain and sorrow and sighing have fled away, where the light of thy countenance visiteth them and always shineth upon them." Public prayers were only offered for those who were believed to have died as faithful members of Christ. But Perpetua, who was martyred in 202, believed herself to have been encouraged by a vision to pray for her brother, who had died in his eighth year, almost certainly unbaptized; and a later vision assured her that her prayer had been answered and he translated from punishment. St Augustine thought it needful to point out that the narrative was not canonical Scripture, and contended that the child had perhaps been baptized. Similarly, a medieval legend relates that Gregory the Great was so struck with the justice of the emperor Trajan, that he prayed for him, and in consequence he was admitted to Paradise (cf. Dante, Purg. x., Parad. xx.). As time went on, further developments took place. Petitions to God that he would hear the intercessions of the departed became direct requests to them to pray ( Ora pro nobis); and, finally, the saints were asked themselves to grant grace and help. Again, men felt difficulty in supposing that one who repented at the close of a wicked life could at once enjoy the fellowship of the saints in Paradise (St Luke xxiii. 43), and it seemed unfair that they should be made equal with those who had borne the burden and heat of the day (St Matt. xx. 12). And so the simple severance between good and bad indicated in St Luke vi. 26, became the threefold division made familiar by Dante. These speculations were further fixed by the growth of the theory of satisfaction and of Indulgences: each forgiven soul was supposed to have to endure an amount of suffering in proportion to the guilt of its sins, and the prayers and pious acts of the living availed to shorten this penance time in Purgatory (see Indulgences). It thus came about that prayers for the dead were regarded only as aiming at the deliverance of souls from purgatorial fires; and that application of the Eucharist seems to have overshadowed all others. The Council of Trent attempted certain reforms in the matter, with more or less success; but, broadly speaking, the system still remains in the Roman Catholic Church, and masses for the dead are a very important part of its acts of worship.

The Reformation took its rise in a righteous protest against the sale of Indulgences; and by a natural reaction the Protestants, in rejecting the Roman doctrine of Purgatory, were inclined to disuse all prayers for the dead. Important changes have been made, in the successive revisions of the Prayer Book, in the commemorations of the dead at the Eucharist and in the Burial Service.

In the Communion Service of 1549, after praise and thanks were offered for all the saints, chiefly the Blessed Virgin, came the following: "We commend into thy mercy all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us with the sign of faith and now do rest in the sleep of peace: grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy and everlasting peace." The Burial Service of the same date contained explicit prayers for the deceased, and introit, collect, epistle and gospel were provided for "the Celebration of the Holy Communion when there is a Burial of the Dead." In 1552, under the influence of Bucer, all mention of the dead, whether commemorative or intercessory, was cut out of the Eucharist; the prayers in the Burial Service were brought into their present form; and the provision for Holy Communion at a Burial was omitted. The thankful commemoration of the dead in the Eucharist was restored in 1661, but prayers for them remained, if they remained at all, veiled in ambiguous phrases.

The Church of England has never forbidden prayers for the dead, however little she has used them in her public services. It was proposed in 1552 to condemn the scholastic doctrine De precatione pro defunctis in what is now the 22nd of the ThirtyNine Articles, but the proposal was rejected. And these intercessions have been used in private by a long list of English divines, among whom Andrewes, Cosin, Ken, Wesley and Keble form an almost complete chain down to the present day. On the tomb of Bishop Barrow (1680)(1680) stands a request to passers-by to pray for their fellow-servant. And in a suit (1838) as to the lawfulness of an inscription, "Pray for the soul of.. .," the Court decided that "no authority or canon has been pointed out by which the practice of praying for the dead has been expressly prohibited." As Jeremy Taylor put it ( Dissuasive from Popery, I. r. iv.), "General prayers for the dead the Church of England never did condemn by any express articles, but left it in the middle." H. M. Luckock, After Death (1st ed., London, 1879); EH.Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison (London, 1884). (W. O. B.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Prayers for the Dead'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​p/prayers-for-the-dead.html. 1910.
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