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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
is the name of a night service of prayer anciently held. In the Romish Breviary the Psalter is divided into portions consisting of nine psalms, each of which portion is called a nocturn. These were designed to be read at the nightly assemblies with other services, appointed in order for the various nights. The nocturnal services themselves were derived from the earliest periods of Christianity. We learn from Pliny, as well as from Justin Martyr, and other writers of the first three centuries, that the Christians in those times of persecution were in the practice of holding their assemblies in the night. Tertullian mentions nocturnae convocationes, which are generally supposed to mean the prayers before day, a kind of ordinary vigils or night assemblies, held before it was light. The nightly assemblies of Christians were common at that time, probably because they feared opposition in daytime. Pliny in his letter to Trajan, says, "The sum of their crime or error was, that they were accustomed to meet before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to God." Afterwards, when persecution ceased, these nocturnal meetings were continued, partly to keep up the spirit of devotion in the ascetics, or such as had betaken themselves to a stricter life; partly to give opportunity to men in business to observe a seasonable time for devotion; and partly to counteract the seductive arts of the Arians, who adopted these nightly meetings, and by their popular psalmody on such occasions promoted the spread of their heresy. In most ancient times the nocturns were accompanied by the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and this custom also was observed in later times. The nocturns now form part of the Matins (q.v.). See Farrar, Eccles. Diet. s.v.; Eden, Theol. Dict. s.v.; Palmer, Origines Liturgicae, 1:262; Proctor, Commentary on Book of Common Prayer.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Nocturns'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/n/nocturns.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.