By Drew Nathaniel Keane

The origins of All Souls Day (the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed or the Day of the Dead) are much later and more complicated than that of All Saints. In the Churches of the East, there are several days in the calendar that are set apart for praying for the departed. The origins of the practice of praying for those who have died in the Lord are somewhat obscure. There is evidence of it in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45. The earliest clear evidence of the practice among Christians is found in second-century inscriptions on tombs. The earliest Western patristic writer to refer to the practice is Tertullian in the third century. An Office for the Dead began spreading in the Early Middle Ages, but the Western observance of All Souls on Nov. 2 began with Odilo of Cluny (11th century) and the calendar of his abbey; from there, it spread to other monastic communities and then to the whole of Europe.

By the 11th century in the West, the saints were widely understood as those departed Christians enjoying direct communion with God, whose lives so overflowed with good works that they had spiritual merits to bestow upon the faithful on earth who invoke them in prayer. All Saints Day, then, involved the celebration of these victorious saints and invocation of their aid. All Souls Day, by contrast, focused on all other departed Christians. The doctrine of purgatory as a place of purification after death developed and became highly elaborate around the same time (though it has its roots in some teachings of Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory the Great).

The purpose of praying for the dead generally, and of All Souls Day in particular, was understood to be aid for departed Christians experiencing punitive suffering for unabsolved venial sins. A Latin song about Judgment Day originally written for Advent found its way into the requiem Mass: “What shall I, frail man, be pleading?” they sang in the sequence hymn Dies Irae, “Who for me be interceding, / When the just are mercy needing?” Fearing for their salvation, those of means would often leave a bequest in their wills that requiem Masses would be said for them after their deaths.


In the English Reformation, praying for the dead would eventually be condemned as a practice without scriptural warrant. The Ten Articles of Religion (1536) commend prayer for the dead, while disavowing the doctrine of purgatory (Article X). The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1562) proscribe the practice, though without specifically naming it. Article XXII (which points back to Articles VI and XX for its theological justification) states:

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

Restoration Bishop William Beveridge provides a typical representative of what we might call a classical Anglican position. His exposition on Article XXII argues that the Scriptures prove that when the faithful die they are immediately translated to the presence of the Lord and no longer can benefit from the prayers of the faithful. He then provides citations from the Fathers to support his reading.

The Book of Common Prayer did away with All Souls and requiems for the souls in purgatory. Prayers for the departed were included but dramatically reduced in the 1549 book and reference to purgatory was absent. In the 1552 prayer book, prayer for the dead is eliminated entirely. The 1552 prayer book became the quintessential expression of Anglican Christianity, to which the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) and the Stuart Restoration (1662) both returned to re-establish the Church of England after the interruption of the reign of Mary I and Cromwell’s Protectorate.

The 1662 prayer book does not recognize a feast day on Nov. 2. However, the Church of England’s Common Worship lists it as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day) and propers for the day are provided. It is a lesser festival, which means it is an optional observance. Through Common Worship, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (commonly called All Souls Day) was, after nearly 500 years, officially recognized again by the Church of England. Common Worship, it should be noted, is not the doctrinal standard of the Church of England. Every liturgy included in Common Worship is officially an alternative, or supplemental, to the 1662 prayer book, deemed by General Synod to be in harmony with the doctrine of the BCP and Articles of Religion.

Common Worship’s Collect for All Souls is a prayer for the living, not the dead: “grant us, with all the faithful departed, the sure benefits of your Son’s saving passion.” One possible implication is that the departed have already attained the full benefits of Christ’s Passion, so any thought of our prayers being an aid to the departed or any idea of purgatory may be precluded. Arguably, then, Common Worship restored All Souls, but only in a way that does not contradict the doctrine of the C of E’s established doctrinal standards.

This does raise the question: if the principal feast of All Saints commemorates the faithful Christians who have gone before us into bliss, then what (if anything) distinguishes the feast from the optional Lesser Feast of All Souls that commemorates the faithful departed on the next day? To this question there is no definite answer, but the distinguishing prefix Saint in the prayer book calendar may imply an answer. Although the collect for All Saints does not indicate this distinction, it may be that the subject of this feast is more specifically only those listed in the calendar with the title Saint and that the optional lesser festival has in focus all other departed Christians. (A more detailed answer would require examining other propers for each day: readings, prefaces, the post-communion prayers, and so forth. There are also relevant prayers in Common Worship’s Pastoral Services volume.)

The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer lists the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed as a day of optional observance and therefore provides no propers for it (or any other optional day). It does, however, provide two collects For the Departed and a collect For Saints and the Faithful Departed. Immediately a difference is clear in the official standards of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. The 1662 prayer book does not include prayers for the dead, while the 1979 does. It is not uncommon to see one of these collects for the departed used for an observance of All Souls in parishes where that day is kept.

Prayer for the dead is also included in the Burial Office. The prayer that begins, “O God, the King of saints” (p. 504) includes the phrase “aided by their prayers,” which suggests that the Episcopal Church officially teaches that the saints offer prayer on behalf of the living.

Prayer for the dead has been a constitutionally authorized practice in the Episcopal Church since the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, the 1928 incorporates prayer for the dead in only a few places and in a restrained way that avoids any notion of purgatory or that the departed need our prayers. The first of these collects explicitly locates the faithful departed in Paradise:

Give, we beseech thee, to thy whole Church in paradise and on earth thy light and thy peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have served you here and are now at rest.

In this case, it seems clear that they lack nothing. The second prayer suggests not that the departed are suffering or in need of purification, but expresses a desire that the bliss they already enjoy be increased: “having opened to him the gates of larger life, thou wilt receive him more and more into thy joyful service.” This prayer and the addition of the petition “grant them continual growth in thy love and service” in the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church in the Communion service leaves no doubt that the faithful who are absent from the body are present with the Lord, but raises intriguing eschatological questions that lie outside the scope of this brief essay. It’s an odd phrase, but because it avoids implying belief in purgatory it can be harmonized with the text of Article XXII.

Propers for All Souls may also be found in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, but that volume is not a doctrinal authority in the Episcopal Church (unlike the 1979 Book of Common Prayer). The collect included there differs from those in the 1979 BCP. The collect for All Souls in Lesser Feasts and Fasts includes the petition “Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as your children.”

This petition may open the question (unlike the collects for the departed found in the prayer book) whether the faithful departed are in need of our prayers in some way. That reading isn’t necessary, but it is possible. That possible reading, of course, would indicate a significant turn away from the traditional theology of Anglicanism. However, it is possible to read this petition in the way one reads the petition “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer — the prayer isn’t necessary to bring about the thing asked for, but it brings the desires of the prayerful into alignment with what the divine will is already most certainty bringing about. This reading of the collect would not conflict with the doctrine of the BCP and is, therefore, to be preferred.

A bit of background — for the very curious

If the practice of praying for the dead was abolished in the Church of England at the Reformation, how then did it come to be as commonly practiced among Anglicans as it is today?

In the late 19th century, Anglo-Catholics began to argue in favor of prayers for the dead and sometimes for purgatory, despite the Articles’ condemnation of this doctrine. Article XXII, they argued, only condemns the Roman doctrine of purgatory. English clergy were and are bound by oath and law to submit to the formularies (1662 BCP, Articles, and Canons); therefore, Anglo-Catholic clergy advanced many creative reinterpretations of the formularies.

In the United States, Anglo-Catholics could be more forthcoming without the complication of Established religion or the necessity of conforming to the Articles of Religion. The Articles of Religion were not adopted by General Convention until 1801 and not included in the American prayer book until 1808. While Episcopal clergy vow to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church, whether that included the Articles was open to debate throughout the 19th century.

As the Anglo-Catholic movement became more successful and a significant portion of evangelicals broke away to form the Reformed Episcopal Church (in 1873), some American Anglo-Catholics dropped the pretense of harmonizing their views with the Articles, and simply argued that the Articles should be abandoned. The liturgical commission that prepared the 1928 revision of the American Prayer Book proposed the Articles be removed from the prayer book. This proposal, however, was rejected by General Convention. Since the 1979 prayer book relegated the Articles to a section called “Historical Documents,” they have an ambiguous status. Canon IV.2 of the 2015 Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church does not include the Articles of Religion as part of the canonical definition of the Church’s doctrine.

While renewed interest in the question of whether to pray for the departed was sparked by the Oxford Movement, the question gained a new urgency in the aftermath of the Great Wars. In a revised edition of The Catholic Faith: A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Church of England published after World War I, the Rev. Griffith Thomas wrote:

The question has naturally obtained renewed attention through the war, and certain statements of representative men compel a fresh consideration of the position of the Bible on the subject. Some who before the war had expressed themselves strongly in opposition to the practice have since modified their views, at least to the extent of permitting the private use of intercession for the departed. … The New Testament is, as we have seen, quite clear as to the absence of sin, sorrow, suffering, and temptation in the future life of the redeemed, and to pray for one who has passed away believing in Christ surely reflects on his position and satisfaction in the immediate presence of his Master. For this reason there does not seem any call for prayer, but only for that thankful commemoration of the departed, about which there is no question.

After the two World Wars, there was a widespread push to pray for the departed that seemed to derive from love for the fallen and yet to be unaccompanied by a belief in purgatory. Due to these influences in the first half of the 20th century, the observance of All Souls spread, with different beliefs attached to its significance. It was no longer a specifically Anglo-Catholic doctrine. Evangelicals who entirely rejected the doctrine of Purgatory reconsidered the instinctive urge pray for their departed loved ones. N.T. Wright, for example, has argued in Rethinking the Tradition:

I therefore arrive at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place. … Since they and we are both in Christ, we do indeed share with them in the Communion of Saints. Once we erase the false trail of purgatory from our mental map of the post-mortem world, there is no reason why we shouldn’t pray for them and with them.

This passage offers a middle ground, though not all Anglicans are persuaded by Bishop Wright’s conclusion. Some Anglo-Catholics (and even middle-of-the-road Anglicans like C.S. Lewis) embrace a doctrine of purgatory, while some evangelical and Reformed Anglicans continue to reject prayers for the dead as “a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Whether or how to observe All Souls Day, then, remains an open question within Anglicanism.


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7 Responses

  1. Doug Simmons

    As a relatively recent traveler on the Canterbury Trail, I have had the opportunity to consider the question of praying for the dead. I came to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with it. My reasoning is thus: First we must begin with the understanding that God transcends the physical, four dimensional universe in which we dwell. By that I mean that not only does he encompass the physicality of the universe but also its temporal quality. In other words, God transcends Time as well as Space. Accordingly His omniscience and omnipresence points to an “Eternal Now” in which God experiences His creation. The past, present, and future are all within the scope of His purview. He sees (and knows) the macro and micro elements even in the fourth dimension. This implies that our ancestors (and our distant progeny as well) are as real and present to God as we are ourselves at this (and every) moment.
    Second, we acknowledge that none of us can know for certain the status of the relationship between God and any other person. We learn from observing the Thief on the Cross that even in extremis one can repent and appeal to the Lord for salvation, receiving His grace and mercy even with and upon our last breath. We may suspect, based on our own observations or the reports of others, what the condition of another might be, or have been, at the time of their death, but we cannot know for certain because ultimately that knowledge is “beyond our pay-grade.” Only the Lord knows and it is not ours to presume.
    Therefore, just as we are entitled and encouraged to pray for not only ourselves but those in our families and communities that they might be drawn closer to God and receive His salvation, we are fully within bounds to extend those prayers to include those who inhabit, with us, God’s Eternal Now. We pray for those who will follow us that in their time they will be drawn to the Father, and we pray for those who preceded us that in their time they received His grace. Our prayers for the dead are as current and meaningful to God as our prayers for our children and grandchildren, for the departed are only gone from our immediate experience, not from God’s.

  2. Charlie Clauss

    I note that “resurrection” is only mentioned in the quote from Tom Wright. The centrality for me of the resurrection as *the* Christian hope makes practices like praying for the dead hard to take.

    Here is a quote I often make when speaking about someone’s death:

    “My hope does not rest in the sentimental notion that “They have gone to a better place” but in the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead and one day so will all that belong to him”


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