Disentangling Prayer for the Dead from Purgatory [Commentary on Browne: Article XXII (1)]

Article XXII—which condemns “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration, as well of images, as of reliques, and also invocation of saints”—does not mention prayer for the dead. Yet the practice of praying for the dead has historically been so intertwined with the doctrine of purgatory as it developed in the Church of Rome, that Browne has scarcely commenced his treatment of the latter before he begins to discuss the former as well. Browne acknowledges that prayer for the dead is an ancient Christian practice: “There can be no question that this custom very early prevailed among Christians.”[1] He then observes that

Prayer for the dead did not presuppose Purgatory, and was in no degree necessarily connected with it. Indeed, many of the ancients who speak of praying for the dead positively declare their firm belief that those for whom they prayed were in peace, rest, and blessedness, and therefore certainly not in fire and torment; and it is not too much to affirm, that none of the ancient prayers had anything like an allusion to Purgatory.[2]

With these two facts established, it becomes necessary to explain the purpose or significance of prayer for the dead: “It has been so common to admit the false premiss of the Romanist divines, (namely, that prayer for the dead presupposes a Purgatory), that it is to many minds difficult to understand on what principles the early Christians used such prayers.” The first principle Browne suggests is that

All things to us unknown are to us future. Present and future are but relative ideas. To God nothing is future; all things are present. But to man, that is future of which he is ignorant. As then we know not with absolute certainty the present condition or final doom of those who are departed; their present condition is relatively, and their final doom, absolutely, future to our minds. Hence, it was thought, we are justified in praying that it may be good, even though the events of their past life may have already decided it.[3]

To be clear, Browne’s observation that “to God nothing is future; all things are present” should not be taken to mean that Christians can pray for the dead and thereby influence what they did while they were still alive, such that their eternal destiny might be altered—this is a logical impossibility, per Aquinas:

There does not fall under the scope of God’s omnipotence anything that implies a contradiction. Now that the past should not have been implies a contradiction. For as it implies a contradiction to say that Socrates is sitting, and is not sitting, so does it to say that he sat, and did not sit. But to say that he did sit is to say that it happened in the past. To say that he did not sit, is to say that it did not happen. Whence, that the past should not have been, does not come under the scope of divine power.[4]

The second rationale for some of these prayers is that they were “Eucharistic or thanksgiving”:

They gave God thanks both for the martyrs and for all that had died in the faith and fear of God; and these commemorations of the departed were thought most important, as testifying a belief in the doctrine of “the Communion of Saints,” and that the souls of those who are gone hence are still living, still fellow-heirs of the same glory, and fellow-citizens of the same kingdom with ourselves.[5]

This kind of prayer for the dead can be found in the 1662 Holy Communion Service, as part of the prayer for “the whole state of Christ’s church militant here on earth”:

And we also bless thy holy name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.[6]

Perhaps the most intuitive reason early Christians prayed for the dead is that such prayers were a spontaneous expression of love for the departed. As Browne puts it,

The solicitude which had existed for beloved objects whilst on earth was still expressed for their souls, when they had gone hence and were in the middle state of the dead. For, though they held that “what shall be to every one at the day of judgment is determined at the day of his death,” yet they thought it not unreasonable to pray that even those who they hoped were safe might not lose that portion of blessedness which they supposed to be in store for them.[7]

Archbishop Ussher writes that, whatever differences of opinion existed in the early church concerning the efficacy of prayer for the dead, this much was agreed upon: “‘Howsoever all did not agree about the state of the souls,’ saith [George] Cassander, an indifferent Papist, ‘which might receive profit by these things, yet all did judge this duty, as a testimony of their love toward the dead, and a profession of their faith touching the soul’s immortality and the future resurrection, to be acceptable unto God and profitable to the Church.’”[8] So powerful is this basic instinct toward departed loved ones that even those who reject prayer for the dead can feel swayed by it:

A third there is, which I did never positively maintain or practise, but have often wished it had been consonant to truth and not offensive to my religion, and that is, the Prayer for the Dead; whereunto I was inclined from some charitable inducements, whereby I could scarce contain my Prayers for a friend at the ringing of a bell, or behold his corpse without an orison for his soul. It was a good way, methought, to be remembered by posterity, and far more noble than an history.[9]

These are the reasons offered by Browne as to why the early Christians prayed for the dead. As he goes on to explain, however, such considerations were not sufficient to maintain the full scope of the practice in the English Prayer Book tradition:

The first Liturgy of Edward VI. [i.e., the 1549 Book of Common Prayer] contained thanksgiving for all those saints “who now do rest in the sleep of peace,” prayer for their “everlasting peace,” and that “at the day of the general resurrection all they which be of the mystical body of the Son, might be set on His right hand.” But the reformers afterwards, fearing from what had already occurred that such prayers might be abused or misconstrued, removed them from the Communion and Burial services. Yet still we retain a thanksgiving for saints departed.[10]

The intent to exclude such prayers is evidenced by certain changes in language, most obviously the alteration of “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s church” in the 1549 Holy Communion Service to “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s church militant here on earth [italics mine]” in the 1662.[11] Equally significant—albeit less obvious—changes were made to the Burial Service:

That the compilers of the Prayer Book were not designedly ambiguous in framing prayer is clear from the alteration of a phrase in the Burial service. In 1549 the words ran, ‘both we, And this our brother departed’. In 1552 they were altered to ‘that we, With this our brother’. The preposition change is very significant. But to remove all ambiguity the phrase was altered in 1662 to ‘that we, with all those that are departed’. This is commemoration not commendation, but in general, not precise terms.[12]

Browne leaves the topic here, noting that “such commemorations of the dead sufficiently accord with the spirit of the primitive prayers, without in any degree laying us open to the danger that ill-taught or ill-thinking men might found upon them doctrines of deceit or dangerous delusions.” His treatment is helpfully informative, yet also markedly circumspect, largely passing over the controversy that has existed with respect to prayer for the dead in the Anglican tradition. A number of Anglican authors have opposed the practice (notwithstanding the precedent for it in the 1549 Prayer Book), among whom Bishop Burnet is a prominent example: “Since, also, [prayer for the dead] has been grossly abused, and has been applied to support a doctrine totally different from [that of the early church]; we think that we have as good a plea for not following them in this, as we have for not giving infants the sacrament, and therefore we think it no imputation on our church, that we do not in this follow a groundless and a much abused precedent, though set us in ages which we highly reverence.”[13] Support for this position is drawn from the fact that the Homily or Sermon Concerning Prayer rejects the practice of prayer for the dead, even when it is unconnected to a belief in purgatory: “Let us not…dream either of purgatory or of prayer for the souls of them that be dead.”[14]

It could be argued that the Homily may be disregarded on this point because it rests on a false premise: “It is true, indeed, that one of the Homilies forbids all such prayers, but it does so on the ground that at death all souls pass at once to their final condition, heaven or hell. This is not Scriptural, and if we deny the premisses we are not bound to accept the conclusion.”[15] Whether or not this argument holds,[16] it nevertheless seems implausible that the Homily can retroactively render the 1549 Prayer Book and those who used it as outside the pale of Anglican belief and practice. At the very least, prayer for the dead was thought to be tolerable, and a Homily written later cannot erase this fact. But even if the Homily is set aside on this point, the changes in wording detailed above make it difficult to find warrant for the practice (Eucharistic commemoration aside) in the 1662 Prayer Book, which is still the official Prayer Book of England to this day.

However, this has not prevented multiple Anglican authors from commending prayer for the dead regardless. Some have pointed out that while an earlier draft of Article XXII included prayer for the dead in its condemnation, this reference was removed from the final version:

That our Reformers did not intend in the present Article to censure the Primitive practice of Prayer for the Dead will appear more clearly if we attentively consider the history of the text of the Article itself. The leading divines of our Church in Edward VI.’s reign were apparently divided on the question. Some of those who had come more immediately under the influence of the Swiss school of Continental Reformers condemned the practice of praying for the dead, and classed it with Mediæval corruptions which should be swept away. This view of the matter prevailed in the first draft of the Article as it stood in October 1552, when the text ran thus: — “Scholasticorum doctrina de Purgatorio, de precatione pro defunctis,” etc.; but the words italicised were deliberately struck out before the Articles were published.[17]

Many such authors have also identified a justification for the practice unmentioned by Browne, namely the possibility of spiritual growth in the dead:

There is a real element of truth in the doctrine of purgatory, so far as it provides for a discipline, or purgation, of character in the intermediate state, and recognises (what natural religion would require) that the souls of the faithful, departing as they do in every stage of spiritual and moral growth, need a season, some more, some less, not of fresh probation indeed, which is over once for all at death (2 Cor. v. 10), but of further education for the presence of God. (2) It is on this principle that, with the early Christians, prayer for the dead was an habitual practice. Natural piety and the New Testament doctrine of the intermediate state alike encourage it. As living unto God, the souls of the Faithful Departed are capable of progress, and capable therefore of being aided by our prayers.[18]

This rationale made its way into the American 1928 Prayer Book, with the relevant changes laid out in an explanatory companion book the following year:

The word “Militant” has been deleted from the invitation, “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church,” thus reverting to its original form in the First Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1549. In this same prayer there has been inserted a clause definitely praying for the dead: “And we also bless thy holy name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear: beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service.” This also goes back to the English Book of 1549, but it is the first time in the history of the American Prayer Books that prayers for the departed have been recognized. Others appear in the new Burial Office where their use is permissive. In this prayer it is mandatory and as such was vigorously opposed in the General Convention by a group of Low Churchmen.[19]

The introduction of spiritual growth or purification of the dead as a reason to pray for the dead—a reason, moreover, that has been formalized by a Prayer Book still in use among traditional Anglicans today—might seem to undermine this commentary’s stated purpose of separating prayer for the dead from purgatory. It must be remembered, though, that the three principles articulated by Browne on which prayer for the dead can be based have no connection to purgatory, and they have just as much currency today as they did for the early church. In particular, opponents of prayer for the dead should be willing to concede that spontaneous expressions of love for the departed, which often manifest as prayers for their “peace,” “refreshment,” and so on, are but “pious wishes…. Had prayers for the dead never passed beyond the use of such endearing wishes and prayers, no theologians would have ever ventured to condemn them as heretical.”[20]

That said, even a belief in the spiritual growth of the dead does not entail belief in a purgatory of the kind condemned in Article XXII. To say anything further would carry us afield into the topic of purgatory proper, which will be the focus of the next commentary. Here it suffices to say that prayer for the dead should not be grounds for division and discord among Anglicans. Indeed, Bishop Drury is willing to grant that it is still possible to discern prayer for the dead beyond the Eucharistic commemoration even in the 1662 Prayer Book, and he calls for mutual sympathy between those who differ on the matter:

The language of our Prayer-Book [i.e., the 1662] on this subject has been most judiciously chosen, and allows for some divergence of opinion. Nothing should be done, in any Revision or in Forms of Prayer set forth by authority, to disturb the carefully balanced adjustment of doctrine thus attained. We cannot all see eye to eye on this mysterious subject, and much sympathy must be felt for those who find comfort in the words of the Communion and Burial Services, as expressive of prayer for the full perfecting of all faithful people in the mystical Body of our risen Lord. And equal sympathy should be shown towards those who feel strongly the danger of any return to the form of words used in 1549. The language, whatever its history may be, is studiously general, and wisdom and charity alike forbid a too severe limitation of its meaning.[21]

This spirit of toleration is modeled by the Reformed Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (2005), which includes two different forms for the Holy Communion Service, one using the text of the 1662 in praying for “the whole state of Christ’s Church militant”[22] and confining prayer for the dead to a commemoration, the other adopting the language of the 1928 in praying that God would grant the faithful departed “continual growth in thy love and service.”[23] May Anglicans be similarly liberal toward one another in recognition of the tradition’s complicated history on the topic.[24]


  1. See James Usher, Answer to a Jesuit (Cambridge: John Smith, 1835), 168‒74; George Tomline, Elements of Christian Theology, 14th ed., vol. II (London: T. Cadell, 1843), 304; Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848), 282, 483‒84; E. B. Pusey, Eleven Addresses during a Retreat of the Companions of the Love of Jesus, Address XI (Plymouth: Devonport Society, 1868), 1, http://anglicanhistory.org/pusey/companions/address11.pdf; A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 2nd ed. (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1871), 312; John Henry Blunt, ed., The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 6th ed. (London, Oxford, and Cambridge: Rivington’s, 1872), 176, note; B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 191; Arthur J. Tait, Lecture Outlines on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Elliot Stock, 1910), 153; E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1912), 150; E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1925), 349; Arthur Bennett, “Prayer for the Departed,” The Churchman 81, no. 4 (Winter 1967): 252; Church of England, Prayer and the Departed: A Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Christian Doctrine (London: SPCK, 1971), 31‒33; Jeremy Taylor, A Dissuasive from Popery, Part I, in Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross, eds., Anglicanism (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2008), 422; Herbert Thorndike, Just Weights and Measures, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 423; and Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 2, Bk. X, Eschatology (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 608.
  2. See Usher, Answer, 230‒31; Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. James R. Page (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1842), 295; Charles H. H. Wright, The Intermediate State and Prayers for the Dead (London: James Nisbet & Co., Limited, 1900), 227, 307; Thomas Drury, “Prayers for the Dead,” The Churchman 23, no. 1 (January 1909): 30; Tait, Outlines, 153; Bennett, “Prayer for the Departed,” 252; Taylor, Anglicanism, 422; and Thorndike, Anglicanism, 423.
  3. See Thorndike, Anglicanism, 423.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.25.4 co., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1025.htm#article4.
  5. See Usher, Answer, 177; Wheatly, Rational Illustration, 483; and Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 609.
  6. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 250‒51. See also Blunt, Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 176, note.
  7. See Usher, Answer, 231, and Wright, Intermediate State, 221‒22.
  8. Usher, Answer, 232‒33.
  9. Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Part I, in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 422.
  10. See Hamon L’Estrange, The Alliance of Divine Offices, 4th ed. (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1846), 281;Wheatly, Rational Illustration, 482; Drury, “Prayers for the Dead,” 17‒31; Charles Neil and J. M. Willoughby, eds., The Tutorial Prayer Book (London: The Harrison Trust, 1913), 317, 470, 483; Wright, Intermediate State, 308; and Church of England, Prayer and the Departed, 36.
  11. See Wheatly, Rational Illustration, 283; Neil and Willoughby, Tutorial Prayer Book, 317; and Bennett, “Prayer for the Departed,” 255.
  12. Bennett, “Prayer for the Departed,” 255, italics original. See also Drury, “Prayers for the Dead,” 20‒21, and Neil and Willoughby, Tutorial Prayer Book, 317, 480.
  13. Burnet, Exposition, 296. See also H. C. O’Donnoghue, A Familiar and Practical Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1816), 183; Tomline, Elements, 305; and Bennett, “Prayer for the Departed,” 257‒58. Outside of the Anglican tradition, it is worth nothing that the Apology of the Augsburg Confession—one of the chief confessional documents of Lutheranism—states, “We know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit” (Article XXIV, sec. 94, https://bookofconcord.org/defense/of-the-mass/#ap-xxiv-0094). Luther himself writes, “As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: ‘Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.’ And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice” (“Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 37, ed. and trans. Robert H. Fischer [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961], 369). Yet the two largest traditional Lutheran bodies in America repudiate the practice in their official teaching. The Lutheran Church ‒ Missouri Synod maintains, “We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead” (“Explanation of the Small Catechism,” Q. 201, http://www.mtolivelutheran.info/uploads/5/9/1/6/5916933/explanation.pdf). Likewise, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod declares, “We do not pray for those who have died because in the case of Christians those prayers are unnecessary, and in regard to unbelievers those prayers are futile” (FAQ, “Prayers for the dead,” https://wels.net/faq/prayers-for-the-dead/).
  14. Gerald Bray, ed., The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 344. See also Wright, Intermediate State, 311‒15, and Bennett, “Prayer for the Departed,” 256.
  15. Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 351n1.
  16. Wright’s response to this argument is that the Homily should not be read literally as denying that the dead are in an intermediate state between heaven and hell (Intermediate State, 313‒14n1).
  17. Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 151‒52. See also Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 537‒38; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 191‒92; and Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 347, 351n1.
  18. Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 191, italics original. See also Wheatly, Rational Illustration, 482‒84; Pusey, Addresses, 1‒4; Forbes, Explanation, 312; Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 257; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 148‒49; C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), 107‒108; and Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 608‒609.
  19. E. Clowes Chorley, The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents (New York: Macmillan Company, 1929), Chapter VII, http://anglicanhistory.org/bcp/chorley1929/07.html, italics original.
  20. Wright, Intermediate State, 221.
  21. Drury, “Prayers for the Dead,” 30, italics original.
  22. Reformed Episcopal Church in North America, The Book of Common Prayer, 4th ed. (2005), 93, http://rechurch.org/documents/BCPComplete.pdf.
  23. Book of Common Prayer (2005), 106, http://rechurch.org/documents/BCPComplete.pdf. An optional prayer in the Burial Service contains similar language, asking God to grant that “we, together with those who rest in thee, shall increase in knowledge and love of thee” (526).
  24. For further reading on the subject, see James B. Gould, Understanding Prayer for the Dead: Its Foundation in History and Logic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), and James B. Gould, Practicing Prayer for the Dead: Its Theological Meaning and Spiritual Value (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016).


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

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