I’ve got a couple of blog posts in the works, but just now I wonder if readers can help me with a question. Here it is:
When did Christians first start praying to the saints?
I am not interested in Catholic / Protestant / Orthodox wars with this one. It is a real request for historical information and that is all I want. I recently read an article at an anti-Protestant website (I don’t usually read such things, but a friend suggested it), and the writer claimed that
“Asking the saints for their intercession is a basic part of all of historic Christianity.”
I was taken aback. All of historic Christianity!
As best I can tell, the practice of asking deceased saints to pray for us is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. I have also never encountered the practice being encouraged or even mentioned among the earliest Church Fathers. So my question is really simple: When did Christians first start praying to the saints? Whatever you might think is a good or a bad practice, what’s the earliest documented example of the practice? That’s the question.
When I raised this question on Facebook, I was met with a reply consisting of a large chunk of text copied and pasted from what I gather was Catholic apologetics source. All that was offered in regard to the early church was a list of times when somebody had stated that angels and saints pray, and that they pray for people. If you are tempted to reply with this sort of evidence, please don’t. I am aware of that sort of remark in, for example, the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Cyprian (third century), who said that the saints in glory pray for others. The earliest example that really answered my question was from AD. 300, in an anonymous funerary inscription. The dead man is asked to rest in peace and to pray for us. So that is the beginning of the fourth century. When assessing the apologist’s claim that Asking the saints for their intercession is a basic part of all of historic Christianity, a first occurrence coming from an anonymous source at the start of the fourth century would appear to show, at the very least, that there is no evidence of this very strong historical claim.
Does anyone know of an example prior to the fourth century of Christians being enjoined to pray to the saints and ask for their intercession?
Please treat this solely as a historical question. Any barbs about differences between Catholics and Protestants will probably be removed. Also, please only provide a response and / or a source if it directly and explicitly answers the question. That may seem like a condescending thing to say, but when I first asked the question, the evidence supplied was actually evidence of a different claim, namely that Christians believed that saints on the other side prayed for us. That’s not the issue about which I am asking here. I only want to know when and where the practice began, and if there is a source demonstrating this earlier than the fourth century.