Monday, February 19, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about Christian Saints.

It is the 19th of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A happy Monday- I am most likely on the train home today after having traveled up north for my birthday to meet my sister and brother-in-law, where we saw Amy Grant in concert last night. Hopefully, they were good times.

A question came in from Jacob- sort of an extended question I have condensed- and a common question. Jacob comes from Altoona, Pennsylvania, which is fun to say, but when someone from PA says it, Al-Tooona. Brilliant. Thanks for inventing the chili dog and the slinky- you can keep your Altoona-style pizza (topped with American cheese).

Jacob asked, “How long have Christians been praying to saints, and what do they think they gain from it…. Should we praise some Christians as saints, as better than others?”.

So- Jacob, I read, “What do they think they gain from it?” and gather you are not amongst the Christians who pray “to” saints. And I think it’s important to look at the preposition “to.” I cannot contemplate any Christian ever claiming that one might pray to a saint- that is, one faithfully departed (which is distinct from Angels- thank you, bad movies… the angel is a different entity altogether- you don’t earn wings in the afterlife because you don’t turn into an angel).

The earliest examples used from the New Testament are often allusions to the book of Revelation when the saints are seen praying for Christians. In. James and Timothy, when we are told that prayers for others/on behalf of others are beneficial. I’m sure you’ve said and heard, “Pray for me.”  

The question is, are the prayers of certain saints better than others? Should I pray that the dead- even if they are praying for me- pray for me specifically?  

The church fathers, following the example of the New Testament, thought that extolling the faith of the past was a worthwhile thing.

So, how did extolling the best of the past and asking others to pray for you turn into an economy of “higher” and “lesser” prayers that, for some, were seen as particularly meritorious?

First was a misunderstanding of “saint” as a particular kind of Christian. A “saint” is one who is “called out”. If you are a Christian, you are a saint. It’s why many in the Reformation traditions stopped using “St. Matthew, St. Paul… etc. ” If you talk like that around my part, people immediately think you’re a Catholic.

The second development was the idea of sin as accruing debt and prayers and other acts as penitential in terms of actually forgiving your sins. Add to this the idea that you could do meritorious acts for the dead who are in purgatory (they were not quite saintly enough?).

John Calvin condemned this and took a typically conservative approach to making anything that might lead to this. He wrote:

Hero-worship is innate to human nature, and it is founded on some of our noblest feelings, — gratitude, love, and admiration, — but which, like all other feelings, when uncontrolled by principle and reason, may easily degenerate into the wildest exaggerations, and lead to most dangerous consequences.

The Council of Trent- the Catholic response to the Reformation clarified their position as: 

“...the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their own prayers to God for men. It is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Who alone is our Redeemer and Savior”

As long as the position that there is one mediator between God and man and that no prayers to the saints would be seen as meritorious towards our salvation, we might allow for a wide berth on this one. To what extent do we need to build protections from possible abuse, and to what extent can the individual conscience make this decision for themselves?  I suppose this is what puts us in our various traditions- but praying “with” saints and recognizing the extraordinary in some has a long tradition, even if sometimes abused.

Thanks, Jacob from Altoona, you can send me your questions at


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, a good word from Ephesians 2:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who, for this Lenten season, has decided to give up all manner of beard maintenance…. Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man for yet another year who has vowed to give up walnuts for Lent…. Not one shall pass my lips… I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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