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Friday, August 18, 2017
Date Posted:

Ask For The Old Paths! Prayers And Masses For The Dead

An Address by the famous Protestant Defender Rev. Canon T. C. Hammond M. A. To the United Protestant Congress in London 1922
Rev. Canon T. C. Hammond M. A.

This subject which is allotted for our consideration now, and which it is my duty to speak upon, is one of peculiar painfulness. We cannot forget that within the last few years the sombre shadow of death has hovered over this land. We cannot forget that many have still bleeding hearts by reason of the tragedy of the Great War. Therefore, I would desire this afternoon to speak with all tenderness upon this exceedingly difficult subject.


But I want at the outset to remind this audience, not for themselves, but for the benefit of our critics, that death is no respecter of persons; that the Evangelical has suffered as severely as the Anglo‑Catholic or the Romanist; that the sacred soil of France and Flanders and Gallipoli holds our sleeping sons in its embrace until the Last Great Day. Evangelicals, therefore, also are within the sanctuary of sorrow; Evangelicals also have contributed their portion to the Great War, and we enter a protest against the attempt that has been made in many quarters to enlist and then exploit our emotions against the judgment of our reason. Scientists warn us that one great necessity for honest investigation is the suppression, if possible the elimination, of the “Personal Equation”; yet in this great controversy, involving serious and far‑reaching issues, the personal equation has been scandalously and shamefully employed.


I want, then, to enter upon the consideration of our topic first on the grounds of reason. We are invited to change the policy that was unquestionably laid down at the Reformation. The Homilies of the Church of England, now reposing unread upon the shelves of a few of its clergy, were published for the guidance of the entire mass of the people, and in them there is a solemn warning and a direct denunciation against the practice of prayer for the departed. We are told by our Anglo‑Catholic friends that these were in the narrow days, in the ignorant days, in the dark days. Indeed, sometimes when we listen to our Anglo‑Catholic friends we are tempted to emulate the petulance of job and say, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom will die with you.”  We are all relegated to the position of obscurantists, alike by our Anglo‑Catholic friends, who advance by raking up every medieval superstition, and by the Modernists, who exist by tearing down every venerable tradition. They tell us that if we look at life there is a uniform progress, and that it is the height of absurdity to imagine that this soul movement toward the eternal is in any way checked, hindered or accelerated by what they are pleased to describe as the mere accident of death.


                     I think that our friends who take that particular attitude do not sufficiently reflect upon the mysterious power that has been conceded by our Divine Creator to the last enemy that shall be destroyed. There is the cold, hard fact of death staring us in the face. When we look at it, the first conviction that is thrust upon our attention, greatly against the desire of our soul, is that multitudes of activities are suddenly cut off. But yesterday our friend moved in all the plenitude of a virile existence: to‑day he lies cold and inert under the clammy hand of the Destroyer. There is no use telling me that death is a mere accident, that everything goes on very much the same after as it did before. As I gather my reason to my command, I see that this mysterious catastrophe that affects the whole human race has been the per­plexing problem of all the ages. I remind our friends that before life and immortality were brought to light through the Gospel, the best educated of the heathen world put up the broken pillar as the testimony to this sudden arrest of all the powers of humanity. I remind them that literature is full of this one anguished question, “Why should this thing be? Why should the powers of a great manhood or a great womanhood be suddenly cut off? Why should Sheol gather into its mighty embrace the rich and the poor, the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, the wicked and the virtuous? "


          We shiver as we stand on the brink of that Jordan. “Oh! yes,” say our friends, “but there is one great power which God has given to the human race, a power that mitigates our sorrow. In all the affairs of this life we have the power of prayer here. Ought not the power of prayer which we possess here to be continued beyond the grave?”  I admit the possibility, but here, again, I venture to distinguish, and I ask myself, Is it not a fact that not only have we prayers here, but we have interchange here, inter­relation here, communication here? Is there not a possibility that the Divine wisdom suffered the veil to fall at the last great call of mortality, in order that we should not fondly imagine that we hold similar alliance in the Unseen and can control the destinies of those who have been removed to another plane?


Savonarola was brought before his Inquisitors, and they condemned him to death. Then there followed the painful process of degradation. They scraped the holy oil from his nails; they destroyed the tonsure upon his head; they robed him in the priestly garments that he ever dignified, and they robbed him of them one by one. As the friar who was commissioned to carry out that degradation performed his work, he said to Savonarola, “I separate thee from the Church Militant and from the Church Triumphant.”  The great Florentine martyr looked at him with a smile, and said, “From the Church Militant I concede, but the Church Triumphant is beyond your power.”  And when I think of the multitude of the sleeping dead called to their last and eternal account, I am content, as one humble follower of my Master, to take my stand beside the Florentine martyr and to say, The world of the seen is in some measure ours. Ours is the day of opportunity, ours is the chance of working while it is called today; but the great eternal region that stretches beyond the plane of sense belongs to the Lord of Life and Death, and with Him we are content to let the issues rest.


But we are told sometimes that this particular argument from reason in its general connection does not adequately explain all the arguments that might be urged in favour of prayer for the departed. We are told that in addition to this idea of human progress, which it is sometimes conceded may indeed be met by this general consideration that I have pressed on your attention, there is a particular progress in holiness. We are told that men here improve gradually. Unhappily, we have to say some here improve gradually. I wish that politicians improved gradually, because occasionally it appears to me that the evidence to an impartial observer ‑ of course, we are all impartial in politics” ‑ points the other way. But, at any rate, it is conceded that some men improve gradually. This, as I understand it, is the main contention of Chambers' interesting work, “Life After Death,”  which has gone through many editions. I venture to say the whole argument is vitiated by a serious fallacy. The celebrated logician, John Stuart Mill, long ago drew attention to a vital difference between two classes of laws which operate in the universe.  They were what he called empirical laws, and laws of causation. In the judgment of that particular logician, whose work has still a vogue, the laws of causation were unalterable: they inevitably produced their effect. It was otherwise with empirical laws: they were only capable of application within a limited area, when the conditions which governed the object remained the same.  Mill gave an illustration: it is a simple one.  You are anxious to expand a piece of iron. You put it into the fire, and you heat it so many degrees, and whatever may be its length, you estimate that it expands one inch.  You estimate that if you heat it double the number of degrees it will expand two inches, and you are justified; and treble the number of degrees and it will expand three inches, and you are justified.  But you may make one venture more and your whole theory is shattered in pieces by the simple fact that you had overlooked, that when you heat iron to a certain point it melts.


Now I want to apply this to the progress in holiness. I venture to suggest to you that the gradual progress in holiness to which our friends draw attention is an empirical law. The retardations to holiness are manifest: they are familiarly expressed in the Church Catechism, “the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” Now if the testimony of Scripture is to be accepted, and I am sure it will be accepted by this audience, we are removed from the world when we die. That is condition Number One retarding our holiness suddenly negatived. We are removed from the flesh when we die. The innate and abiding corruption no longer holds us back as it did while we still bore with us the burden of the unredeemed body. And we are delivered from the assaults of that active personality who has stimulated our corrupt nature continually by vicious suggestion. The Devil no longer controls the souls of the redeemed. The World, the Flesh and the Devil are gone, and in their place we find a holy environment. We are brought into the company of just men made perfect, and we find ourselves above all in the nearer presence of the Lord of Glory, for we depart to be with Christ, which is very far better. When anybody suggests that under such altered conditions the empirical law of gradual progress in holiness must obtain, that person is incapable of sound reasoning upon any problem whatsoever.

But we are told by some that there are Scriptural evidences for prayer for the dead. We are reminded that St. Paul said, “The Lord grant mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus: for he oft refreshed me.” In order to make an argument, our friends slay Onesiphorus. They kill him out of hand. He must be dead, you see, because otherwise an Anglo‑Catholic would be embarrassed; and therefore Onesiphorous, any more than ourselves, had no right any longer to live ‑ but we are not dead!  They have often carried Protestantism to its grave and interred it with flowers, and, behold! there was always a resurrection morning.  Sometimes we have slipped, indeed, but we have never perished. So I suggest, notwithstanding the tender solicitude for Onesiphorus, that there is not a tittle of evidence anywhere that he had died at that particular moment. Indeed, if tradition is to be relied upon, he was reserved for a worthier fate ‑ he subsequently became a bishop!


But even supposing he were dead, I want my Anglo‑Catholic friends to bear this in mind, that the very form of the prayer is in itself a corrective to their notions: “The Lord grant him to have mercy, to obtain mercy of the Lord in that day.”  Here at the very crucial point, where they adduce a particular argument, the whole Intermediate State is wiped out as of no account. The passage from time into the great judgment is conceived as taking place immediately. “In that day,” said St. Paul, “grant that he may have mercy,” and the prayer that is based upon it is this,  “In this day grant that he may have light, peace and refreshment.” I submit that that is an absurd non sequitur.

Not only so, but when we adduce the Scriptural evidence, we should be careful to adduce the whole Scriptural evidence. Now I want to draw your attention to the opposing Scriptural concepts that to my mind represent prayer for the dead as undesirable and dangerous. First of all, I want you to observe that this natural craving of the human heart so beautifully expressed by the poet Tennyson when he said:

“The little ships pass on

To their haven under the hill:

But oh! for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still,”

is one of which Scripture is not unmindful. God's blessed Book, being a human Book, ranging through the whole gamut of human emotion, is not insensible to this longing desire, and is not oblivious to the extraordinary consequences that have issued in human history as a result of that desire. So, over and over again, in its sacred pages, prophet and priest alike warn their hearers against cuttings in the flesh for the dead, against whispering to the dead.   “Why,” said the prophet Isaiah, in one great classical passage, “why seek the living among the dead?  Should not men seek unto the Lord Jehovah?”  That is the great answer of the Word of God to the longing of the human heart.  It says, “Stand in reverent awe before the veil that God has drawn, and do not seek to penetrate it.”

Why, I ask, is there this insistence upon reticence in the matter of the approach to our loved ones, unless that reticence has the full approval and sanction of Almighty God?


Then I take you to the New Testament. I want you to observe that in the New Testament there is manifest a tremendous concern for the state of the dead. The early disciples quite understood that for those who accepted humbly their Lord and Saviour after the manner so graphically and beautifully set before us to‑day by our aged and honoured lecturer, Canon Hay Aitken, there was blessing. They recognised also that when God would come again with all His holy angels, and the Christ of Glory would take up the throne of His Kingdom, that then, for those who were alive and remained, there would be a time of glad exultation: they would know that their labour was not in vain in the Lord. But over and over again the anxious enquiry came to their lips, “What about those who have gone?  What about those who have laboured and struggled and fought and died?”  And what was the answer of the New Testament?  “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”  But St. Paul never said - and could it possibly be imagined that he would have neglected to say it if it were true? ‑ “You are in communication with them now; you can pray for them now; you can further their progress in holiness now; their separation is only a mere accident.”


I content myself, humbly submissive to the voice of the revealed Word of God, with that comfort which God, the God of eternal love, vouchsafes to bestow upon His believing children. I say then that when you come across a passage like this, “Antipas My faithful martyr,” and he is left there, I say when you come across passage after passage that tells of the hopes and aspirations of the living for the dead, and silence reigns concerning present communication, such silence is sublime, such silence is in itself most eloquent.

Just in closing I venture to point out that there are dangerous consequences to this theory. I think there was no more courageous, indeed, I might say audacious, proceeding in the whole wide world than the mighty enterprise of publishing Hooker and Ussher in the interests of Anglo‑Catholicism. If you want to take your revenge upon the Anglo‑Catholics for that audacious move, I will tell you how you will do it ‑ read them!

Now we have moved in this matter on an inclined plane. First we had prayer for the faithful departed, and we were told that it was permissible because it was a certainty to say, “Grant that light, rest and refreshment shall be given unto them.”  Now we have moved rapidly, until to‑day anguished sons of men, deprived of true stability, because they are not resting upon the Scriptures of Truth, are craving for prayers for the lost, prayers that shall go down into the pit and bring the unrepentant and the unforgiven into light and glory.


Between these two extremes in this particular theory, both of which are still pressed upon our attention, we have the great conception of a Purgatorial misery and of Masses that are beneficial for our departed by way of impenetration.   So, as the result of the introduction of this particular theory, instead of bringing peace and comfort and blessing to the souls of men, it has robbed our people of the great triumphant shout, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, with the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.” It has substituted for the message of the Saviour,  “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall be live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die,” the shifting speculations of all too fervid and imperfect theologians. It has robbed us of the consciousness that, to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord. Instead of lightening our sorrow, it has deepened our gloom, and driven us further from Him who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, through whom every man cometh unto the Father.

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