How did the practice of soliciting the prayers of dead saints originate? Did it start based on something in the bible? The apocrypha? A papal decree?

On a side note, which groups practice this type of prayer?

I am interested in the circumstances in which these types of prayers started. I do not intend to get answers regarding if or why/why not it is acceptable. There are other questions for those topics.

  • Definitely not from the Apocrypha; that's just Protestant myth. The Apocrypha merely contains one instance of sacrifices being made for the dead (not prayer to the dead) in 2 Maccabees 12:39-46. Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 3:00
  • Link.
    – user46876
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 4:00
  • "He is not God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly misled." (Mark 12:27)
    – qxn
    Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 18:15

3 Answers 3


A cursory search of the Internet brought me this list of quotations from various patristic sources.

Summarized from this article: On the Intercession and Invocation of the Saints.

Righteous Job the Long-Suffering (1000 – 300 BC)

If there shall be an angel speaking for him . . . He shall have mercy on him, and shall say: Deliver him, that he may not go down to corruption" (Job xxxiii, 23).

Book of Tobit (~ 200 – 100 BC)

When thou didst pray with tears… I [Archangel Raphael] offered thy prayer to the Lord. (Tobit xii, 12)

St. John the Evangelist (+101)

And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel. (Apoc., viii, 3, 4)

St. Cyprian of Carthage (+258), writing to Pope Cornelius of Rome

Let us be mutually mindful of each other, let us ever pray for each other, and if one of us shall, by the speediness of the Divine vouchsafement, depart hence first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord, let not prayer for our brethren and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.[iv]

St. Hilary of Poitiers (+368)

To those who would fain stand, neither the guardianship of saints nor the defences of angels are wanting.[v]

St. Ephraim the Syrian (+373)

Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, supplicate the Saviour earnestly for me, that I may be freed though Christ from him that fights against me day by day.[vi]

Ye victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Saviour; ye who have boldness of speech towards the Lord Himself; ye saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us that so we may love him.[vii]

St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria (+373)

Christ became man that men might become gods[viii]

“In one of his letters, St. Basil [the Great] explicitly writes that he accepts the intercession of the apostles, prophets and martyrs, and he seeks their prayers to God. (Letter 360) Then, speaking about the Forty Martyrs, who suffered martyrdom for Christ, he emphasizes that they are common friends of the human race, strong ambassadors and collaborators in fervent prayers. (Chapter 8)

“St. Gregory of Nyssa asks St. Theodore the Martyr …to fervently pray to our Common King, our God, for the country and the people (Encomium to Martyr Theodore).

“The same language is used by St. Gregory the Theologian in his encomium to St. Cyprian. St. John Chrysostom says that we should seek the intercession and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special "boldness" (parresia), before God. (Gen. 44: 2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).”[ix]

St. Basil the Great, of Caesarea in Asia Minor (+379)

According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the Three. I confess to the economy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.[x]

We beseech you, O most holy martyrs, who cheerfully suffered torments and death for his love, and are now more familiarly united to him, that you intercede with God for us slothful and wretched sinners, that he bestow on us the grace of Christ, by which we may be enlightened and enabled to love him.[xi]

O holy choir! O sacred band! O unbroken host of warriors! O common guardians of the human race! Ye gracious sharers of our cares! Ye co-operators in our prayer! Most powerful intercessors![xii] Liturgy of St. Basil the Great

By the command of Thine only-begotten Son we communicate with the memory of Thy saints . . . by whose prayers and supplications have mercy upon us all, and deliver us for the sake of Thy holy name which is invoked upon us.[xiii]

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386)

We then commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God, by their prayers and intercessions, may receive our petitions.[xiv]

St. Gregory the Theologian, Patriarch of Constantinople; of Nazianzus in Asia Minor (+389)

Mayest thou [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd [or shepherd with me] this sacred flock . . . gladdening us with a more perfect and clear illumination of the Holy Trinity, before Which thou standest.[xv]

St. Gregory of Nyssa in Lower Armenia (+395-400)

...I wish to commemorate one person who spoke of their noble testimony because I am close to Ibora, the village and resting place of these forty martyrs' remains. Here the Romans keep a register of soldiers, one of whom was a guard ordered by his commander to protect against invasions, a practice common to soldiers in such remote areas. This man suffered from an injured foot which was later amputated. Being in the martyrs' resting place, he earnestly beseeched God and the intercession of the saints. One night there appeared a man of venerable appearance in the company of others who said, "Oh soldier, do you want to be healed [J.167] of your infirmity? Give me your foot that I may touch it." When he awoke from the dream, his foot was completely healed. Once he awoke from this vision, his foot was restored to health. He roused the other sleeping men because he was immediately cured and made whole. This men then began to proclaim the miracle performed by the martyrs and acknowledged the kindness bestowed by these fellow soldiers…. We who freely and boldly enter paradise are strengthened by the [martyrs'] intercession through a noble confession in our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.[xvii]

Do thou, [St. Ephraim the Syrian] that art standing at the Divine altar, and art ministering with angels to the life-giving and most Holy Trinity, bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom.[xviii]

St. Ambrose of Milan (+397)

May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ's benignant countenance.[xix]

St. Jerome, b. Dalmatia, d. Palestine (+419)

If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others, at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more after their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won! One man, Moses, obtains from God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms; and Stephen, the imitator of the Lord, and the first martyr in Christ, begs forgiveness for his persecutors; and shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ? The Apostle Paul declares that two hundred three score and sixteen souls, sailing with him, were freely given him; and, after he is dissolved and has begun to be with Christ, shall he close his lips, and not be able to utter a word in behalf of those who throughout the whole world believed at his preaching of the Gospel? And shall the living dog Vigilantius be better than that dead lion?[xx]

St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople; b. Antioch, Syria (+407)

When thou perceivest that God is chastening thee, fly not to His enemies . . . but to His friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to Him, and who have great power [parresian, "boldness of speech"].[xxi]

He that wears the purple, laying aside his pomp, stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God; and he that wears the diadem begs the Tent-maker and the Fisherman as patrons, even though they be dead.[xxii]

St. Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa (+430)

At the Lord's table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps.[xxiii]

One would expect the Masoretic Old Testament to have little support for prayer requests to the dead, as opposed to prayer requests for the dead, since (is this correct?) the notion of resurrection was a later introduction to Judaism in preparation for the coming of Christ. Indeed, the Psalmist declares

For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? (Psalm 6:5)


Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.

Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?

Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:10-12)

Indeed death held illimitable dominion over all, even the righteous, before the glorious victory of our Lord Jesus. But now even (or especially) Christian children spit upon death as upon a miscreant pilloried, or better, a great foe vanquished and made impotent. Death is now (among other things) an entrance into new life, life in Christ.

I suspect the main basis for this practice is that "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." After doing the work of God (viz. liturgy, specifically communing) at the tombs of the martyrs (or today, celebrating the liturgy upon the relics of saints), it is not farfetched to give death the finger by submitting prayer requests to these "dead," now made alive in Christ Jesus (presuming they've made it there). Indeed, the revelation of John tells us that departed saints continue to pray; it is then not farfetched to hope that they might hear our petitions and pray for what we ask. Indeed, now that they are truly baptized with the baptism with which He has been baptized, it's that much more easy to ask them to intercede for us than it is to ask those still in the flesh to pray for us. Petitioning the saints comes from knowledge in the Spirit that they will know what we ask, and pray for us accordingly.

Assuredly, however, a more detailed and specifically history/archaeology-based answer to your question would be more appropriate than such speculation. I hope the list above is helpful.

This all represents my understanding of the practice of veneration of and petitioning to the saints who have died, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian.

  • This answer is VERY insightful and helpful. I think the "main basis" you give is the strongest: the Spirit. However, isn't it farfetched if you have to "hope that they might hear our petitions"? You wouldn't do it unless you knew it was effective, so then how reliable are all your quotations?
    – dleyva3
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 9:48
  • The long and distinguished record of answered prayer requests submitted to both our living brethren (as you, my brother, well know) and to dead saints made alive in Christ affirms---if one is prepared to accept their testimony---that God responds to both requests for intercessory prayer. Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 18:24
  • Re the reliability of my quotations: I am no patristics scholar, and I cannot even vouch for the accuracy of these quotations. The Schaff library of church fathers is online at CCEL, if you want to check. Unfortunately I don't know if that contains all these quotations. Plainly I don't know how well these quotations fared being taken out of their context. Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 18:32
  • 1
    I should point out, though, that a paucity of such quotations from ancient fathers might be expected, if this were not an issue of debate in the church. If it had been an issue of debate then, we would see the same story played out for this issue as for all the other heresies: some kooky self-promoter would introduce or ban the practice, many people would fall away from traditional practice, and eventually a council would be called to reaffirm the apostolic tradition against the new development. Refer, for instance, to the issue of iconoclasm in the East, or to that of Arianism. Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 18:44
  • 1
    "Indeed, the revelation of John tells us that the saints pray for us" - Where does the book of Revelation of John tell us that?
    – brilliant
    Commented Feb 11, 2012 at 11:21

Everett Ferguson, in "Backgrounds of Early Christianity" states that the practice of praying to the Saints originated as an answer to the hero cults and the cults of the lares in ancient Rome. The common person readily abandoned Zeus/Jupiter for God our Father and Christ our Savior, but they were not so easily dissuaded from making offerings to the lesser spirits that were thought to govern daily life. Below is a quote from the book that makes this point:

"In the Latin west and in the Greek east the church won only by detouring the traditional piety to other objects. The martyrs and the saints received the homage once given to the heroes and nature and household spirits. The similarity between the cult of heroes and spirits in ancient Greece and Rome and the cult of the saints in medieval Christendom (Roman and Greek) has often been observed." (He cites Gordon J. Laing, "Survivals of Roman Religion" as a source.)

Ferguson, Everett (2003-09-01). Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3536-3540). Eerdmans Publishing Co - A. Kindle Edition.

  • If you could explain some of the similarities between the Greek/Roman heroes and the saints then it would be a really excellent answer. I've heard of this as well in relation to some of the American and African gods. Sadly a lot of syncretism has happened through the ages.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 4:48
  • Ancient Greeks and Romans would actually pray to people like Hercules and Achilles? I had never heard that before.
    – Jeff
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 16:49

Depending on where you're coming from, it may be easy to dismiss quotes from early fathers of the church. Keep in mind, though, that the Bible you use today was compiled by some of those same fathers, particularly Athanasios the Great.

But if you are looking for more direct Biblical quotes, consider first that prayer is a form of communication. Next, take a look at these examples:

  1. King Saul communicates with the then reposed Prophet Samuel with the help of the medium of Endor (1 Samuel 28). If someone who is clearly not doing the will of God can communicate with a prophet on the other side, how much more so a devout believer?

  2. "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38-39). That is to say, as death was conquered by Christ, how can it possibly stop us from communicating with those with whom we are in communion through Christ?

  3. Abraham communicates with the rich man, who is in hades (Luke 16). For those who would say this is a parable, there are many church fathers that disagree: in no place does the gospel say it is a parable. Christ begins with, "There was a certain rich man..." If someone can communicate across the breach which Father Abraham describes, how much more so between the church militant and the church triumphant?

  4. Christ himself speaks to Moses and Elijah on Mt. Tabor. Early commentators noted that one of these prophets had experienced death while the other had not, showing that Christ is the God of both realms.

  5. Finally (and this is the most convincing for me, personally), we have the words of Christ himself: "But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, 32I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Mat. 22:31-32). I ask my living friends to pray for me, and I believe that Christ overcame death. Therefore, I will ask those who have gone before me (because they are living as well) to pray for me.

One last note: it is customary in the church since ancient times to refer to those who have passed to the next life as "reposed", not "dead", particularly when referring to those who have led exemplary lives. In this sense (and because of the words of Christ), there are no "dead" saints. I hope this helps, brother.

  • It seems to be a real stretch of the scriptures in your points 1-5 to say that they support the practice of seeking intercession from the "reposed" as you put it. (1 is most definitely not normative, 4. is an exceptional circumstance, 2.3.&5. are in the context of teaching on other matters). You make an interesting point in your last paragraph, but the plain biblical language is "asleep" - indicating that they are not really in a position to receive our requests for intercession and act on them. Commented May 14, 2014 at 16:19
  • I thought the previous answer by Robert Haraway was already good enough. As stated in my first paragraph, I placed these references to Biblical situations for those who are unfamiliar with early church fathers and commentary and are in need of at least some indication in scripture one way or the other. But as for "asleep", I'm not sure to which of the passages you are referring, unless it is to a different redaction of I Samuel.
    – sambolic
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 20:00
  • no, not 1 Samuel, these passages in the New Testament: biblegateway.com/passage/… Commented May 15, 2014 at 2:45
  • Ironically, that's the same word in Greek that is sometimes translated "reposed," which means, of course, to be asleep. Some of us do not take that word literally in this context, however.
    – sambolic
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 6:51
  • @sambolic I think most people dont believe that "dead" saints are literally sleeping. However, it is a far jump to go from "they arent really sleeping" to "they have the ability to hear our prayers and respond to them". Abraham spoke with the rich man and both men experienced the worldly, physical death. I understand the chasm to be the divide from the righteous and unrighteous "dead". I dont think this says anything towards communication between the "living" and the "dead"
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 18:15

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