I like to look at views that the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church share. One of those views that they don't share is purgatory. This got me thinking. Is there any evidence that the Early Church accepted or held purgatory?
I use only one Catholic source for this answer, beginning with the eschatological aspect which had to be formed first, gives the history of the doctrine, then explains some of the differences that arose. I will stop long before it details elements brought into play by the Reformation as the question is limited to the early Church position.
"Only the idea of the eschatological as such... makes it possible to conceive a condition which has its special theological significance precisely 'in the end'... The eschatological situation of believing humanity, characterized by finality of decision, also includes the personal life of those dead who, as part of the world - like the Church itself - can only attain their complete fulfilment gradually and in the midst of distress and affliction, because of their condition, which is marked by the concupiscence resulting from sin. The doctrine of purgatory therefore forms an essential part of a systematic Christian eschatology conscious of its own presuppositions." (Encyclopedia of Theology - a Concise Sacramentum Mundi, Edited by Karl Rahner, p1318-2, article by Elmar Klinger)
I have put in bold italics a critically important point, upon which the entire doctrine of purgatory seems to depend. Once Catholicism had its particular eschatology of end times largely in place, then the idea of purgatory could be added, completing presuppositions within eschatological presuppositions. Now, I hasten to add that this is how it looks to me, as a non-Catholic. My answer, however, does not depend upon my interpretation, and I fully expect Catholics to disagree with it. Yet it needs to be flagged up as providing a bit of a question-mark as to whether the first Century Church could have had a position on purgatory, when the word never occurs in the New Testament. It would be helpful if a knowledgeable person could track down the first written use of the word 'purgatory' in early Church circles.
Another point I would add, before resuming quotations, is that there might be a danger of conflating the eventual glory of the Church in her marriage with the Lamb, and the idea of humans having to work their way towards becoming the Bride of Christ whilst in an 'intermediate state' (of purgatory) outside of heaven. Again, this raises a question-mark as to whether the first Century Church could possibly have held such an idea about the deceased working towards eventual salvation and glory, given they do not state that in the N.T. Now I quote regarding the second Century:
"Justin and Tertullian still shared this perspective [in the N.T.,about Sheol, and the 'fire' of faith at the Last Judgment] in the 2nd century and teach that the dead are waiting 'in the grave' for the consummation. Irenaeus took a dynamic view of this state (Adv. Haer., IV, 31, 7: PG, VII, cols. 1103-4), and Origen in the framework of his universal eschatology (apocatastasis) worked out a doctrine of a particular purification for each individual, (In Lucam Hom., XXIV: PG, XIII, cols. 1864-5: baptism of the spirit takes place in the baptism of fire), and thus developed in germ the doctrine of purgatory. Nevertheless, until the 4th century the idea of the direct combination of purgatory and judgment prevailed without exception." (Ibid., pp1318-9)
The part I have put in bold indicates that the germ of the doctrine of purgatory could be found in the writings of Origen (A.D. 185 - 254).
"In the West, however, Augustine emphasized that all the just (not only the martyrs) immediately attain the vision of God and do not have to wait for the end in some indeterminate place. The eschatological process thus essentially includes an individual element. As a result, the doctrine of purgatory is detached from that of the universal eschaton. The reference to 1 Cor 3:12-15 lost its direct application; the purifying 'fire' of the judgment - Augustine himself still hesitates - becomes the ignis purgatorius, and now appears as an actual indeterminate realm for man in death." (Ibid. p 1319)
Then the article moves on to the Middle Ages and various Councils before pointing out the differences that arose between the Latins and the Greeks:
"... Benedict XII's definition (D 530-1), had to be explained in face of the Greeks, for on the basis of their tradition they contested the existence of the fire of purgatory and any immediate retribution after death (D 535). ...But because the Greeks regarded the universal last judgment as the only consummation, they could only attribute relative importance to the decision regarding each individual. For them, as had been the case in Sheol, the good and wicked were still essentially in the same place. For there was only one fire, that of the Last Judgment. In that regard, the saints were already purified (and in the exceptional case even the damned); nevertheless all (D 535, including Mary and the apostles) had to undergo the final judgments (Mansi, XXXI A, 485-94, especially 488). The Greeks, therefore, could accept, though with reservations, the dogma of the particular judgment after death (D 693), also the doctrine of the poenae purgatoriae (D 464, 693). They could not accept a separate fire, for they regarded it as an Origenistt doctrine of a fire in which all were saved. On this basis they formulated the Church's doctrine at Lyons and Florence in collaboration with the Latins."
Concluding Summary: There is nothing in the writings of the first Century sciptures to indicate any idea of purgatory, let alone state a 'position' on it. The germ of the idea seems to form with Origen (early third century) and develops. The differences between the Latins and the Greeks comes in the last quote.
What was the Early Church's position on Purgatory?
The Early Church is generally reckoned by church historians to begin with the ministry of Jesus (c. 27–30) and end with the First Council of Nicaea (325). It is typically divided into two periods: the Apostolic Age (c. 30–100, when the first apostles were still alive) and the Ante-Nicene Period (c. 100–325). This is the window I will try to limit myself to.
It seems that the doctrine of the Early Church on Purgatory was not yet defined, yet many Early Church Fathers believed in the doctrine of Purgatory or at least accepted it’s possible existence.
The Fathers of the Church and other contemporary theologians spoke of purgatory quite frequently. See Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chyrsostom, and Ambrose and Augustine. Augustine himself believed that purgatory was real, but didn't believe the matter was settled.
The Early Church Fathers believed in purgatory and prayers for the dead.
Clement of Alexandria
The believer through discipline divests himself of his passions and passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, passes to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance for the faults he may have committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more, not yet attaining what he sees others have acquired. The greatest torments are assigned to the believer, for God's righteousness is good, and His goodness righteous, and though these punishments cease in the course of the expiation and purification of each one, "yet" etc. (Patres Groeci. IX, col. 332 [A.D. 150-215]).
If a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter. For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (I Cor., 3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones? Neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works. (Patres Groeci. XIII, col. 445, 448 [A.D. 185-232]).
The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius (Epitaph of Abercius [A.D. 190]).
That allegory of the Lord [Matt. 5:25-26] . . . is extremely clear and simple in its meaning . . . [beware lest as] a transgressor of your agreement, before God the judge . . . and lest this judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commit you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What a truer interpretation? (The Soul 35 [A.D. 210]).
The faithful widow prays for the soul of her husband, and begs for him in the interim repose, and participation in the first resurrection, and offers prayers on the anniversary of his death (Monogamy 10 [A.D. 213]).
We can also read in the annals of the martyrdom of
An African Latin-speaker like Tertullian, her memoirs were documented during her incarceration. At about A.D. 203 she writes ...
"I saw a vision of Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others. He was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color; the wound on his face that he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease. For him I had made my prayer; and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And I knew that my brother was in suffering, but I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in a camp show. Then I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping, that he might be granted to me. Then, on the day that we remained in fetters, this was shown to me: I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body, well clad, was finding refreshment. He went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children; and I woke from this vision. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment." (Acts of the Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, Chapters iii-x)
Prayers for the dead were known to ancient Jewish practice, and it has been through this that Christianity may have taken its similar practice from its Jewish heritage. In Early Christendom, prayer for the dead is attested since at least the 2nd century, evidenced in part by the tomb inscription of Abercius, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (d. c. 200). Celebration of the Eucharist for the dead is attested to since at least the 3rd century.
Touching manifestations of this belief are found on the walls and tombs of the Catacombs. The souls of the departed are recommended to the holy Martyrs, near whom their bodies are buried. The object of the prayers is: peace and refreshment ("refrigerium" occurs innumerable times); the feeding of them by the "Ichthys," the light of the dead. The departed themselves are represented as requesting the intercession of the living faithful. On one on the tombstones of the catacombs, now in the Lateran Museum, a husband declares that he set this inscription for his beloved wife Lucifera " in order that all brethren who read it may pray for her, that she may reach God."
The whole series of invocations and acclamations preserved to us in those ancient Christian inscriptions undoubtedly bears the character of real prayers by which the living intended to help their departed brethren in the after life. The very requests for peace and refreshment, for admission amongst the Saints, etc., contained in the inscriptions of the second and third centuries, presuppose the conviction that the good desired for the departed souls will be granted to them by God in response to the prayer of the faithful. The petitions for the departed addressed directly to God, as found in the inscriptions of the second and third centuries, can be understood only on this supposition.
Scholars have proved that the many pictures in the Catacombs refer to Purgatory. One states,
"The faithful prayed for the dead, entreating God to protect their souls, as He protected Daniel in the lion's den, the three young men in the furnace, Noe in the ark, and Susanna against the two elders. With the same intention, and in order to invite the visitors of these subterranean cemeteries to pray for the dead, these biblical figures were depicted near the sepulchres - Daniel and Noe in the hypogeum of the Flavii as early as the first century, and all four together at the beginning of the second century in the Capella Greca."
On the earliest epigraphical and sculptural documents of the Catacombs, the saints appear as the protectors of the Poor Souls, who are recommended to their intercession. -The Early Church Fathers and Historical Archaeological discoveries referencing Purgatory.
Polycarp who was a disciple of John and Philip the apostles and who was bishop of Smyrna circa 150 CE explained there is no such thing as purgatory.
I [Polycarp] exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as ye have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run390 in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead. Polycarp Letter Chapter IX (bold mine)
For them, to die in Christ was to be present with Christ. This teaching of course follows scriptural.
Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8
The earliest church had no concept of purgatory, which is the idea of an additional step of purification before the saved may enter into the presence of the Lord.
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. 1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, -CCC-
So, to answer the OP, it depends on the time frame to which refers the question. The earliest believers taught that to die in Christ was to awake in Christ immediately. Subsequently, and apparently apart from, the idea of purgatory, prayers for the dead, and indulgences arose in the church.