death, saints, soul

Frank Answers About All Souls’ Day

  • Question: Lutherans observe All Saints’ Day (November 1), but usually transfer it to the Sunday following since the Sunday preceding November 1 is the anticipation of Reformation Day (October 31). All Souls’ Day is on November 2. What do Lutherans do about this day?  Transfer it to the second Sunday of November?

Frank Answers: All Souls’ Day is not in Lutheran church calendars because historically it was bound up with ideas about Purgatory.  It was assumed that just about everyone who wasn’t a canonized saint was in the state of Purgatory in which their souls were being purified so that they could come into the presence of the Holy God. People in the Middle Ages provided what social historian John Bossy called “charity for the dead” by arranging votive requiem masses to be offered on their behalf or by providing endowments for “chantries” — singing the office of the dead — on the anniversaries of their death. These acts of devotion were believed to aid in the quicker release of souls from Purgatory. Confraternities developed which served like burial societies, paying for the funerals and requiem masses of their members.

By the beginning of the 11th century a day to pray for all souls was added to the calendar of Cluniac monasteries on November 2, the day following All Saints.  The concept of this day spread rapidly throughout the widespread network of Cluniac monasteries. The monasteries offered requiem masses and chanted offices of the dead for their benefactors.  But parish churches caught on and All Souls’ Day became a day on which to offer requiem masses for the repose of the souls in Purgatory and to maintain the graves in the churchyards. Parish priests were kept busy from morning till night offering requiem masses.

Since requiem masses were votive masses—masses of special intent—they were paid for with stipends that went to the priest who offered the mass. Martin Luther called this the “traffic in masses” and saw it as part of the economic exploitation of the people.  All Souls’ Day was abolished by Protestants, along with the belief in Purgatory, indulgences, and the offering of all votive masses.

All Saints’ Day remained on Anglican and on some Lutheran calendars. The reformers were also concerned, of course, about the cult of the saints. So they taught that we shouldn’t pray to the saints, but they affirmed that the saints pray for us. So we could sing the litany of the saints in which we ask the various saints by name to “pray for us.” As to the state of the faithful departed, Lutherans believed that they rest in Jesus until the resurrection of the dead. At the last judgment all the baptized are covered by the righteousness of Christ. So we may pray for the faithful departed, reminding God to remember them and his promise given to them in Holy Baptism.

In modern Protestant practice All Saints’ Day has actually absorbed the function of All Souls’ Day by providing an opportunity to remember the faithful departed in the parish family.  Long lists of names are included in the intercessions. Candles are lighted as their names are read. This is much more an all souls practice than an all saints practice.

I also promoted this practice when I was a parish pastor. But it has had the unintended and unfortunate consequence of overshadowing the jubilant celebration of all the saints in light—of joining our praise with that of “the glorious company of apostles,” “the noble fellowship of prophets,” “the white robed army of martyrs” who are itemized in the great canticle Te Deum laudamus (“We praise you, O God”).

There would seem to be good reason to separate All Saints from All Souls.  All Saints’ Day remembers the heroes of the faith. All Souls’ Day remembers our own departed family members and the faithful departed of the local church. Each category would receive its own due recognition. All Saints’ Day celebrates the connection between the church militant and the church triumphant. All Souls’ Day provides a memorial day for our beloved dead. It’s the day on which the congregation remembers those in the parish who have died during the previous year. It’s the day on which worshipers may light a candle in memory of their beloved dead.

How would this work liturgically? Ideally, All Saints’ Day would be observed on November 1. All Souls’ Day would then be observed, if not on November 2, then on the Sunday following All Saints. If All Saints’ Day is transferred to the following Sunday then (as the question somewhat jokingly suggests) All Souls’ Day would be observed on the second Sunday in November. This Sunday might be combined with the observance on November 11 of what used to be called Armistice Day and is now (in the U.S.) Veterans’ Day.  It has become a day on which to remember those who died in the nation’s wars. Included in the prayers for the faithful departed would be those who  gave their lives in the service of their country. Readings for the Liturgy would be a First Lesson from the Old Testament, psalm, Second Lesson from the New Testament and Gospel selected from the readings listed in the Order for the Burial of the Dead.

This pushes the commemoration of the faithful departed further into November. We might note, however, that in Hispanic practice All Saints’ Day launches an entire month of the dead. It is really an extension of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day as families come together to remember deceased family members, pray for them, celebrate with the favorite foods of the departed, and arrange memorabilia such as photos and mementos in family homes and in parish churches. The Day of the Dead is a public holiday in Mexico with parades and fiestas.


This focus on the last things continues on the remaining Sundays of the church year calendar with its appointed lectionary readings, concluding with Christ the King and transitioning into Advent with its apocalyptic first Sunday. The whole month of November becomes a time of focusing on the “last things” (eschatology), both our own and this world’s.

Pastor Frank Senn

1 Comment

  1. Thomas Bumgarner

    Frank, I believe LCMS’ Lutheran Worship called November 2 “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed”; I don’t think Lutheran Service Book continued that practice.

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