PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD.
IN Mr. MacColl's paper, published in the Fortnightly for July, on the Princess Alice,—the depth of pathos in whose letters, by the way, he brings out with singular success,— he touches a weak article in the theology of some of the Reformed Churches,—namely, the condemnation of prayers for the dead. This has always seemed to us to admit of only one kind of justification, and that a justification which it cannot plead,—we mean the plea that the condition of the dead is unchaugeable, that by death they are turned, as it were, to stone. The Princess records in one of her letters, after the loss of her youngest boy, that the eldest " always prays for Frittie ;" and as Mr. MacColl justly remarks, this is simply natural, and is even shown to be so by the practice of the un- sophisticated child. Mr. MacColl declares that "to forbid prayers for the dead is to undermine the doctrine of prayers for the living." And there we agree with him most completely, since the dead, if their spirits are what they were at all, cannot be unchangeable, cannot be beyond the power of God, cannot be beyond the reach of prayer. Of course we know the sort of ground on which prayers for the dead have been held to be superstitious and heretical. This is held by those who think that " probation " is strictly limited to this life, and that an alternative of absolute blessedness or absolute misery is hereafter certain. Such persons hold that the habit of praying for the dead cannot even be innocent, since it must take the form either of a prayer for what is already granted, —which implies distrust of God,—or else a prayer for what is already refused, which implies rebellion of heart against him. The answer, of course, is that we have no assurance in Revelation that probation is absolutely limited by this life for all alike ;—the subject is not even explicitly dealt with in the New Testament. And even if that were so, and nothing seems more unlikely, none the less we could not be in any way assured that the state of those who are beyond the veil is unchangeable, that the blessedness of those who are blessed admits of no increase, and the misery of those who are miserable of no decrease. Except in the presence of a positive divine revelation to the contrary—of which no one even pretends to produce evidence—the natural assumption is, that whatever prayer tends to do for one who is living on earth, it equally tends to do for one who is living in the stage beyond. As Mr. MacColl says, those who make light of the efficacy of prayers for the dead are in a fair way to make light of the efficacy of prayers for the living. If it is argued that they are useless because God may be absolutely trusted to do the best for the dead without our prayers, why, that applies just as much to the living as to the dead. And if it is argued that after death their state is so absolutely unalterable that no prayers can avail them anything, the natural inference is that long before death that crystallisation of their destiny must have set in which turned to petrifaction afterwards. If the positive instruction to pray for each other is to apply to this life only, why was it not carefully limited to the domain of this life by those who taught us to pray ? Is it not obvious that what was intended was to foster in man's heart the habit of pouring forth all his desires and wants freely to God And if those desires and wants do not stop short at the grave, if they affect as much those who have passed beyond it, as those who are on this side of it it can be nothing but the most artificial and unnatural of arrange- ments to teach us to divide our desires into two strictly separated classes, of which those belonging to one are never again to be breathed to God, while those belonging to the other are to be poured forth with all the old fervour. What teaching could be better adapted to make the invisible world unreal to us than this complete ignoring, in our intercourse with God, of all the affections which connect us with the world beyond, —this sedulous restraining of our thoughts to those who are still with us in the visible frame of things ? If men once ignore the dead in their prayers, those who are gone will become dead to them in a quite new sense,—nay, the world of the highest life will become dead to them also. As it is the very highest effect of prayer to connect the unseen with the seen world, and to convince men that God has regard to the cry of man, when it is in accordance with his spirit, nothing seems to us more fatal to that highest use of prayer than to represent it as strictly limited in its scope to those who are still with us, and entirely without possible result on those who are gone from us. How could the conception of "the whole family in heaven and earth" be a true one, if the members of it who are on one side of the grave
may properly pray only for those who are on the same side as: themselves, but should treat those who are on the other side of it as beyond the range even of their intercessions ? That is not one family, half of which may not even pray to God for blessings on the other half.
The horror felt of prayers for the dead in eome theological circles is justified, we believe, by the argument that, if once we begin to think of the condition of any one who is beyond the grave as changeable at all, we shall get into the habit of thinking that even if we are as evil and selfish as we please in this life, even if we delay repentance till after all the evil enjoy- ments of life have been exhausted, we may yet rescue ourselves, or be rescued by others, from that misery we deserve, by change of heart in the world beyond. But the true answer to this is, not to assume a single arbitrary point like the moment of death, as the point when change for all alike becomes hopeless,—a doctrine which seems to us as little founded in Scripture as it is in the evidence of human nature,—but to show that whether on this side of the grave or on the other, a character once matured is so obstinate in its habits, so difficult to change, so moulded by its own former acts of choice, that the hope of any sudden revo- lution in its tastes and preferences is far more of a dream than of a reasonable expectation. It simply cannot be that a child who dies at ten or twelve has a character as formed as a man who lives. to fifty or sixty ; and if so, even the selfish child who dies at ten or twelve must be much more open to the higher spiritual influ- ences which affect the next life than the man who lives to fifty or sixty, after a long career of steady resistance to those spiritual influences, can be conceived to be. The true teaching surely is, that prayer for others can never hurt, and may often help them ; but that it can never help as much those who have set the grain of their own characters steadfastly against doing that for which we pray on their behalf, as it can those who are yet in the stage of growth in which every influence tells. Prayer for those who, with numberless faults, have died young, must, we should think, always be far more hopeful than prayer for those who, though they are still living, are living with all their faults hardened into the rigidity of habitual sins. Neither prayer may be wasted ; both may do good ; but the reasonable thing certainly is to hope more from the prayer for those, —whether living or dead,—who are not yet confirmed in evil, than for those, whether living or dead, who are so con- firmed. It is not death that makes the difference. If the earnest prayer of a good man avails much, it yet avails more for those who have not hardened their hearts against the drift of such a prayer, than for those who have ; and this even though he who is so hardening his heart to the influence of such prayers be still in the body, while he who is opening his heart to the in- fluence of such prayers has been delivered from the burden of the flesh. It is not death which makes the difference, it is the life of him for whom the prayer is breathed. On the life which is grow- ing more and more intractable to such prayers, whether it be embodied or disembodied, the prayer can have little effect, just as a touch will have but little effect on the course of a landslip. On the life which is growing more and more sensitive to the influence of such prayers, whether it be embodied or disem- bodied, a prayer may have, under the providence of God, great effect, and may even form the turning-point of a career.
But that is a doctrine which does not open any very sanguine hope of the effect of intercessory prayer on the future of those who have used ill a long probation here, though it may open much hope of the effect of prayer on those who have had here the mere shadow of a probation, with hardly any experience of the fascination of good, and with the fullest experience of the attractions of evil.
But the great danger of forbidding prayers for the dead, is, as Mr. MacColl says, that it must tend to discourage•
prayer altogether. If the heart may not pour itself out to, God freely, it will soon cease to pour itself out at all. And' clearly it cannot pour itself out freely unless it can say its say about both worlds, about those who are wholly in the one world,
as well as about those whose life is partly in the one and partly in the other. " Where the treasure is, there will the heart be.
also ;" and if the treasure is in the other world, to forbid the heart to be there too is fatal. And how can any one pray taGodr except for that for which his whole heart craves ?