Ash Wednesday in the Pre-Tractarian Church of England

In 1809, well before the Tractarian controversy began to rage in the Church of England, a Dr. Riddoch took it upon himself to explain why Anglicans retained Ash Wednesday services. He prefaced his work by mentioning five books that communicants should read to prepare themselves for the Ash Wednesday and for Lent. The list included works of Edward Cooper and also Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted. Ash Wednesday’s long place in Anglican practice indicated that the service was not a liturgical innovation instituted by Anglo-Catholics, but a practice that endured throughout the Church of England’s history, even if it was not widely celebrated.

            Riddoch used a catechetical form to explain that Ash Wednesday came from “the custom that prevailed in the ancient church, for penitents at this time to express their humiliation by lying in sackcloth and ashes.” By wearing coarse “sackcloth they ranked themselves, as it were, among the meanest and lowest condition of men. By the imposition of “ashes, and sometimes earth cast upon their heads, they made themselves lower than the lowest of the creatures of God, and put themselves in mind of their mortality, which would reduce them to dust and ashes.”

            The practice, according to its devotees, stemmed from the Early Church. Riddoch argued that the practice was not merely a reminder concerning mortality but also of the consequences of unrepentant sin. “The discipline of the primitive church at the beginning of Lent,” said Riddoch, was to “put to open penance…those who after baptism fell into any great and notorious sins.”  Those who were penitent were admitted to penance, and to the prayers of the church for their reconciliation with God.” Those who continued in their sins and “were refractory sinners,” or who committed “crimes of a deep dye…were excommunicated, and not admitted to reconciliation with the church.” But, nonetheless, “after a long and tedious course of penance, after the most public testimonies of sorrow and repentance, and the greatest signs of humiliation that can be imagined,” sinners could still be forgiven. “For Tertullian tells us, They lay in sackcloth and ashes; they disfigured their bodies with a neglected uncleanness, and dejected their minds with grief; they used no other food but what was necessary to keep up life.” These pitiful penitents “frequently nourished their prayers with rigorous fasting; they groaned, they wept to the Lord their God day and night; they fell down at the feet of the presbyters, they kneeled to the friends of God.” They begged “all their fellow Christians to pray for them.” These public severities “they willingly submitted to, as tokens of their sorrow, and evidences of their reformation, and thought themselves happy upon any terms to be admitted to the peace of God and the church.”

            Pre-Tractarian observation of Ash Wednesday in the Church of England appears to have been tied to the tripartite recognition of mortality, the wages of sin, and the depths from which God can nonetheless forgive sinners. It is worth noting that the services most likely did not include a rite for the imposition of ashes, which was added in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Anglican church historians and liturgists will understandably debate Ash Wednesday’s place and associated rites in the Calendar for some time, but it seems worth noting that marking Ash Wednesday had a life in the Church of England before the Tractarian controversy, and that observation was not connected to explicitly Roman theological commitments. [1])


1 Riddoch, A Companion for Ash Wednesday (London: J. Pratchard, 1809

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