Ash Wednesday is upon us and most people who conduct services on the day also practice the ritual imposition of ashes as a part of the liturgy. This custom is nearly (though not entirely) universal among Anglicans, is very widely practiced among Lutherans, and is becoming more and more common among Presbyterians and other evangelical bodies. Because of this relatively rapid consensus, it is easy to assume that the ritual and the day stand or fall together. To observe Ash Wednesday simply is to impose ashes upon the congregation, we assume. It is also easy to assume that this has always been the Anglican practice.
But the actual history tells another story. To the great surprise of many, the Protestant use of ashes for Ash Wednesday services is a modern phenomenon. The Reformers discontinued the use of ashes in the liturgy, and they would not again become a normal fixture of Protestant liturgies until the late 20th century.
The goal of this essay is to lay out the historical record of Ash Wednesday among Anglicans in both England and North America. It does not intend to render a judgment about the permissibility or prudence of using ashes today. Instead, the greater need is simply to recover the actual history of the church, a history which has been dramatically obscured in a relatively short amount of time. Seeing what was the case will better help us understand what the “Anglican tradition” actually is. Perhaps it will also help us to understand how and why it made its judgments and reforms.
The Earlier History of Ashes
The use of ashes was indeed known in communal demonstrations of humiliation in the ancient world. We see this, for example, in the Old Testament itself, as people sit in or cover themselves with ashes as a symbol of mourning and repentance (Esth. 4:1, 3; Job 2:8, 42:6; Dan. 9:3; Jon. 3:6). No doubt inherited, at least thematically, from the Jewish practice seen in the Old Testament, the ceremonial use of ashes in the Christian church does not arise until much later. We have early fragmentary evidence of the use of ashes for penitential rites, as well as various sorts of consecrations with ashes, but their more normative and uniform use at the beginning of Lent, cannot be documented until after AD 1050. Though this must have had a gradual prior development, it is nonetheless limited to the Western churches. “Ash Wednesday” services, as we know them, were not typically practiced in the East. Pope Urban II standardized them in 1091.
The Protestant Reformation
This use of ashes would continue in the West for four hundred more years until the Protestant Reformation. Within the first decade of that disruption, however, ashes began to be discarded by both the Reformed and Lutheran churches. Bruce Gordon notes that Zwingli did away with the common Lenten accoutrements and accessory rituals in 1524. Luther too, in his 1526 The German Mass and Order of Service, explains that while the fasts and feasts of “Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained,” that “this, however, does not include the Lenten veil, throwing of palms, veiling of pictures, and whatever else there is of such tomfoolery.” Ashes are not explicitly mentioned here but would have historically been connected to the palms. Luther sees them as an unnecessary frivolity.
In England, the Reformation would be a bit slower in developing. In 1542, the pro-Reformation theologian Thomas Becon still endorsed the imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service. Five years later, however, Thomas Cranmer ordered the practice to cease. This date is important because the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer had not yet been released. In fact, the imposition of ashes is not included in any Book of Common Prayer until the American 1979 BCP. Instead, the Book of Common Prayer had the Commination Service, explained in more detail here.
The Anglican Tradition
Due to its wide-sweeping changes and reforms, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was met with fierce resistance in some parts of England, resulting in a flurry of apologetical works defending these changes. In a 1548 sermon, Hugh Latimer denounced the liturgical use of ashes, along with other supposed Roman abuses. Latimer believed that these ceremonials were too bound up in deadly misunderstandings of the sufficiency of Christ’s own sacrifice. He says, “of these things, every one hath taken away some part of Christ’s sanctification; every one hath robbed some part of Christ’s passion and cross, and hath mingled Christ’s death, and hath been made to be propitiatory and satisfactory, and to put away sin.” Cranmer says much the same thing in his 1549 “Answer to the 15 Articles of the Devonshire Men.” He sees the use of ashes, along with other accretions, as an illegitimate human ordinance:
The water of baptism, and the holy bread and wine of the holy communion, none other person did ordain, but Christ himself. The other, that is called holy bread, holy water, holy ashes, holy palms, and all other like ceremonies ordained the bishops of Rome; adversaries to Christ, and therefore rightly called antichrist. And Christ ordained his bread, and his wine, and his water, to our great comfort, to instruct us and teach us what things we have only by him. But antichrist on the other side hath set up his superstitions, under the name of holiness, to none other intent, but as the devil seeketh all means to draw us from Christ, so doth antichrist advance his holy superstitions, to the intent that we should take him in the stead of Christ, and believe that we have by him such things as we have only by Christ; that is to say, spiritual food, remission of our sins, and salvation.
After the Roman Catholic interval under Mary, the Elizabethan settlement largely returned the English church to its condition under Edward VI. There were certain discontinuities, of course, but ashes were not one of them. Preaching to King James on Ash Wednesday in 1619, Lancelot Andrewes says that there “was wont to be a ceremonie of giving ashes this day,” but that it is “gone.” While one might attempt to say that Andrewes is reminiscing longingly, he does not argue that the ceremony of ashes be brought back but rather that its “substance” be recovered, by which he means true conversion. On the eve of the Civil War, in 1642, conformist minister John Grant can still ridicule the use of ashes as “a mock fast in a bulrushed Popishness or Pharisaicall disfiguredness.” After the restoration, the respected Prayer Book commentator Thomas Comber also condemns them. Explaining the preface to the Commination Service, Comber contrasts the medieval ceremony against that discipline of the ancient church commended by the Prayer Book:
I confess in latter ages, during the corruption of the Roman church, this godly discipline degenerated into a formal and customary confession upon Ash-Wednesday used by all persons; to which, when the substance of true repentance was gone, at last they added the empty ceremony of sprinkling ashes on the heads of all that were present, whether penitents or no, which our church wholly laid aside as a mere shadow, and laments that the long continuance of the Roman maladministration among us in this nation…
As one moves into the long 18th century, Anglican writers describe the use of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service as a long-gone artifact of history. Robert Nelson’s hugely popular A Companion for the Feasts and Fasts of the Church of England was originally published in 1704. It would remain in publication for over a century. In it, he discusses Ash Wednesday and the Commination Service, even creating a sort of catechism to teach about the day. He mentions that the imposition of ashes was an ancient custom and no longer a part of the Anglican liturgy. Then he asks, “Are we obliged to use the same testimonies of our inward grief as it was expressed in ancient times?” His answer is “I think not.” He says that we should, instead, use “other signs proper to the custom of mourners in our days.” He suggests, “by forbearing our usual meals, by abstaining from all manner of pleasure, by neglecting the adorning our bodies, by retiring from company, by laying aside business, and by bewailing our loss.” After these things, he then adds a thorough investigation of our hearts and true repentance.
Ashes continue to be remarked upon as absent in John Brand’s 1777 expansion of the work of Henry Bourne, titled Observations on Popular Antiquities. It too was reprinted many times, and by 1841 it had gained another author, Henry Ellis. Still, ashes had not made a reappearance in the Church of England’s liturgy. The same is true in the United States. In 1859, a Protestant critic of the Book of Common Prayer, writing under the pseudonym Augustine Bede, asks, “But as you have discarded this expressive and affecting ceremony, why do you still retain the name to which it gave rise?” It is also worth noting that the first American Prayer Book in 1789 eliminated the special Commination Service for Ash Wednesday altogether. It only re-appeared in an abbreviated version in 1892. The Americans did not have more ceremony compared to the older English Book of Common Prayer, but less.
Early 20th century Prayer Book commentaries can still discuss Ash Wednesday with no mention of ashes being used in the Anglican liturgy. Neil and Willoughby’s 1913 The Tutorial Prayer Book notes that the ashes were abolished in 1548, and it makes no comment about their present use. In 1950, Massey Shepherd published the Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary. All he has to say about the use of ashes is that the Reformers discontinued them. There surely must have been Episcopal parishes using ashes in their Ash Wednesday by 1950, but Shepherd does not mention this because it would not have been permitted by the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. In England, even as late as 1961, H. W. Dobson can say, “Though the ashes have gone, repentance and forgiveness remain.”
Return to Ashes
So if the imposition of ashes was still uncommon and unofficial in the 1950s and 60s, how did it find its way into the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and then later the 1986 English Alternative Service Book? The answer initially seems to be a long march of nonconformity on the part of Anglo-Catholic and ritualist ministers and parishes. Nigel Yates points to the case of John Purchas, a minister at St. James, Brighton in 1868. Purchas brought in a great many new rituals, including “blessed candles at Candlemas and imposed ashes on Ash Wednesday.” This caused a great controversy, and ecclesiastical charges were brought. After a few rounds of partial judgments and defiant non-responses by Purchas, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled that all of the innovations were illegal. Purchas was eventually deposed. Clerical opinion about this dramatic resolution seems to have been mixed, but the new ritual elements would still be considered fringe for some time. Notably, the celebrated ritualist writer Percy Dearmer does not discuss the imposition of ashes in the 1899 edition of his The Parson’s Handbook; however, by 1907 he is willing to suggest in a footnote, “The ceremony of the taking of ashes might well be revived, where it is allowed. It is a touching and simple rite, and is certainly ‘neither dark nor dumb’.” Evidently, the controversy had sufficiently cooled during those years.
Still, ashes do not make their way into any official Prayer Books at this time. Instead, they begin showing up in various “alternative” liturgical manuals. The Christian’s Manual in 1898 includes a ritual for the imposition of ashes, as do the 1919 “Exeter Books,” published by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. The 1921 Anglican Missal and the 1931 American Missal both do as well. It is also important to note what these ash ceremonies involved, as they are significantly different from the contemporary practice. In the Anglican Missal, there is a prayer for blessing the ashes which says, “…bless and sanctify these ashes, that they may be a wholesome medicine to all them that humbly call upon Thy holy name…grant to all them that call upon thy holy Name, that being sprinkled with these ashes for the remission of their sins, they may be preserved evermore.” This prayer implies that the ashes were “sprinkled” upon the heads of the recipients and that the ashes possess something akin to a sacramental instrumentality. As such, this sort of practice was far from the mainstream. Neither the 1979 nor the 2019 America editions of the Book of Common Prayer contain this sort of prayer, and neither give this explanation for the ashes. So while it may be tempting to see the re-emergence of ashes as the triumph of advanced Anglo-Catholic ritual, a better answer is still elsewhere.
The more “mainstream” explanation for the return of ashes can be found in the developments of the middle of the 20th century, particularly in the “Prayer Book Studies” of The Standing Liturgical Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. In 1957, the proposal for a new Penitential Office is still very modest. No ashes are present. But by 1976, there they are, and then three years later, they appear in the new American Book of Common Prayer. Even here, however, they are presented as an option rather than a prescription. This context does not reflect the simple triumph of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. Instead these changes are more immediately caused by the ecumenical liturgical movement sparked by the second Vatican Council. This is likely also why Lutheran churches begin to introduce the imposition of ashes, along with other rites and ornaments, at this same time or shortly thereafter. The use of ashes today is a post-Vatican II consensus of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and more recent adherents to liturgical renewal.
At present, the practice of the imposition of ashes as a part of the Ash Wednesday service is extremely widespread. Among Anglicans in North America, it is certainly the norm. It would be far easier to count those parishes that do not practice it rather than those who do. This is true even among ecclesiastical groups with a “low church” and Evangelical heritages. But this is a tradition with a surprisingly short pedigree. Owing neither to the “Caroline divines” or the “Old High Churchmen,” the imposition of ashes represents a twentieth century development.
This history can teach us several things, but chiefly it highlights how traditions can be invented and re-invented—and how quickly and thoroughly this can happen. Certainly most laymen assume that the use of ashes is an ancient and unbroken custom, and many a church website advertises it as such. One suspects the situation is not too different among the clergy. In point of fact, the practice is fairly new. Of course, telling the proper story about ashes does not by itself determine what the practice of any diocese or parish should be today. The relationship between past and present is a frequently recurring question in the Anglican tradition. Still, any decision about practice and identity will need to first accurately know and understand that past tradition.
Bruce Gordon, Zwingli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 107–108. ↑
Martin Luther, Luther’s works, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann (Fortress Press), 90. ↑
Thomas Cranmer, “Letter 281, To Boner,” in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, (London: Parker Society 1846), 417. ↑
Hugh Latimer, “A Sermon of the Reverend Father Master Hugh Latimer, Preached in the Shrouds at St. Paul’s Church in London, on the Eighteenth Day of January, Anno 1548.” ↑
Thomas Cranmner, “Answer to the 15 Articles of the Devonshire Men” in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer (London: Parker Society 1846), 176. ↑
John Grant, “Gods deliverance of man by prayer and mans thankefulnesse to God in prayses,” Early English Books Online, accessed February 20th 2023. ↑
Thomas Comber, “The Occasional Offices, 1679,” reprinted in A Companion to the Temple vol. 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1841), 504. ↑
Robert Nelson, A Companion for the Feasts and Fasts of the Church of England, ed. Rivington, Nunn, Clarke, etc. (1826), 360 ↑
John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities (London: J. Johnson, 1777), 235. ↑
- John Brand and Henry Ellis, Observations on Popular Antiquities vol. 1 (London: Charles Knight & Co, 1841), 53. ↑
Letters to an Episcopalian on the Origin, History, and Doctrine of the Book of Common-Prayer (London: Kelly, Hedian, & Piet, 1859), 225. ↑
The Tutorial Prayer Book: For the Teacher, the Student, and the General Reader, ed. Charles Neil and J.M. Willoughby, (London: The Harrison Trust, 1913), 164. ↑
Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), 124. ↑
H.W. Dobson, The Christian Year (London: Macmillan Co., 1961), 82. ↑
Nigel Yates, Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain: 1830-1910 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 218. ↑
Percy Dearmer, The Parson’s Handbook (London: Henry Frowde, 1907), 511. ↑
The Anglican Missal (London: The London Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1921), A111. ↑