No Ashes to Ashes: An Anglican History of Ash Wednesday

No Ashes to Ashes: An Anglican History of Ash Wednesday

This history [of Ash Wednesday] 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.

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5]

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.”[6] 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…[7]

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  1. Bruce Gordon, Zwingli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 107–108. 
  2. Martin Luther, Luther’s works, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann (Fortress Press), 90. 
  3. Thomas Cranmer, “Letter 281, To Boner,” in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, (London: Parker Society 1846), 417. 
  4. 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.” 
  5. Thomas Cranmner, “Answer to the 15 Articles of the Devonshire Men” in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer (London: Parker Society 1846), 176. 
  6. John Grant, “Gods deliverance of man by prayer and mans thankefulnesse to God in prayses,” Early English Books Online, accessed February 20th 2023. 
  7. Thomas Comber, “The Occasional Offices, 1679,” reprinted in A Companion to the Temple vol. 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1841), 504. 
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