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Renewing the Art of Holy Dying

By Calvin Lane

Dying as a middle-class American in the 21st-century West has become a rather sanitized experience, one removed from the everyday. Even with daily media reports about violence, the general pattern for death involves a gradual break from community and divestment from the social world. This is more a fading than a rupture.

In the premodern world there was a greater intimacy with death. Mortality rates, especially among young children and women in childbirth, were vastly higher, while disease often progressed to death rather than recovery. While there have been several shifts in Western culture that have given us the hospice phenomenon (which I quickly note is often a blessing), this brief reflection considers how Reformation movements in the 16th century altered perceptions of dying and death and what ministry to the dying looked like. Given our somewhat scattered sensibilities about how to minister to the dying and how to prepare for death, not just in the West generally but even within Anglicanism, perhaps such a reflection will prove an opportunity for ressourcement.

Pastoral care for the dying in the later Middle Ages featured a final confession, anointing, and the viaticum (final communion). This threefold combination of sacraments constituted last rites. Neighbors of the dying might spot their priest coming with the pyx, an assistant trailing behind ringing a bell. Such neighbors would fall to their knees to adore the eucharistic presence, but they also were recognizing the tearing of their community ¾ someone was dying, someone with whom they had shared life: the good, the bad, and all the messy shades of gray. And they would reflect likewise on their mortality.

Both before and after the 16th century, the hope of all Christians was for a good death: to die in the presence of family, to make good prayers, and to show some sign of peace and faith in the last hours and even moments. The hour of death in the Middle Ages was perceived as a time ripe for temptation. The dying might succumb to despair.

We have scores of late medieval images of the archetypical deathbed: demons tempt the dying man on one side while he is encouraged by saints on the other. The deathbed was the final testing ground determining his journey’s progression, either to hell or purgatory. The hope was for a short spell in purgatory, removing the dross of sin, and then on to the beatific vision in heaven. From hell, however, there was no escape. Abandoning hope during the final hour could, in medieval thinking, consign one to the inferno.

There was, then, a genre of literature that developed to help priests and literate layfolk in the art of dying, the ars moriendi. Such books presented suffering as a way of identifying with martyrs and saints, and there was discussion of how one can avoid despair. They came packaged of course with prayers for the dying and, most practical of all perhaps, illustrations showing the good death. What is fascinating is that, despite Protestants’ full-throated rejection of purgatory, this art of dying did not disappear in the 16th century. Rather, it evolved. Martin Luther’s Fourteen Consolations (1520; revised in 1535) is an obvious example.

In medieval Germany, there was a tradition of 14 guardian saints who struggled against certain ailments and disasters, and Luther took that as his starting point. He also agreed with the traditional assessment that suffering was a way God reveals his glory in our mortal weakness. Luther, however, rejected suffering as a path to improvement, building on an inner strength. The dying man, he argued, was in a perfect position to see with complete clarity that his only hope is in Christ. When all strength is gone, the dying man rests in the arms of a loving savior. In this respect, the Fourteen Consolations are not meant to help the dying improve their attitude, but to trust in God. Whether we agree with this shift or not, whether we prefer to see the sanctification of suffering, Luther’s perspective ought to be heard and considered with care.

Reformation-era Protestant pastors understood their ministry to be, above all else, one of exhortation to faith, and (to hazard a general picture) their care for the dying was no different. The 1541 Church Order of Geneva and Calvin’s liturgy (developed in the following year) stress that, at the critical hour, the pastor must offer the dying teaching and instruction. When Henry VIII met his end in 1547, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer did exactly that. Cranmer did not offer the dying king the threefold last rites, but rather asked the king if he had faith in Christ. Henry was then beyond speech, so he gripped the pastor/teacher’s hand to squeeze an affirmation.

For my part, as an Anglican priest I am impressed by this example of the centrality of faith in a merciful savior, yet I am grateful that Cranmer’s pastoral care for Henry did not become his model for the Book of Common Prayer, either in 1549 or 1552. While anointing disappeared in the 1552 book, both versions provided Communion for the sick. Martin Bucer, the Strasbourg reformer who influenced Cranmer between the two books, had retained Communion for the sick and dying and it was a prominent part of his reforms on the Continent.

Cranmer’s 1552 pattern may surprise us. It echoes medieval practice strongly. The 1552 prayer book (not just 1549) has the priest encourage the dying person to share in the sufferings of Christ. Luther may have shied away from such an act of imitation. Likewise, the prayer book provided the dying with the chance to confess their sins privately. (High churchmen in the 17th century would read this provision as allowing auricular confession on other occasions.) Further, in this second prayer book there was a pastoral mandate to the priest to remind his people of the immediacy of death. He was to encourage frequent reception of Holy Communion for the specific reason that one could easily die unexpectedly. The litany also captures this mindset with its prayers against sudden death, cautiously recounting to God fears ranging from plague to lightning.

Moreover, the Protestant mind did not abandon the inculcation of virtue. Among English Protestants, there developed a certain Reformed ars moriendi, and there is the unmistakable teaching that a good life is the right preparation for a good death. We can cite Thomas Becon’s Sick Man’s Salve (1561), Christopher Sutton’s Disce Mori (1600), and Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying (1651). Still other materials emerged that challenged earlier 16th-century Protestant thinking about dying. Lancelot Andrewes prepared a manual to help clergy visiting deathbeds. Perhaps most striking, John Cosin, the Restoration-era Bishop of Durham who had such a substantial role in developing the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, departed from earlier Protestant orthodoxies by writing a prayer for the dead.

While further shifts were to come, changes that led to our current perceptions of what counts for a good death and how one goes about ministering to the dying, it may be helpful to think and reflect prayerfully on these changes and the resources that emerged in the era of reform.

How might we encourage faith and trust in Christ in the final hour? How might we minister to bodies we believe will rise again? How might we convey the mercy of God to those whose strength is gone?

Also, how we might connect holy living with holy dying? How do the common and everyday aspects of life provide opportunities to submit both our weaknesses and our strengths, our gifts and our finitude, to the God who raised Jesus from the tomb?

This seems all the more important, again, as we are increasingly scattered in our thinking about death, not just culturally in the West but even within Anglicanism.

For further reading:

  • See my Spirituality & Reform: Christianity in the West, ca. 1000-1800 (Lexington/Fortress, 2018);
  • Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford University Press, 2002);
  • Jane Strohl, “Luther’s Fourteen Consolations,” in Timothy Wengert, ed., The Pastoral Luther (Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 310-24;
  • Austria Rennis, Reforming the Art of Dying: The Ars Moriendi in the German Reformation, 1519-1528 (Ashgate, 2007);
  • Brian Brewer, Martin Luther and the Seven Sacraments (Baker, 2017);
  • Elsie McKee, John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (Paulist, 2001);
  • Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (Yale University Press, 1996);
  • Hannah Cleugh, “‘At the hour of our death’: Praying for the Dying in Post-Reformation England,” in Dying, Death, Burial, and Commemoration in Reformation Europe, ed. Elizabeth Tingle and Jonathan Willis (Routledge, 2015), pp. 49-66;
  • Scott Hendrix, ed., Early Protestant Spirituality (Paulist, 2009);
  • Ronald Rittgers, The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Harvard University Press, 2004).


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