Henry Percival, an Anglican church historian who accepts the theological correctness of the practice of praying to the saints for intercession, has put together one of the best florigeliums on the topic. He argues in favor of the pervasiveness of the doctrine by the fourth century and that this implies its existence long before this point. In his words:
I beg the reader to notice that these Fathers which have just been quoted represent every part of the then world. Nazianzen, Nyssen, Chrysostom, and Basil at Constantinople and in Asia Minor, Ambrose at Milan, Augustine on the African coast, Victricius at Rouen in France. Is it possible that all these should have at the same time invented a new practice, and taught it to the people, and yet that there should not be the least intimation on their parts that there was anything unusual in their teaching?
And what, perhaps, is still more remarkable, no one was found to enter a protest, so far as we have any record, either in the East or West; and the one man that came the nearest to doing so, Vigilantius, was looked upon by the whole Church as a heretic for his denial of what was considered a doctrine of the faith.
…Now we must most carefully remember the exceedingly conservative character of all the Fathers of the fourth century. It was the time of the Council of Nice and the years immediately succeeding it, and I think I cannot better set forth the unlikeliness of all these Fathers having simultaneously adopted and taught an unheard-of practice. (Percival, Invocation of the Saints, p. 169-170, 177)
As follows is his own florilegium on the topic, revised in chronological order. My comments are in between:
Eusebius of Caesarea (circ. 260-339) quotes with approval the words of Plato, and adds : —
“And truly these remarks are very applicable to the deaths of the illustrious servants of God, whom you rightly call the soldiers of true religion. For we are accustomed to glorify their sepulchres, there to offer prayers and vows, and to venerate their blessed souls; and we declare that we are right in doing these things.” (Ibid., p. 163; Praparaiio Evang., lib. xiii. cap. ii. [Migne, Pair. Grac, tom, xxi, col. 1095.])
The existence of this reference, along second and third century attestations including one from Saint Hippolytus and another (probable) prayer to the Theotokos by Saint Melito of Sardis, makes exceedingly clear that the practice of praying to the saints was mainstream at so early a date. Eusebius, himself at odds with the veneration of Christian art, takes for granted that everyone, everywhere, venerates the saints consistent with the latria-dulia distinction. Though writing around the turn of the fourth century, his experiences are solidified in the third century and his impressions consistent with the view the practice of venerating the saints was ubiquitous in the early third century at least. Due to there being several pre-Nicene attestations to the practice, the practice being found in third-fourth century Jewish sources, a passing reference to it in 2 Macc 15:14 before the time of Christ, and there being not a single source against the practice, one cannot help but conclude that the consensus originated from Judaism and was continued universally among early Christians.
St. Ambrose (A.D. 374-397) writes as follows : —
“Angels are to be entreated (obsecrandi) who were given to us as a guard; martyrs are to be entreated, whose patronage we seem to claim for ourselves by the pledge of their bodies. They can ask for our sins who washed whatever sins they had with their own blood. For they are God’s martyrs, our presiders, the surveyors of our life and actions. Let us not be ashamed to employ them as intercessors for our infirmity, who knew the infirmity of the body even when they overcame.” (Ibid., p. 156; Dt Viduisy cap. ix. 55. [Migne, Pat. Lot., torn. xvi. 264.])
Similar to veneration of the saints was the veneration of the angels. The practice almost certainly originates from Judaism and is attested to both 1 Enoch 9:3, rabbinic sources in the early fourth century, and even Qumran. Saint Macarius the Great in the fourth century penned a prayer to a guardian angel. Even Saint John Chrysostom may be making reference to the practice when he states that “we pray, asking for the Angel of peace.” The practice was evidently universal between east and west, Christianity and Judaism.
Yet, there is a canon against invoking (i.e. praying) to angels from the Synod of Laodicea. (Canon 35) Col 2:18 likewise warns against the “worship of angels.” Whether this was a widespread practice that the Church originally rejected or that due to it being widespread, it often devolved into syncretism and wrong usages (which were condemned even by those who accepted the veneration of angels), let the reader decide.
St Basil the Great…bears the same witness: —
“Whosoever is in any strait flies unto the forty, whosoever is joyful betakes himself to them: the former, to find escape from his troubles; the, latter, that his prosperity may be preserved. Thus a pious woman is found praying for her children, asking a return for her husband when absent, health for him when sick. Let your prayers be with martyrs.” (Ibid., p. 159; St. Basil, Hom. in xl. Mart., Greek version)
The Greek rendering is more vague, as the Latin version makes clearer that “let your prayers be with martyrs” to pertain specifically to invocations. Nevertheless, the invocation of the martyrs is the simplest interpretation.
[St Gregory Nazianzen concerning Saint Justina:] “Rehearsing these things and more besides, and supplicating Mary the Virgin to succour a virgin [Justina] in peril, she defends herself with the medicine of fasting and of sleeping on the ground.” (Ibid., p. 174; In laudem S. Cypriani, Orat. Xxiv. [Migne, Pat, Grac, tom. Xxxv. 1178])
This may be the fifth or sixth oldest recorded prayer to the Theotokos after that of Saint Melito, the Gospel of Bartholomew,* the Sub Tum Praesidium, the Grotto of Jersualem, and the Anaphoras of Coptic Basil. *This prayer, a peculiar one to the Theotokos’ womb, is not found in all the manuscripts. Its peculiar nature may explain why it was omitted.
St Gregory Nyssen (circ. 335—395)…addresses St. Theodore thus: —
“Intercede for thy country to our Common King and Lord. The greatest dangers surround us. . . Warrior, fight for us! Martyr, intercede with courage in favour of your compatriots, since you know in the other world the pains and needs of men. Obtain for us peace, that our holy assemblies be no more disturbed. . . We pray you not to deprive us of your protection. If there is needed a still stronger prayer, assemble the company of martyrs, your brethren, and pray with them, all together. The prayer of many just ones covers the people’s sins.” (Ibid., p. 164; Orat. de S. Theodoro. [Migne, Pat. Grac, tom. xlvi. col. 746, 747])
The aforementioned source is that of a weighty authority and includes the intricate notion that praying to a saint has the added benefit of acquiring the prayers of additional saints.
St. Asterius of Amasea, who flourished at the end of the fourth century, wrote as follows: —
“Thus fathers or mothers will take a sick child in their arms, neglecting medicine and physicians, and fly to an assistance unknown to art; and, coming to one of the martyrs, will prefer their prayer to the Lord through him — thus addressing their mediator: Thou, who hast suffered for Christ, intercede for this suffering and disease. Thou who hast power (iraftfavla) with God, use thy intercession for thy fellow-servants. For although thou hast left this life, at least thou knowest the sufferings of humanity. Thou, too, hast invoked the martyrs, before thou wast a martyr. Seeking, thou hast then received; and now that thou hast, bestow upon us. By thy blood may we be healed, as the world is by that of Christ’ Another, about to be married, invokes the blessings of the martyrs on his nuptial chamber. No one undertaking a voyage sets sail before he has invoked the Lord of the sea through the martyrs.”
The aforementioned source makes reference to prayers of the saints being ubiquitous, specifically within the context of travel. This makes sense considering how thoroughly dangerous travel was.
St Paulinus of Nola (circ. 354*-431) thus addresses St Felix: —
“O Father, O Lord, listen to thy unworthy servants. . . .Make the paths through the waters easy, drive away the obstacles placed in our way, and give us a happy voyage…Under thy leadership I have crossed the seas, I have felt thy protection, overcoming by the power of Christ the angry waters, and I go always in safety through thy succour, whether on land or by sea.” (Ibid., p. 165; Poema xii., De S. Felice, vers. 10, 26, et seqq and v. 14 [Migne, Pat. Lat, torn, lxi., 463-464])
This source literally contains two references to the ubiquitous practice of praying to the saints before undergoing significant travels. *I corrected the dating from Percival, which had an obvious typo.
St Jerome tells us was the custom of the whole Catholic Church in his time. He asks —
“Do we, every time that we enter the basilicas of the apostles and the prophets, as well as of all the martyrs, pay homage (veneramur) to the shrines of idols? Are the tapers which burn before their tombs only the tokens of idolatry? ” (“Ep.,” cix., 1). (Ibid., p. 138)
The preceding quotation is important because Jerome (342-420) details that “every time” someone enters a basilica it is dedicated to some apostle, prophet, or martyr and some shrine (likely built over the Old Testament prophet’s or whomever’s relic) is venerated. Candles are lit, identical to the Orthodox practice today, before their tombs.
St. Asterius of Amasea, who flourished at the end of the fourth century, wrote as follows: —
“For as our prayers are not sufficient to propitiate God in a time of necessity and distress, we fly for succour to those of our fellow-servants who are beloved of God, that they, by their own merits, may remedy our delinquencies. What fault, then, is there if we desire to please God by honouring the martyrs? What harm, if we fly for succour to them as our patrons?”
“Let us, then, pray to God, but let us also invoke the martyrs, that they would obtain from our common Lord, that the spirit of repentance may be granted to those who are captive to heretical pravity, that all dissensions being destroyed we may join together in fraternal unity in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory throughout all ages.” (Ibid., p. 156-157; Horm. in Sanct. Mart, [Migne, Patrol. Grac, vol. xl 314, et seqq.)
The importance of this passage is that it connects to the logic of Saint Amborse, who asserted that the merits of monastics helped their family members. (Ambrose, On Virginity, Book 1, Paragraph 32) This shows it was understood that the prayers of righteous people, whether living or dead, were more efficacious given their righteousness. (cf James 5:16)
St Chrysostum, the contemporary of St Basil, in his writing, ” On the Burning Pile of St. Drosis,” says — …
“You have no doubt felt much even towards these saints [SS. Bernice, Prosdoce, and Domnina] ; with this ardour, therefore, let us fall down before their relics, and embrace their shrines ; for the shrines of the martyrs can have much virtue, even as the bones of martyrs have great power. And not only on the day of this festival, but on other days also, let us approach them and invoke them and entreat them to become our patrons. For they have great power with God, not only when living, but now that they are dead: and much rather because they are dead; for they bear upon them the wounds of Christ, and when they show their wounds they can persuade anything to their king.” (Ibid., p. 161; Edit. Ben., tom. ii. 645)
Saint John Chrysostom is often misportrayed as some sort of minimalist saint without the “developments” of other thinkers from his era. Here, one can see he plainly affirmed the practice of praying to the saints.
St Victricius of Rouen, at the end of the fourth century…
“The martyrs, as I have said, are sometimes more brilliant than the sun. But now, beloved, we must pray and not talk rhetorically ; we must pray, I say, that all the assaults of the devil may be repelled, for he secretly endeavours to enter our hearts. Strengthen then, O ye saints, strengthen your worshippers, and fortify our hearts with the corner stone [i.e. Christ]. The enemy is dangerous and strong, he looks hard at all approaches and entrances. But nothing is to be feared, so great is the multitude of saints who assist us.” (Ibid., p. 168; Liber de Laude Sanctorum. [Migne, Pat. Lai. t torn, xx 455])
Victricius explains precisely how the prayers to the saints work. They bring spiritual strength to the petitioners through the power of God.
St Augustine’s testimony…from one of his sermons, in which he tells the following story of a mother whose child had died unbaptized: —
“The mother said: ‘Holy Martyr, thou seest I have no solace. Thou knowest why I mourn. Restore me my son, that I may have him in the presence of Him who crowned thee.’ The child revived, was baptized, and, all the sacraments now completed, was taken. . . . When, then, God wrought such a miracle through his martyr, could he not then [i.e. at Uzalis] cure these? (Ibid., p. 158; Serm. 324. [Gaume, torn. v. 1887.])
Due to Saint Augustine’s criticism in the Confessions of his mother’s (Saint Monica) method of venerating the martyrs, this has been confused with Augustine rejecting the practice. To the contrary, Augustine here speaking approvingly of it.
[Saint] Eucherius [of Lyon], who flourished at the end of the fourth century and in the first half of the fifth,
writes : —
“Doubtless more dear and grateful will it be to the blessed martyrs if they be worshipped with fervent affection where they suffered their bitter passion; if then, the sacrifices of prayer be offered to them where they fell a sacrifice to God; if their posterity offer vows to them where savage cruelty shed their blood.”(Ibid., p. 162; Hom, in SS. Epipod. and Alex. [Migne, Pat. Lot., I, 862.])
Here the prayers to and “worship” (i.e. veneration) of the saints are called by the moniker “sacrifice,” likely conveying the deeply religious aspect of the practice.
St. Basil, of Seleucia, who lived about the year 430, a in a sermon writes as follows : —
“How shall I dare to sound the virginal gulf, and search into the abyss of so great a mystery, unless thou, O Mother of God, wilt teach me, unskilful diver, to put off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and filling with thy mercy the mouth of my mind, enable me to penetrate the deep secret of thy Son’s truth, that by the light of thy mercy I may find in thee the pearl of truth? And do thou assist my conception, that, being taught by thee, I may be enabled to speak concerning thee, not indeed so as to explain the Incarnation which is impossible, ‘but that thou becamest a mother yet didst remain a virgin.’… Being bound together, therefore, in the bonds of charity, let us address to the Mother of God such words as these: O most holy Virgin I whosoever shall say all great and glorious things concerning thee will not err from the truth, but he will come short of thy merits. Do thou look down propitiously upon us from above, and peacefully direct us now upon earth ; and at the throne of judgment lead us forward full of confidence, and make us stand at the right hand of Christ.” (Ibid., p. 158-159; Combefis, Auctorium, tom. i. 570, et seq.)
This passage describes how one should pray to the Theotokos. It also makes reference to her merits, something that connects to why the prayers are efficacious.
St Cyril of Alexandria, who was born in 375, or thereabouts, and died in 444, says: —
“Hail, Mary, Mother of God, venerable treasure of the universe, inextinguishable lamp, crown of virginity, sceptre of orthodoxy, temple which cannot be destroyed, . . . through whom the Holy Trinity is glorified… Hail, Mary, Mother of God, through whom every faithful soul is saved! Hail, Mary, Mother of God, for through thee the waves of ocean have safely and peacefully carried our fellow-servants and brethren in the ministry [i.e. by her prayers].” (Ibid., p. 161-162; S. Cyril Opera [Migne, Pat. Grate., tom. Lxxvii, 1034])
One can surmise that a large reason Saint Cyril fought so hard for the Theotokos doctrine was because the term was used in prayers that must have been considered customary both east and west. This explains why Nestorius had to backtrack and repeatedly iterate he used the term “Theotokos.” (see Price and Graumann, The Council of Ephesus, 179, 181, 426)
The following quotation from Theodoret (circ. 386-457) clearly shows direct invocation…:–
“But the shrines of the martyrs, glorious in their victory, are grand, magnificent, and conspicuous in size, and manifoldly adorned, and sending forth flashes of beauty. And to these, not once or twice in the year, or even five times, do we go, but ofttimes we hold solemn assemblies, and often every day offer hymns to their Lord ; and they who are in health beg for the preservation of their health…beseeching them to be intercessors on their behalf…these things proclaim the power of those buried there; and their power shows that their God is the true God.” (Ibid., p. 166-168; Grac. Affect, Curat., lib. Viii., De Martyrbus. Translation by Bishop Forbes of Brechin, p. 414)
The preceding demonstrates that what Jerome wrote about earlier, as being ubiquitous in all churches, was not a rhetorical exaggeration but something that literally existed.
In conclusion, taking the preceding into account, it is no wonder Percival argued that not every aspect of the Reformation was to be followed and the few dissenting Protestant voices (Lutheran: Gerhard Molanus and Gottfrid Liebniz; Anglican: William Forbes, Charles Walker, Alexander Forbes, Canon Humble, and Harold Browne) that affirmed the practice of praying to the saints should be heeded. The historical witness of the practice is, to put it frankly, overwhelming.