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What’s the difference between All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day?

By Nathan Costa, Assistant Director of Music & Liturgist

Don’t forget to join us for two special online services for All Souls’ on November 1: an All Souls’ Congregational Evensong service at 5 PM and My Redeemer Liveth: Remembering the Victims of COVID-19 at 7 PM

All Saints Day and All Souls Day fall on successive days in the church calendar, November 1 and 2, respectively: why, what’s the difference between them, and how did they get that way? 

 

What is a “saint”?: An early historical overview

All Saints Day is quite literally a feast of all the saints, those known by their public life to the Church and those known only to God. In Scripture and in the early church, the “saints” refer to the baptized: in his letters the apostle Paul writes to the “holy ones” (hagioi, the same Greek word as “saints”) of various cities, the baptized Christians of the early churches founded throughout the Mediterranean. This designation fulfills God’s promise to the Hebrew people for what it means to be God’s own: “You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20: 26 and elsewhere). In a 4th century commentary to the newly baptized on the Apostles’ Creed—the statement of faith they professed at baptism—Nicetas, bishop of Remesiana (in present-day Serbia), explains the “communion of the saints” as the fullness of Christ’s body, past, present, and future, to which the newly baptized have joined:

What is the church but the congregation of all saints? From the beginning of the world patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and all other righteous people who have lived, or who are now alive, or who shall live in time to come, comprise the church, since they have been sanctified by one faith and manner of life, and sealed by one Spirit, and so made of one body, of which Christ is declared to be the head, as the Scripture says. … So you believe that in this church you will attain to the communion of saints.

At other times and places in the early church, “saints” referred to martyrs who followed the discipleship and example of Christ to death, and local communities, particularly during times of Christian persecution, held up these individuals who died for their faith as examples of exceptional holiness and the reality of Christian sacrifice. Following the “legalization” of Christianity and during the growth of the church — and thus fewer martyrs — bishops, confessors, ascetics, virgins, and other “imitators of Christ” came to be understood as saints for professing heroic virtue and a seemingly squeaky-clean perfection. Through an increasingly specified process, saints began to be “canonized,” written into the law of the wider church both for wider recognition of their lives of holiness and for validation of what had earlier been more localized remembrances. As recognition of saints grew in the growing church, the definition of “holiness” narrowed. 

 

All Saints’ Day

While individual saints were commemorated on their death dates, the dates of their martyrdom or their “birthdays” into heaven, the first celebration of multiple saints comes from  Eastern churches.. One from the 4th century shows a feast of all martyrs on Easter Friday; the date testifies to martyrs’ new life following Christ in their suffering, death, resurrection. A later 4th century homily refers to a celebration of all martyrs on the Sunday after Pentecost. In this post-Pentecost celebration saints are truly the fruit of the Spirit, what the Spirit had wrought in men and women throughout time. Orthodox Churches later broadened this celebration to encompass all saints and continue to celebrate All Saints Day on this date. 

In the western church a celebration of communal saints first appears on May 13 in 609 or 610 to celebrate the handover of the Pantheon in Rome from the Roman emperor to the pope and its transference from a pagan temple to “all gods” (pan + theos) to a church “of Mary and all the martyrs.” The statues of the Roman gods in the high niches of the Pantheon were to be replaced with images of martyrs and, perhaps by this time bishops, confessors, and other saints. We see a similar broadening of sainthood beyond martyrdom in an early 8th century dedication of a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to celebrate masses of “Christ and his Mother, holy apostles, all holy martyrs and confessors, all the perfect and just at rest in the whole world.” While no date is associated with this celebration, it recognizes all saints and all those who have died. 

The ultimate dating of All Saints Day to November 1 probably is of Gallican (French) origin and was only later adopted in Rome likely to accommodate the large number of pilgrims for the feast with a bountiful fall harvest. The Gallican date may also be a reworking of an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, an ancestor to today’s Halloween, associated with harvest, and originally celebrating the new year and the first day of winter — the time at which the souls of the dead of the previous year were said to gain access to the next world. Barriers between the world of the living and of the dead were opened, and spirits of the dead wandered en route to their new world, guided by bonfires and sustained by special foods and dressing-up as these spirits to commune and interact with them. With the dating of November 1 for All Saints (or “All Hallows”), the Church perhaps offered an alternate way of celebrating this day and an alternate vision of life after death: less wandering spirits of a netherworld, saints offer the example and companionship of a life of faith, a testimony to the workings of the Spirit and the mercy of God, and the the promise of resurrection.

 

All Souls’ Day

As the understanding of holiness narrowed from the sainthood of the baptized to heroic virtue, there emerged a desire to remember the number of ordinary Christians departed from this life who did not reach recognized heights of holiness. The Feast of All Souls was first set as November 2 in 998 by the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Cluny in present-day France in a directive to his congregations to commemorate all the faithful departed and to elicit prayers for their purgation from sin and suffering and for their ultimate entrance into the presence of God. This memorial was gradually adopted by other communities and dioceses throughout the middle ages. 

Many Protestant reformers rejected the theology associated with purgatory along with the saying of masses for the dead for the admittance into heaven. All Souls Day thus fell off many reformed calendars, and English reformers integrated it with All Saints. Not until the late 19th century Anglo-Catholic movement was it revived and then ultimately restored as a Commemoration of all the Faithful in the 1979 BCP. 

 

All Saints and All Souls

All Saints Day then is a celebration of holiness, the working of the Holy Spirit bearing fruit in human beings throughout the world and throughout time. It is a remembrance of all the saints — the known and unknown, the canonized and the “blessed nobodies,” the deceased and the living, who serve as our companions and models in the journey of faith and in the body of Christ. Even more broadly, the working of the Spirit knows no confessional boundaries, and we can recognize holiness found in all people. 

All Souls is a commemoration of the dead. It’s a funeral liturgy — based still in the hope and promise of the resurrection, but a mass or office for the dead, a communal commemoration of those who have died. It allows time for collective remembrance, sorrow, and hope during a time of year at least in the northern hemisphere when the natural world is dying and taking its winter rest. 

Those souls we remember who have died are indeed among our saints, and we the saints on earth will join as souls in heaven, and as such these holy days are distinct celebrations yet one in the fullness of holiness and in the communal banquet of heaven and earth. As William How writes in his hymn,

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!


This piece is adapted from:

Costa, Nathan. “For All the Saints”: A Feast for All People and All Time” in Worship, November 2007, vol. 81, no. 6, 482-507.

 

For more reading:

  • Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Cunningham, Lawrence S. A Brief History of Saints. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005.
  • A Great Cloud of Witnesses. Church Publishing, 2016. 
  • Johnson, Elizabeth A. Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints. New York: Continuum, 1998.
  • Woodward, Kenneth L. Making Saints. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
  • Forsthoefel, Thomas. Soulsong: Seeking Holiness, Coming Home. Orbis, 2006.