It is commonly claimed that the practice of praying to departed saints and to angels is a late development in Christianity, probably post-dating the Council of Nicea. In this post, I will try to argue that prayers to departed saints were relatively common in the pre-Nicene Church. There are 5 to 8 clear post-Apostolic references from at least 3 locations. Some of the references come from official Christian teachers. The earliest reference may be first or second century, and many of the second and third century writers’ beliefs probably reflect the customs of even earlier times.
Below are three lists of quotations (with some interpretive notes) from Christians writing before 325 AD. The first list has quotations which state or imply the belief that angels and deceased humans can be requested by Christians alive on earth to pray for them. The second list has quotations which state or imply the belief that angels and deceased humans are aware of the prayers of Christians on earth, and join them mystically in prayer. Quotes in the third list are ambiguous but support the doctrine of communion with the departed in one way or another. I follow these lists with a brief analysis of the evidence and what it implies about the antiquity of the practice of praying to saints.
Let it be made clear that by “prayers” is meant any kind of request for action made by one person to another. It is uncontroversial that Christians can pray to saints in the following sense: a Christian can ask another Christian who is alive on earth to pray for him or her. What is more questionable is whether Christians can pray to saints in the following sense: pray to angels or Christians who have departed from earthly life and await resurrection. This latter sense is what I mean by “prayers to saints” for the rest of this article. For longer texts, or texts that are unclear in meaning, I have written the relevant portions in bold lettering. I realize that there are theological objections to this practice; there is also lots of popular-level apologetic material replying to many of these objections. Please read material that replies to these objections on the internet before offering these objections in the comment section.
1. Some prayers to Saints
I take the texts in the first category to show examples of this practice of prayers to Saints, or express approval of this practice (as in the case of Origen). Let us briefly review their content.
1.1 Hermas of Rome:
I prayed [to the Angel of Repentance, who is called the Shepherd] much that he would explain to me the similitude of the field…And he answered me again, saying, “Every one who is the servant of God, and has his Lord in his heart, asks of Him understanding, and receives it, and opens up every parable; and the words of the Lord become known to him which are spoken in parables. But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask Him. But you, having been strengthened by the holy Angel, and having obtained from Him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from Him?” I said to him, “Sir, having you with me, I am necessitated to ask questions of you, for you show me all things, and converse with me; but if I were to see or hear these things without you, I would then ask the Lord to explain them.”
The Shepherd of Hermas, 3.5.4
Rome, Date questionable; perhaps as early as AD 85-90, perhaps as late as AD 140-155 
Hermas writes about various visions he receives and commandments that are issued to him by “the angel of repentance” who appears to him in the form of a Shepherd.  This angel does not seem to be Christ, but rather a creature. Hermas says that he prayed to this angel, to help him understand the teachings he was being given. The angel of repentance speaks of how he has received intercession from an Angel that strengthens him. Schaff and Wade seem to think that this angel is Christ, capitalizing “Him” and “Angel”. Perhaps this is so. But regardless, Hermas does pray to the angel of repentance, showing that he prays to saints and believes that prayers to saints are legitimate. And if the second Angel is not Christ, but is simply the angel of repentance referring to himself, then we have a reference to an angel’s intercession to God on behalf of Hermas.
1.2 St. Hippolytus of Rome:
Tell me, you three boys, remember me, I entreat you, that I also may obtain the same lot of martyrdom with you, who was the fourth person with you who was walking in the midst of the furnace and who was hymning to God with you as from one mouth? Describe to us his form and beauty so that we also, seeing him in the flesh, may recognize him.
Commentary on Daniel, 30.1
Rome, Circa AD 202-211
St. Hippolytus makes a request of the three Holy Youths of the book of Daniel. He asks them to “remember” him. The object of this remembrance is that he may be martyred like they were thrown into the fire. These youths are deceased, and so St. Hippolytus is praying to saints.
1.3 Origen of Alexandria:
Now supplication and plea and thanksgiving may be offered to people without impropriety. Two of them, namely pleading and thanksgiving, might be offered not only to saints but to people alone in general, whereas supplication should be offered to saints alone, should there be found a Paul or a Peter, who may benefit us and make us worthy to attain authority for the forgiveness of sins.
On Prayer, 14.6 
Alexandria, Circa AD 253
In Origen’s discussion of prayer, he distinguishes the kind of prayer that should be offered to God alone, and the kind of prayer that should be offered to humans. Remember that prayer is any kind of “asking”. Among the prayers that can be offered to humans, the kind of prayer that should be offered to only saints (which could mean Christians alive on earth or Christians departed) is supplication, while the kinds of prayer that can be offered to all people (saints or not) are plea and thanksgiving. The context is ambiguous about whether Origen means by saints the living or the departed; he uses “saints” in both senses depending on context. Four factors contribute to the conclusion that he is talking about departed saints. First, he clearly teaches (see the Origen quote included in section 2 below) that departed saints can pray for us (though this point considered all by itself does not support the interpretation that these are departed saints). Second, he speaks as though it is difficult to find saints of the kind he is discussing, implying that it is not merely normal Christians he is talking about. Third, he mentions Peter and Paul as examples of the kind of difficult-to-find saints, and they are indeed deceased and lived a holy life, implying that it is Christians of the deceased and holy variety that are hard to find, but permissible to pray to. Fourth, he speaks of how these saints “may benefit us and make us worthy to attain authority for the forgiveness of sins.” This suggests that the power or authority that they make available is spiritual strength to overcome the power of sin: again, this could not just be a request made to any Christian. Perhaps this power for forgiveness could be a reference to absolution by a priest; but given the mention of Peter and Paul this is not likely.
1.4 3rd Century Papyrus:
As we sing to Father Son and Holy Spirit, may all the powers join with us to say Amen. To the only giver of all good things be power and praise. Amen.
Probably Egyptian, 3rd Century AD hymn 
The text in this papyrus may seem like a mere expression of praise to God with unimportant references to “angels”. But let us look more closely. The first sentence contains a request: “may…the powers…say”. This is indeed a prayer to the powers. And it is not merely a request that the heavenly powers be involved in praising God together with the Christians. It also involves a request to the heavenly powers to give the “Amen”, to say to God “may it be”. The request really amounts to asking the powers “please say to the Father, Son, and Spirit, that all of our sung prayers may be answered”. So it is a request for help addressed to the powers (which some would call “angels”).
1.5 John Ryland’s Papyrus:
Beneath your compassion
we take refuge, Theotokos.
Our petitions do not despise in time of trouble,
but from dangers ransom us,
Only Holy, Only Blessed
3rd Century Letter 
Egypt, Circa AD 250
This prayer to the Theotokos is very clear. It is a direct request that the Mother of God, who is among the saints with her Son, aid the troubled Christian.
1.6 Inscription on the Tomb of St. Sabina:
Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins
Funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s Tomb
Rome, Circa AD 300
1.7 Inscription on the Tomb of St. Sabina:
Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days
Funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s Tomb 
Rome, Circa AD 300
1.8 Another inscription from the catacombs in Rome:
Anatolius made this for his well-deserving son, who lived seven years, seven months, and twenty days. May thy spirit rest well in God. Pray for thy sister.
Funerary inscription 
Rome, Circa AD 325
These last three references may or may not be pre-Nicene. Frederick Edward Warren noted that they are difficult to date.  They all attest to belief that a Christian can ask prayers of a departed Christian, even if that other person is not canonically a saint.
2. Some Prayers with Saints:
Texts in the second category do not explicitly state or clearly imply that prayers to saints are permissible; but they do express the same worldview as the Christian writers who teach that such prayers are permissible (and perhaps they do imply that St. Clement and St. Cyprian thought praying to saints was permissible, if these authors had other assumptions in common with Christians who pray to saints).
2.1 St. Clement of Alexandria
In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]
Alexandria, AD 208
St. Clement reflects belief in the intercessory power of the angels and their presence with the Christian in prayer. Though there is no explicit teaching that Christians should pray to angels, or that angels pray for the Christian, one could argue that people who pray together pray for each other, and they often request the prayers of others.
2.2 Origen of Alexandria
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels… as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep”
On Prayer 11
Alexandria, AD 233
Origen believes that angels and departed saints pray for Christians. This quote helps demonstrate that Origen thought that prayers are made by Christians who have already departed, and that such people can be called “saints”.
2.3 St. Cyprian of Carthage
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy”
Carthage, AD 253
St. Cyprian’s teaching does not seem to be a request to departed saints, though it is a request to saints who will depart. It reflects the same belief as Hermas, St. Hippolytus, Origen, and other early writers: that departed Christians pray for us who are on earth. It also could mean that departed Christians have a continual awareness of what goes on with those on earth.
3. Ambiguous References:
If the definition of prayer is widened to include any kind of thanksgiving or acknowledgement of a person who is not presently embodied, then we can include all of the ambiguous texts below:
3.1 Inscription on a Catacomb:
Mayest thou live among the saints!
From a Roman Catacomb 
AD 268 or 269
Here is some kind of expression of acknowledgement and hope being made towards a deceased Christian. It does not clearly imply belief in the ability of a Christian to answer prayers, but it is an example of praying for the departed, and perhaps of addressing them and communicating with them. This practice of praying for departed Christians is at least as clear and widespread early on as the practice of praying to saints. I will examine it in a later post.
3.2 From the Apocryphal Acts of John
(27) The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of [John the Apostle] and went away…later John…went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what meanest thou by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of thy gods that is painted here? for I see that thou art still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is thou, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.
(28) And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: Thou mockest me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] thy Lord? how canst thou persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who hath imitated this my face, desireth to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss…
(29) …But this that thou hast now done is childish and imperfect: thou hast drawn a dead likeness of the dead.
The Apocryphal Acts of John, 27-29 
Circa AD 150
This text is spurious and heterodox. It probably is not a valuable source of historical information about the life of St. John the Theologian and Apostle. And it clearly has a Gnostic doctrinal bent, as evidenced in the talk of “fleshly image” and “dead likeness of the dead [body]” which does not reflect a Christian view of matter. But it is a response to and critique of the orthodoxy of its time. And it would be odd if the Gnostic polemicist wrote something that was in no way a response to orthodox practice. More likely, this is a criticism of an existing orthodox practice: the veneration of icons of departed saints. It clearly attests to belief in prayers to saints in the sense of thanksgiving for the departed; and arguably it attests to supplication too, because of the emphasis the “fleshly, non-spiritual Christian” Lycomedes places on St. John’s good guidance and benefits. If Lycomedes’ practice corresponds to a present-day (circa AD 150) “sarxist” (the opposite of Gnostic) then this character’s talk of St. John as a god-by-grace, a good guide, and one who benefits him could easily correspond to the “sarxist” practice of praying to the departed St. John, who is not alive at AD 150.
3.3 Inscription in a Church:
Under the holy place of M[ary?]
I wrote there the [names]
The image I adored
The Grotto of the Annunciation in Jerusalem 
Date highly uncertain; sometime between first and third centuries
This inscription is hard to decipher because the letters are worn. But from what little we can still translate, it again indicates at least a belief in the veneration of departed saints, because it reflects belief that there is a holy place where the image of a woman is adored; and given that the name begins with “M”, it is likely that woman is the Mother of God, Mary. It is not clear what names were written underneath St. Mary’s image. But the fact that a list of names was written under the holy place of St. Mary’s image suggests that here too we have supplication being made to the Theotokos on behalf of Christians on earth.
Scholarship has established that the practice of praying to saints was present in some circles of Judaism before and after the appearing of Christianity.  This creates a kind of precedent for the possibility that Christians would permit this practice. There is no time to look at any possible biblical basis for prayers to saints in this post, but perhaps some arguments can be made at a later time that Scripture permits such prayers and that there are examples of such prayers in both the Old and New Testaments.
Here it is necessary to consider the patristic witness and what kind of evidence it gives. For those who do not accept the inherent divine authority of the Church Fathers, the Fathers’ claims (and those of other early Christians) can still count as historical witness to what Christians believed during, before, or after their writings. The initial argument to be made in favor of a pre-Nicene practice of prayers to saints is very short and simple. We have examples of pre-Nicene Christians praying to saints; therefore it was probably permissible. But it is not enough to note this. Instead, their testimonies must be weighed and criticized carefully on five bases: the (a) quantity or number of testimonies, (b) the orthodoxy of the writers, (c) their position or office in the Church, (d) their antiquity, and (e) locations.
(a) Quantity. An obvious objection to the simple argument above is that the references are not numerous enough to warrant the conclusion that early Christians prayed to saints:
If all you have are 5-8 references to a practice, does that really prove that it was normal for Christians? There are so many other texts that do not refer to this practice.
In response, we must indeed grant 5-8 references do not conclusively prove that it was normal. But the sparseness of these numbers should not be grounds for dismissing the evidence, which might still make it probable that prayers to saints was a normal practice. Many Christian writings have been destroyed over the centuries. Many things Christians considered important were not written down until later times when it became easier to be a Christian. And the fact that this practice is not referred to in all texts is also not grounds for denying that it was normal. After all, not every writer would write about everything pertaining to Christian life and faith. And we do not assume that because St. Clement of Rome does not refer to St. Mary’s betrothal to Joseph that he therefore does not believe in it. Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. Furthermore, if we pick a doctrine like the eternal generation of the Son, the few handfuls of references to it in pre-Nicene Christianity, and the lack of objection to it, are considered adequate grounds for saying it is likely that the pre-Nicene Church believed it. And though the attestation of prayers to saints is not as numerous, we can apply the same criteria and say: why not think that it is somewhat likely that the pre-Nicene Church practiced prayers to saints?
(b) Orthodoxy. A second problem arises when we ask about the orthodoxy of the writers:
Not every opinion expressed by early Christians was genuinely Christian. Many of the authors mentioned above held questionable beliefs. Hermas’ Christology is quite suspect, appearing sometimes to identify the Logos and the Holy Spirit. St. Hippolytus was a schismatic. Origen, for all his piety, held to a highly-Platonized version of Christianity, which included believing in an eternal cycle of fall and redemption, as well as a questionable Christology that seems at different points Nicene, Nestorian, or Arian. St. Clement of Alexandria’s thought has Gnosticizing tendencies. St. Cyprian believed in the total invalidity of heretical baptisms. And of course with the many anonymous inscriptions and texts included, we cannot be sure that the writers were representing actual Christian teaching at the time. Perhaps all of these writers were heretics on this exact same point: they all thought prayers to saints were permissible.
By way of reply, there are not just a few, but many examples of Christians favorable to these practices. There are between 5 and 8 examples of Christians explicitly praying to saints documented above. There are no examples of orthodox Christians opposed to these practices. Even if not all of the writers are totally orthodox (by Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox standards) or if the orthodoxy of some is in doubt, the number of testimonies will outweigh questions about the detailed correctness of their faith. If all of those who prayed to saints held an heretical belief in common, then that might be grounds for thinking this belief led to the practice of prayers to saints. Then perhaps we would have reason to dismiss their testimony, and say that they all fabricated this practice based on their private heretical opinions. But such is not the case.
(c) Office. An objection based on the office or position of the witnesses can be voiced as follows:
Not all of the prayers to saints are known to be made by bishops or priests or deacons. The anonymous inscriptions might not be made by official teachers. We can hardly take these as representative sources of Christian teaching at the time if we do not know who said them.
In reply, the fact that we do have confirmation from bishops and presbyters shows that prayers to saints were considered permissible by at least some teachers. Also, though it would be suspicious if only the laypeople in one location were favorable to a practice, the fact that the practice is widespread (see below) makes it less-likely that this is an isolated lay-movement, transmitted by lay-theology. And we must also bear in mind the attitude that teachers had towards writings of non-teachers that expressed prayers to saints. For instance, St. Irenaeus did not refer to prayers to saints in his writings. But he did think that the book called the Shepherd of Hermas was Scripture. Hence he wrote:
Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, “First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence:” (book ii. sim. 1.) He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one.
This suggests that St. Irenaeus believed that the Shepherd’s doctrines were true (whether he believed absolutely all of them were true, or whether he accurately interpreted them all is another story). But if much of Hermas’ book is full of prayers to saints, and St. Irenaeus regarded that book as Scripture, then there must be some kind of presumption that St. Irenaeus believed that prayers to saints were permissible.
(d) Antiquity. Perhaps we can object to the argument that prayers to saints was a common practice by saying the references are not early enough:
Hermas may be early, but he is less-trustworthy. St. Hippolytus is later, writing in the third century. Origen is not very trustworthy, and he is writing later. The papyri are mid-to-late third century and early fourth. This could be an instance of the gradual corruption of Christianity, admitting more and more of paganism as it became acclimated to its surrounding culture.
The earliest datable example of a prayer to saints we have is from Hermas, whether we pick the earlier (85-90) or the later date (140-155). That means we have at least one reference probably from before 155. An advantage to the witness of St. Hippolytus is that he is liturgically hyper-conservative; this makes it much more likely that his prayer to the Three Holy Youths reflects a practice that predates the writing of his commentary (202-211). Perhaps in the 190s, when he was about 20 years old, St. Hippolytus would begin to care about which practices were established and which were not. If so, he would be unlikely to adopt a practice that did not have some pedigree and at least an apparently reliable claim to apostolicity. So it is likely that here we have implicit attestation to the practice being older than 170. If St. Irenaeus approves of Hermas’ prayers to saints, then he is also an example of someone who approves of prayers to saints in AD 180 while he wrote Against Heresies. But again, it is likely that he believed in this before he wrote the text itself, which should put us back at least a decade by conservative estimates; so he gives attestation to permission of prayers to saints around 170 as well. Origen’s work in the early 200s likely does not reflect a new practice in Egypt, given that the practice was probably in place elsewhere. So let us be conservative in dating the practice and say that he believed in prayers to saints by 240. The papyrus from 250 could perhaps be pushed back another decade to 240 as well. The dates of the other texts are less-certain, but again, the origination of a practice generally precedes its first recorded incident. So by a conservative date for the origins of the practice, we have about five references to prayers to saints before 250. If we are more liberal and read the evidence charitably, then we should take Christians at their word when they speak of the Church as a conservative institution that preserved and did not create traditions, and if we grant that its teachers thought they could trace their doctrinal lineage back to the Apostles, then we should be inclined to grant that this practice was indeed Apostolic in origin. Regardless of how early we date these writings or their sources, for fairness sake we should think about how early the records of doctrines like eternal generation have to be in order for us to think they were taught by the pre-Nicene Church as part of Apostolic tradition. Applying this kind of standard makes it difficult to deny that prayers to saints were quite early.
(e) Location. Finally, let us consider the possibility that the locations of the sources are not widespread enough:
Much of the practice is concentrated in Rome—with Hermas and Hippolytus. And it is no surprise that we see the inscriptions to deceased Christians here too.
However, it is false to say that the evidence just reflects a Roman belief. St. Irenaeus, if we may include him, was located in present day Lyons, France. But he probably grew up in Asia Minor, based on the fact that he learned from St. Polycarp. We can combine this testimony with that of the Egyptians: Origen, St. Clement, and the papyrus. If we again grant that the Church was a conservative institution and was not making things up on a wide scale, then it is plausible that St. Irenaeus picked up belief in prayers to saints while still in Asia Minor.
We are left with at least three significant locations where several Christians (including some official teachers) believed in prayers to saints at a relatively early date, perhaps almost a century before Nicea. This may not prove to those with a Protestant mindset that the practice is Apostolic. Nor will it convince every listener that the prayers to saints were practiced “everywhere, at all times, by all”. But it does provide some evidence that the practice was quite widespread, quite early, and taught by some important Christians. If we abide by the same standards of evidence that we use for other doctrines (the eternal generation of the Son, baptism in the name of the Trinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit) then it is hard to deny that prayers to saints were common among early Christians.
 For a review of the dating controversy, see the Wikipedia page:
 The Commentary is available online for free here: http://www.chronicon.net/chroniconfiles/Hippolytus%20Commentary%20on%20Daniel%20by%20TC%20Schmidt.pdf
 Published in Oxy. Pap. 1786 along with the music it was sung to, and again in PO 18.507. The papyrus has a 3rd century mercantile account on the reverse side. The hymn must therefore have been in Egypt soon after the time of Athenagoras. Reference from the introduction to Athenagoras in Embassy for the Christians, The Resurrection of the Dead (Ancient Christian Writers, 23)
 Taken from John Ryland’s papyrus #470, referenced here: http://theoblogoumena.blogspot.com/2007/08/john-rylands-papyrus-470.html
 These two references taken from Catholic Answers: http://www.catholic.com/library/Intercession_of_the_Saints.asp
 Reference from The Liturgy and Ritual of the Ante-Nicene Church by Frederick Edward Warren available online here:
http://books.google.com/books?id=C4YRAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA154&dq=origen+prayers+to+saints&hl=en&ei=EbExTsL6A4bHsQLn9d3gCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=origen prayers to saints&f=false
 These three references taken from Catholic Answers: http://www.catholic.com/library/Intercession_of_the_Saints.asp
 Reference taken from The Liturgy and Ritual of the Ante-Nicene Church
 Text available at: http://www.gnosis.org/library/actjohn.htm. For discussion and analysis see pages 94-98 in Steven Bigham’s Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images.
 Quoted from Bigham, pg 100-102
 See the excellent essay “Prayers of Jews to Angels and Other Mediators in the First Centuries CE” available here:
Part of the book Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity, available here:
 See The Shepherd of Hermas 1.5 available here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.ii.ii.v.html