Protestant sainthood

August 9, 2010

We Protestants need more saints. The Roman Catholics have more than
10,000 canonized saints. By my count, we Protestants have as few as

I don’t mean “saint” in the Pauline sense, a term that
includes all of the people of God. Rather, I think we need more saints,
those particular individuals of faith about whom the church says, “Pay
attention to these lives. Take inspiration from them. Try, as you are
able, to follow their example.”

The author of Hebrews was writing
to a small band of new Christians who were suffering persecution and
feeling isolated in their struggles. In the great 11th chapter, he
points to various people in salvation history who were able to face
every manner of challenge and hardship because they had faith. The
author says, in essence, “You are not alone in this. Look to Abraham.
Look to Moses. Look to David and Samuel and others so that you, too,
might rise to the challenges that face you through faith.”

such examples of faith can be both instructive and inspiring. It is
through saints that we can see faithfulness embodied. We see what it
looks like in a human life.

I envy the Roman Catholics their
saints because they have many people of history to whom they can point.
To be sure, there are some who are rather quirky (St. Neot did his daily
devotions while neck deep in a well and thus became the patron saint of
fish) and others whose qualifications for sainthood seem rather thin
(the chief accomplishment of Simeon of Stylites seems to have been
sitting on a pillar for decades at a time), but the sheer variety of
saints in the Roman Catholic tradition stretches the imagination to
encompass the multitude of ways one can serve God and manifest the Holy

Sometimes it seems we Protestants have only a small
handful of people to point to, those whose lives reflect God’s glory.
Their names—Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson
Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—are invoked with numbing regularity,
whenever the preacher needs an illustration of faithfulness. Of course
these individuals are great examples of faith. They are saints, to be

But when their names are invoked so often, and other
examples drawn upon so seldom, it does not stretch the imagination but
rather constricts it. My hunch is that people in congregations have quit
listening to what is said about these great individuals—either they've
heard it too often or the heroism of these lives is so rare that no
congregant can hope to reflect anything like it in his own life. Let’s
give these saints at least a rest and recognize some others, so that the
gospel in all of its dimensions can be heard more fully again.

Additional lectionary
columns by Copenhaver appear in the August 10 issue of the
Century—click here to subscribe.


Sally said... Yes! I read

Sally said...

Yes! I read once that Florence Nightingale would have been made a saint if she had been Catholic instead of Protestant. She did amazing things! I know there are many more, and people of our own age as well.

Rochelle Stackhouse said...

Rochelle Stackhouse said...

I very much agree, Martin. Can you suggest some names beyond those repeated so often? I can name local saints, but what about others known well in public domain?

Eric Funston said... The

Eric Funston said...

The Episcopal Church (and other churches within the Anglican communion) have regular commemorations of several more than five "saints". I suggest you get the current book of "lesser feasts" published in the Episcopal Church entitled "Holy Women, Holy Men" which includes commemorative collects, suggested biblical readings, and brief biographies of over 300 exemplary Christians.

barb janes said... Check

barb janes said...

Check out the website of San Fransisco's St Gregory of Nissa - they have a great number of saints listed, including Sojourner Truth, John Coltraine, and many other. Most are Americans, but all are thought-provoking.
barb in Winnipeg, Canada

CRB said... Or you might

CRB said...

Or you might simply use the propers for the Saint Mary: Mother of Our Lord from the Book of Common Prayer. The feast day is this Sunday, 15 August, although moved to the 16th as it does not take precedence over Sunday. Certainly, Mary is the Saint of Saints and what better example of a woman whose life reflected God's Glory.

Michael Hare said... I

Michael Hare said...

I once did a review of FOR ALL THE SAINTS, a book published by the Anglican Church of Canada, listing the folk that they commemorated. In that review I attempted to make a case for a similar commemoration of the saints in the Reformed tradition. I think that the Uniting Church of Australia has a Calendar of Commemorations in their service book.
Michael Hare

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