When people think of rosary beads, and the prayers associated with them, the Roman Catholic Church often comes to mind. Yet there are non-Catholic Christians, including some Protestants, that use prayer beads. Does the Presbyterian tradition encourage using rosaries?
Presbyterians don’t use rosaries. The historic teaching of the Presbyterian tradition strongly objects to the practice of praying to saints, including Mary. While the rosary includes reciting the Lord’s Prayer and a doxology, Presbyterians are convicted that there are other, more biblical ways, to pray.
How does Presbyterian teaching respond to the alleged benefits of using rosaries? What is it about the rosary prayers that Presbyterians reject? What do they believe about Mary? What Protestants use rosaries? Keep reading to learn more.
Also see Presbyterian vs Roman Catholic: What’s the Difference? to learn more.
Why Presbyterians don’t use rosaries
Prayer has always been a central feature of Presbyterian teaching. It is a core theological conviction of the tradition and Presbyterian pastors have taught and encouraged their congregations in the discipline for centuries. (Also see Can a Catholic Attend a Presbyterian Church?)
The French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), upon which the theology of Presbyterianism is based, taught that “prayer is the chief exercise of faith.” Yet even more important to Presbyterians is the Bible’s teaching on prayer, such as 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which reads “pray without ceasing” (ESV).
What are prayer beads? Prayer beads are small and circular, and often made of wood, ceramic or glass, and laced together on a string. In addition to Roman Catholicism, they are found in a variety of world religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.
The number of beads can vary, but 55 to 59 per string are traditional quantities. The beads are intended to serve as memory aids. As a person thumbs each bead, they are reminded of what prayers to say. (Also see Are Presbyterians Calvinists?)
What is the rosary? From the Latin word rosarium, the term “rosary” literally means “rose garden.” Some Catholics explain the term by saying that the prayer beads are like a “garden of prayers.” The rosary typical includes reciting the Lord’s Prayer, several Hail Mary prayers, and a doxology.
Key term | The Lord’s Prayer: The phrase “the Lord’s Prayer” refers to the instructions Christ gave to his disciples on the matter of prayer, as recorded in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. In some traditions, its called the “Pater Noster,” which means “Our Father,” and refers to the first two words of the prayer, i.e. “Our Father who are in heaven…”
The Lord’s Prayer as it appears in Luke 11:2-4 (NKJV) reads,
So He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.”
What concerns Presbyterians about the rosary?
- The theology of Mary: Presbyterians’ most important objection to the rosary is the theology related to Mary. Presbyterians have a high view of Mary’s role in Jesus’ life, her humility, obedience, devotion, and much more. However, they don’t venerate her like Roman Catholicism teaches. Presbyterians believe it’s wrong to pray to her, or any other saint, who is no longer living on the Earth.
- Vain repetition: Interpretations of Jesus’ instruction to avoid “vain repetition” (KJV) or “babbling like pagans” (NIV) or “heap[ing] up empty phrases” (ESV) can vary slightly, but there is general agreement that the practice of the rosary violates this teaching. Presbyterians aren’t opposed to being persistent in prayer (e.g. 2 Cor. 12:8), but reject that idea that mindless, heartless repetition inclines God to a person or their petitions.
Key terms | Mariology / Mariolatry: The term “Mariology” refers to doctrine about Mary, especially in Roman Catholicism. An example is a doctrine called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which states that Mary didn’t die physically but ascended into heaven like Elijah. The term “Mariolatry” refers to the worship of Mary, which some Presbyterians accuse the Catholic church of doing.
Presbyterians don’t pray to saints
Like other Protestant Christians, Presbyterians respect followers of Christ who are no longer living on Earth. Their stories provide inspiration for living a life devoted to Christ, and their sermons, devotional writings, and Bible commentaries help them learn more about God and Scripture. But they don’t engage with them in prayer. (Also see How Often Do Presbyterians Take Communion?)
Key term | Saints: Presbyterians believe the term “saints” is synonymous with believers. They point out that in the New Testament the term refers to the Church as a whole (e.g. 2 Cor. 8:4). In the Catholic tradition, “saint” is a special designation that Church leaders bestow on a person who has lived a uniquely holy and devout life. Catholics exercise devotion to saints and prayer to them for help.
Though Presbyterians respect Mary, they don’t pray to her. Though they honor her, they don’t believe she is a mediator between believers and God.
Presbyterians don’t say the Hail Mary
The “Hail Mary” prayer states,
Hail, Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
The first line comes from Luke 1:28. The KJV translation closely reflects the content of the prayer. The angel Gabriel is speaking to Mary in the passage:
“And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women
The second line comes from Luke 1:42. The KJV translation closely reflects the content of the prayer. Elizabeth is speaking to Mary in the passage:
“And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
The third line of the prayer isn’t in the Bible. Presbyterians argue that it’s unbiblical to call Mary the “Mother of God” and ask her to pray to God on behalf of people. Prayer, according to historic Presbyterian teaching, should be modeled after the Bible’s instructions.
The Church — even its leaders — may not import or impose additional or alternative doctrine on believers. The third line of the Hail Mary crosses a theological line to Presbyterians and other Protestants. (Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?)
Key term | Marian devotion: The term “Marian Devotion” describes the practice of revering Mary, especially in relation to Roman Catholic belief and practice. Catholicism teaches that Mary is the “Mother of God” and has a type of maternal oversight over the Church.
Non-Catholics who use prayer beads
Roman Catholicism isn’t the only historic branch of the Christian faith that uses prayer beads. These beads aren’t necessarily “rosary” beads because the theology of the petitions is different. Others include:
- Eastern Orthodoxy: Often called a “prayer rope,” the memory aid traditionally has 33 knots to reflect the years of life that Christ had on Earth. Some Eastern Orthodox call the prayer rope “the sword of Spirit” because prayer to God defeats the devil’s schemes.
- Lutheranism: A small number of Lutherans use rosary beads, but they don’t say the Hail Mary prayer. For example, the “Wreath of Christ” is the product of the Swedish Lutheran Church. It has 18 beads called “pearls” as well as a crucifix. (Also see Presbyterian vs Lutheran: What’s the Difference?)
- Anglicanism: Some Anglicans use rosaries for practical purposes (i.e. as memory aids), but don’t pray to saints no longer living on the Earth or to Mary. An example of the kind of prayers Anglicans say is called the “Cruciforms,” which describes the shape of a Christian cross:
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon me (us).
The Presbyterian and Methodist traditions have been two of the most prominent branches of Protestant Christianity over the last 500 years. Each has a strong tradition of biblical preaching,...