As the Christian Church began to spread across the earth in the years following Pentecost, various functions and offices came into being. There were people to preach, teach, and to celebrate the Sacraments--to carry out the Ministry of the Word of God.
By the third century (200-300 AD) the organization of the church was already well developed. Besides the office of Bishop, Presbyter [Elder] and Deacon, other functions were added. Among the "minor orders" developed to assist the minister were: Porters, who had charge of the doors and admitted the faithful to worship; Lectors, [Readers] who assisted in reading the scriptures; Exorcists, who cast out demons and cured people of mental and spiritual ills; Subdeacons, who helped the deacons in their duties; and Acolytes, who were assigned to assist the bishop in many ways and to help the clergy during worship services.
The word Acolyte comes from the Greek word, "to follow, to accompany, to escort." Thus an acolyte is an attendant, a follower, a helper.
In the year 251 AD, when Cornelius, the Bishop of Rome, sent a letter to Bishop Fabius of Antioch, he said that at that time there were forty-two acolytes in Rome.
Acolytes, being attendants to the pastors and being helpers at worship, very likely had the duties of helping the Baptismal candidates get ready for Holy Baptism, preparing the water for the Sacrament, cleansing the Baptismal Font, and overseeing the necessary changes of clothing following the administration of Holy Baptism.
At the Service of Holy Communion, in order to provide light for reading, the acolyte would carry a lighted candle and draw near to the deacon, elder, or lector who read the Holy Scripture.
At the conclusion of Holy Communion the acolytes carried the consecrated bread to the various churches in the city, symbolizing the unity of the Body of Christ.
Perhaps the most famous acolyte in history is Tarsicus. In 258 AD, the Roman Emperor, Valerian, issued a decree that bishops and priests were to sacrifice to the Roman gods and to the Emperor and that Christians were forbidden to assemble or to use their cemeteries for the burial of their dead. The penalty for violation of the edict was death. Tarsicus was carrying the consecrated bread in his linen bag from one of the Christian catacombs to the churches in the city itself. While on the way, he was stopped by a band of soldiers who wanted to see what he was concealing beneath his clothes. Tarsicus refused to show them the sacred bread and was beaten to death on the spot.
Frequently the acolytes were the ones who carried the consecrated bread to the confessors of Christ who were in prison--a very dangerous job, because it immediately identified them as Christians also!
During the Middle Ages the order of acolyte was firmly established. They were the helpers of the bishops and other clergy. They were responsible for carrying lighted candles for the use of the officiating clergy in the dim light of the churches and cathedrals. They also received the offerings of the people, brought the bread and wine to the minister at the proper time in the service for consecration, and continued their responsibility of taking the consecrated bread to outlying churches.
During the Reformation, the action which most people associate with the role of acolyte, lighting the candles on the altar, came into being.
Why Do We Have Acolytes?
Today acolytes continue their traditional role in the Church. They assist the pastor in leading the worship of the congregation. They help to set the tone of the service, participate in worship and prayers of the congregation, and are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure the smooth conduct of the service.
Acolytes perform a number of duties in assisting the pastor and congregation as a worshiping community.
On Festival Sundays the crucifer, acolytes, and Bible-bearer lead the procession to begin worship.
Candles represent the Light of Christ spreading throughout the world. The acolytes continue one of their historical functions in the church as they prepare to light the altar candles.
Adapted from A History of Acolytes by Pastor Belvin Brummett, St. Peter Lutheran Church, Bowie, Texas.
Acolyte Manual currently under revision.