Puritans at Prayer



AMONG the faults, which have largely disappeared from prayer-meetings as they used to be conducted in my early days, these were the principal ones.

First, the excessive length of the prayers.

A brother would fix himself against the table-pew, and pray for twenty minutes or half-an-hour, and then conclude by asking forgiveness for his shortcomings,—a petition which was hardly sanctioned by those who had undergone the penance of endeavouring to join in his long-winded discourse. A good cure for this evil is for the minister judiciously to admonish the brother to study brevity; and if this avail not, to jog his elbow when the people are getting weary. This fault, which is the ruin of all fervency, ought to be extirpated by all means, even at the expense of the personal feelings of the offender.

Cant phrases were another evil.

“We would not rush into Thy presence as the unthinking (!) horse into the battle.” As if horses ever did think, and as if it were not better to exhibit the spirit and energy of the horse rather than the sluggishness and stupidity of the ass. As the verse from which we imagine this fine sentence to be derived has more to do with sinning than with praying, we are glad that the phrase is on its last legs. “Go from heart to heart as oil from vessel to vessel.” This is probably a quotation from the nursery romance of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” but as destitute of sense, Scripture, and poetry as ever sentence could be conceived to be. We are not aware that oil runs from one vessel to another in any very mysterious or wonderful manner; it is true it is rather slow in coming out, and is therefore an apt symbol of some people’s earnestness; but surely it would be better to have the grace direct from Heaven than to have it out of another vessel,—a Popish idea which the metaphor seems to insinuate, if indeed it has any meaning at all.

A very favorite description of the suppliant was, “Thy poor unworthy dust,”

An epithet generally applied to themselves by the proudest men in the congregation, and not seldom by the most monied and grovelling, in which case the last two words are not so very inappropriate. We have heard of a good man who, in pleading for his children and grandchildren, was so completely beclouded in the blinding influence of this expression, that he exclaimed, “O Lord, save Thy dust, and Thy dust’s dust, and Thy dust’s dust’s dust!” When Abraham said, “I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes,” the utterance was forcible and deeply expressive; but in its misquoted, perverted, and abused form, the sooner it is consigned to its own element, the better. Very many other perversions of Scripture, uncouth similes, and ridiculous metaphors, will recall themselves to the reader; we have neither time nor patience to recapitulate them; they are a sort of spiritual slang, the offspring of unholy ignorance, unmanly imitation, or graceless hypocrisy; they are at once a dishonour to those who constantly repeat them, and an intolerable nuisance to those whose ears are jaded with them. They have had the most baneful effects upon our prayer-meetings, and we rejoice to assist in bringing them to their deserved and ignoble end.

Another evil was, mistaking preaching for prayer.

The friends who were reputed to be “gifted” indulged themselves in public prayer with a review of their own experience, a recapitulation of their creed, an occasional running commentary upon a chapter or Psalm, or even a criticism upon the Pastor and his sermons. It was too often quite forgotten that the brother was addressing the Divine Majesty, before whose wisdom a display of our knowledge is impertinence, and before whose glory an attempt at swelling words and pompous periods is little short of profanity; the harangue was evidently intended for man rather than God, and on some occasions did not contain a single petition from beginning to end. We hope that good men are leaving this unhallowed practice, and are beginning to see that sermons and doctrinal disquisitions are miserable substitutes for earnest wrestling prayers, when our place is before the mercy-seat, and our engagement is intercession with the Most High.

Monotonous repetition frequently occurred, and is not yet extinct.

Christian men, who object to forms of prayer, will nevertheless use the same words, the same sentences, the identical address at the commencement, and the exact ascriptions at the conclusion. We have known some brethren’s prayers by heart, so that we could calculate within a few seconds when they would conclude. Now this cometh of evil. All that can be said against the prayers of the Church of England, which were many of them composed by eminent Christians, and are, some of them, as beautiful as they are Scriptural, must apply with tenfold force to those dreary compositions which have little virtue left, since their extempore character is clearly disproved.

Oh, for warm hearts, burning with red-hot desires which make a channel from the lip in glowing words; then, indeed, this complaint would never be made,—“What is the use of my going to the prayer-meeting, when I know all that will be said if So-and-so is called on?” This is not an uncommon excuse for staying away; and, really while flesh is weak, it is not so very unreasonable a plea; we have heard far worse apologies for greater offences. If our (so-called) “praying men” drive the people away by their constant repetitions, one-half at least of the fault lies at their door.

Most of these diseases, we trust, are finding their cure;

But the man would be hardy, not to say foolhardy, who should affirm that there is now no room for further improvement. “Advance” must still be our motto, and in the matter of the prayer-meeting it will be found most suitable.

Our brethren will excuse our offering them advice, and must take it only for what it is worth; but having to superintend a large church, and to conduct a prayer-meeting which scarcely ever numbers less than from a thousand to twelve hundred attendants, we will simply give our own notions as to the most efficient method of promoting and sustaining these holy gatherings.

1. Let the minister himself set a very high value upon this means of grace.

Let him frequently speak of it as being dear to his own heart; and let him prove his words by throwing all his vigour into it, being absent as seldom as possible, and doing all in his power to give an interest to the meeting. If our pastors set the ill example of coming in late, of frequently staying away, or conducting the engagements in a drowsy, formal way, we shall soon see our people despising the exercise, and forsaking the assembling of themselves together. A warm-hearted address of ten minutes, with a few lively words interposed between the prayers, will do much, with God’s blessing, to foster a love for the prayer-meeting.

2. Let the brethren labour after brevity.

If each person will offer the petition most laid upon his heart by the Holy Spirit, and then make room for another, the evening will be far more profitable, and the prayers incomparably more fervent than if each brother ran round the whole circle of petition without dwelling upon any one point. Compare the subjects of prayer to so many nails; it will be better for a petitioner to drive one nail home with repeated blows, than to deal one ineffectual tap to them one after another. Let as many as possible take part in the utterance of the church’s desires; the change of voice will prevent weariness, and the variety of subjects will excite attention. Better to have six pleading earnestly, than two drowsily; far better for the whole meeting that the many wants should be represented experimentally by many intercessors, than formally by two or three.

As a general rule, meetings in which no prayer exceeds ten minutes, and the most are under five, will exhibit the most fervour and life; in fact, length is a deathblow to earnestness, and brevity is an assistant to zeal. When we have had ten prayers in the hour, varied with the singing of single verses, we have far oftener been in the Spirit, than when only four persons have engaged in supplication. This is an observation confirmed by the opinion of our fellow-worshippers; it might not hold good in all cases, but it is so with us, and therefore we thus witness.

3. Persuade all the brethren to pray aloud.

If the younger and less-instructed members shrink from the privilege, tell them they are not to speak to man, but to God. Assure them that it does us all good to hear their groans and ineffectual attempts at utterance. For our own part, a few breakdowns generally come very sweetly home; and, awakening our sympathies, constrain us to aid the brother by our more earnest wrestlings. It gives a reality and life to the whole matter, to hear those trembling lips utter thanks for new life just received, and to hear that choking voice confessing the sin from which it has just escaped. The cries of the lambs must mingle with the bleating of the sheep, or the flock will lack much of its natural music.

As Mr. Beecher well says, “Humble prayers, timid prayers, half-inaudible prayers, the utterances of uncultured lips, may cut a poor figure as lecture-room literature; but are they to be scornfully disdained? If a child may not talk at all till it can speak fluent English, will it ever learn to speak well? There should be a process of education going on continually, by which all the members of the church shall be able to contribute of their experiences and gifts; and in such a course of development, the first hesitating, stumbling, ungrammatical prayer of a confused Christian may be worth more to the church than the best prayer of the most eloquent pastor.”

Every man, feeling that he is to take part in the meeting at some time or other, will become at once interested, and from interest may advance to love. Some of those who have now the best gifts of utterance, had few enough when they began.

4. Encourage the attendants to send in special requests for prayer as often as they feel constrained to do so.

These little scraps of paper, in themselves most truly prayers, may be used as kindling to the fire in the whole assembly.

5. Suffer neither hymn, nor chapter, nor address, to supplant prayer.

We remember hearing seven verses of a hymn, ending with “He hates to put away,” until we lost all relish for the service, and have hardly been reconciled to the hymn ever since. Remember that we meet for prayer, and let it be prayer; and, oh, that it may be that genuine, familiar converse with God which shall drive out the formality and pomposity which so much mar our public supplications!

6. It is not at all amiss to let two or even three competent brethren succeed each other without a pause,

But this must be done judiciously; and if one of the three should become prolix, let the pause come in as soon as he has finished. Sing only one verse, or at the most two, between the prayers, and let those be such as shall not distract the mind from the subject by being alien from the spirit of the meeting. Why need to sing about the temptations of Satan just after an earnest prayer for the conversion of sinners; and when a brother has just had joyous fellowship with Christ in intercession, why drag him down by singing, “ ’Tis a point I long to know”?

Of course, we ought to have said all manner of good things about the necessity of the Holy Spirit; but upon that matter we are all agreed, knowing right well that all must be in vain without His presence. Our object has rather been to gather out the stones from the way than to speak of that Divine life which alone can enable us to run therein.

C. H. Spurgeon, Only a Prayer Meeting: Forty Addresses at Metropolitan Tabernacle and Other Prayer-Meetings

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