And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
~ Matthew 6:5-7
These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage.
~ Jude 1:16
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
~ Luke 18:11
They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly.
~ Psalm 17:10
For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error.
~ 2 Peter 2:18
The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight.
And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
~ James 5:15-16
But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
~ James 4:6
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
~ James 4:3
Frequent Faults of Public Prayer, by Samuel Miller. The following contains Chapter Four of his work, “Thoughts On Public Prayer”. Published in 1849.
Frequent Faults of Public Prayer.
In all the exercises of the pulpit, mannerism is apt, on all sides, to creep in; that is, certain favourite thoughts, illustrations, or modes of expression are apt to obtrude themselves more frequently than occasion demands, or than good taste allows. Such thoughts or expressions may become, if often repeated, highly offensive to pious and cultivated worshippers. This is more especially the case, if they be repugnant to either good grammar or good sense. These are of various kinds, and have, of course, very different degrees of offensiveness. It is the province of good sense and of good taste to avoid them. And it is surely incumbent upon all who are called to officiate in the service in question, to be unceasingly on the watch to guard against every thing adapted to inflict pain, or interfere with the edification of a single mind.
It is far from being my aim to encourage that spirit of excessive refinement, that fastidious intolerance of minor blemishes in the devotions of the sanctuary which is sometimes manifested by those who care much more about the taste of the external ceremonies, than about the life and power of religion. I would earnestly deprecate the indulgence of such a spirit in the house of God. It ought to be as much as possible banished from our public assemblies. Still, while we caution serious minds against being too much revolted even by real blemishes in the mode of conducting public devotion, we ought not to hide from ourselves that they are blemishes, which it is far better to avoid than to defend.
The faults which I have in view are as various as they are multiplied. I shall merely specify a few; others will readily occur to enlightened observers.
I. In the first place, a very common fault is the over frequent recurrence of favourite words, and set forms of expression, however unexceptionable in themselves. Among these are the constant repetition in every sentence or two, of the names and titles of
God; the perpetual recurrence of the modes of expression, ‘ O God!—great God!—our heavenly Father!—holy Father!’—’ we pray thee’—’we beseech thee’—”we entreat thee to grant,’ &c., or the excessive use of the interjection Oh! prefixed to almost every sentence. With many, these appear to be mere expletives; with others, they seem to furnish a kind of resting place for the mind, to afford an opportunity for reflecting on what is to follow; and hence they have been called the ‘setting poles’ of preaching and prayer. In all they fill up a space which might be better occupied by coming directly to the object itself prayed for. Besides, this incessant repetition of particular words or phrases, renders them cheap, and, after a time, not merely superfluous, but disgusting-—a feelings which ought to be as much as possible banished from every devotional exercise. Nay, there is something in this matter more serious still. If the constant repetition of the name of the Most High, even in prayer, be not ‘ taking the name of the Lord our God in vain,’ it certainly approaches very near to that sin. We are sometimes called to join in prayers in which that holy name occurs in almost every sentence from the beginning to the end.
II. Hesitation and apparent embarrassment in utterance, is another fault of very frequent occurrence, and a real blemish in the leader in public devotion. As all prayer is to be regarded as the utterance of the heart, so the suppliant ought to be supposed to be at no loss, to have no hesitation about the blessing which he solicits. When, therefore, he pauses, stumbles, recalls, or goes back to correct, he unavoidably gives pain to every fellow-worshipper, and always leaves the impression of a mind less intent, a heart less fervently engaged, than it ought to be. All stammering, then, all pauses, all recalling’ or exchanging of words, all want of proper fluency; in short, every thing adapted to impair, for a moment, the confidence of fellow-worshippers in the ability of him who leads, to get on with entire ease, comfort, and success, ought to be deemed real faults, and to be as much as possible avoided.
III. All ungrammatical expressions in prayer—all expressions foreign from English idiom, and bordering on the style of cant and whining, low and colloquial phrases, &c., ought, of course, to be regarded as blemishes, and to be carefully avoided. These are by no means so uncommon as might be supposed. Even educated men, by inadvertence, by strange habit, by various unaccountable means, are betrayed into faults of this kind, and are sometimes found to adhere to them with wonderful obstinacy. Of these there will be an attempt to give a small specimen only. It is no uncommon thing to hear ministers, who, in other respects, are entitled to the character of correct speakers, say, ‘ Grant to give us the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit;’ ”Grant to impart to us the consolations of thy grace;’ ‘ Come down in our midst’, “make one in our midst’, ‘lay us out for thyself;” ‘We commit us to thee;’ ‘We resign us into thy hands;’ ”Solemnize our minds.’ These, and many similar expressions, are among the minor instances, which too often occur, of forgetfulness of English idiom, and of strict grammatical rules. The more gross offences against both are passed over here, as too revolting to be recited, and as not to be corrected by cursory hints, but by a return to radical instruction. True, indeed, where there is much of the ‘ spirit of prayer,’ much of that faith and love and elevated devotion which belong to the ”fervent, effectual prayer of the righteous man,’ we ought not to indulge, as before remarked, in too much fastidiousness in regard to language. Yet, while it is admitted that the formality of carefully adjusted rhetoric ought to have no place in either secret or social prayer; while ‘ the enticing words of man’s wisdom ought not to be sought in the cry of sinners for pardoning mercy and sanctifying grace—still, he who undertakes to be the leader and helper of others in their devotions, ought to remember that he is a debtor to the wise, as well as the unwise, to the learned as well as the illiterate; that there are numbers in every congregation, who, though they have no taste for piety, have some claim to culture; and, therefore, that it is incumbent on him to be qualified to perform his work in such a manner as shall not be revolting to the most cultivated of those whose mouth he is at the throne of grace. In this, as well as in every other part of spiritual service, it is important to ‘ find out acceptable words.’ It is evident, from a passage in a former chapter, that in the days of the learned and pious Augustine there were some, who, in their public prayers, fell into barbarisms and solecisms, in regard to which the venerable Father cautions those to whom he wrote, against being offended at such expressions, because God does not regard the language employed so much as the state of the heart, and he, at the same time, exhorts those who fell into these faults, to employ the appropriate means, which he prescribes, for avoiding them in future.
IV. The want of regularity and order is a fault which frequently and greatly impairs the acceptable and edifying character of public prayers. All public prayer which bears the comprehensive character which belongs to that exercise, is made up of various departments; such as adoration, confession, thanksgiving, petition, and intercession. A public prayer which should be entirely destitute of any one of these departments, would be deemed essentially defective; and a prayer in which these several departments should all be so mixed up together throughout the whole as that they should all go on together in this state of confused mixture, from the beginning to the end, would, doubtless, be considered as very ill judged and untasteful in its structure; nay, as adapted essentially to interfere with the edification of intelligent worshippers. Not that the same order should always be maintained. This would be a serious fault of an opposite kind. It is the absence of all order that is here meant to be censured, and represented as a fault.
V. Descending or to too much minuteness of detail in particular departments of prayer, is another fault of unhappy influence in this part of the public service. As a well conducted public prayer ought to consist of many parts, so it is evident that the undue protraction of any one or more of these parts, must of necessity lead either to inordinate length in the whole exercise, or to the omission of other parts equally important. Not only so, but this minuteness of detail may be carried so far as to become revolting in itself to the mind of every intelligent worshipper. It is proper, no doubt, to return thanks to God for the fruits of the earth, especially on days set apart for public thanksgiving. But suppose The leader in such a service, instead of contenting himself with grateful general acknowledgments for the products of the soil, and a favourable and abundant harvest, furnishing food for man and beast, should think himself called upon to descend to such minuteness of detail as to specify by name all the various kinds of grain, and all the productions of the garden, the field and the meadow, specifying those which were deemed of most importance, and which had been yielded in the greatest abundance, would he be deemed wise and judicious? Would it not be much better to content himself with acknowledging the goodness of God in sending a fruitful season, and an abundant harvest, providing abundance of food for all who stood in need of it? In like manner, if a neighbourhood had been visited with severe and mortal sickness of various kinds, it surely would not be proper, in a prayer in which it was intended to acknowledge the righteous judgment of God in the case, and to humble ourselves under his mighty hand, to recount by name all the forms of disease which had proved distressing or fatal, referring to the various proportions in which they had respectively prevailed. It would be quite enough to speak in general of prevailing sickness and mortality, to acknowledge the hand of God in the dispensation, to pray for the sanctified use of all his dealings, and to implore his sustaining and consoling grace for all those families which he had been pleased to bereave. I have sometimes known the dignified and solemn nature of the exercise greatly impaired by descending to particulars to a degree bordering on the ludicrous, and by no means favourable to pure and elevated devotion. I once knew a minister who, in making a prayer at the funeral of an aged patriarch, who left a large family of children, went over, by name, all the sons and daughters of the family, alluding graphically to the character and situation of each, some being quite unfavourable. I also knew another, who, during our revolutionary war, in alluding, in a public prayer, to a sanguinary battle which had been recently fought, gave a detailed account of the killed and wounded on both sides, and all the leading of circumstances of the conflict.
VI. Closely connected with this fault in public prayer is another, of which we often hear serious complaint. It is that of excessive length. This is so common and so crying a fault that it ought to be mentioned with emphasis, and guarded against with special care. The state of the mind in right prayer is one of the most elevated and interesting in which it can be placed. Of course, such is the weakness of our faculties, and their tendency to flag, that an exercise of this fervent and exalted character ought not to be long continued. The leader himself cannot always keep up the full tide of spiritual feeling, for any length of time together; and even if he could, those who unite with him in worship may not be always equally successful. Hence, what is more common, in looking over our religious assemblies in time of prayer, than to see one half of the worshippers, after a short time, grow weary of the standing posture, and sitting down for relief? This may indeed be done, and often is done, without reason, and very improperly; but it is unhappy to furnish even a pretext for it. An ordinary prayer before sermon, ought not to exceed twelve, or at most fifteen minutes in length. All protraction of the exercise beyond that length does not help, but rather hinders devotion. Some allowance indeed, as to this point ought to be made for days of special prayer, either of thanksgiving, or of humiliation and fasting; for as prayer ought to form a larger element than common in the exercises of such days, so, of course, more time for it ought to be allowed; so that, on such occasions, several minutes more may with propriety be added to the devotional parts of the service. But, after all allowance for extra cases, the excessive length of public prayers still remains a crying grievance: and it appears impossible in some cases to make the offenders sensible of their fault. It is not meant by this that the leader in public prayer should pray by the clock; but that he should, by habit, which any thinking observant man may easily form, learn to guard against that inconsiderate tediousness which soon banishes all devotion. The celebrated Mr. Whitefield, after being greatly fatigued with preaching one evening, requested the father of the family in whose house he lodged, to conduct the domestic worship before retiring to rest. The pious gentleman protracted his family prayer so inordinately that Mr. Whitefield, in the midst of it, rose from his knees, sat in his chair and groaned audibly; and when it was ended, he took his friend by the hand, and said with strong feeling, ‘Brother, how can you allow yourself to indulge such tediousness in your domestic devotions? You prayed me into a delightful frame of mind, and you prayed me completely out of it again.’
VII. An abundant use of highly figurative language, is another blemish in pubHc prayer, of which we sometimes find examples. All studied refinement of language; all artificial structure of sentences; all affectation of the beauties of rhetoric, are out of place in the exercise of right prayer. Both evangelical solemnity, and good taste equally forbid them. Here many offend. Even the eloquent and evangelical Dr. Jay, of Bath, in England, in his published volume of prayers has not wholly avoided this fault. His devotional language in too many cases lacks the unaffected simplicity which ought to characterize it. It has too little of the language of Scripture. It is artificial, rhetorical, elaborate, abounding unduly in ordinnate and studied forms of speech, in point, antithesis and other rhetorical figures. This is often beautiful. Some greatly admire it and call it an eloquent prayer. But the fervent utterance of the heart is always simple. Here laboured rhetorical language is out of taste, and out of place. They are surely in great error, then, who seem to aim continually to clothe their petitions in public in high sounding language, with elaborate ingenuity; who are constantly recurring to language drawn from, the thunder, the earthquake, the ocean, the splendour of the solar beams, the mighty flood, the lofty mountain, &c., &c. I once knew an eloquent and eminently popular preacher, who seemed to aim at concentrating in his prayers all the bold, high-sounding, sublime thoughts and figures which he could collect from the natural and moral worlds; so that he seemed to be ever upon a kind of descriptive stilts, and exerting himself to exhibit on every subject this rhetorical grandeur. He succeeded in gaining the admiration of multitudes, but was not equally acceptable to the more simple-hearted and devout of those to when he ministered.
I have even known some preachers, not unfrequently, in public prayer to quote lines of poetry, and in a few cases, the greater part of a striking, beautiful stanza. To be very fond of making such quotations in sermons, is not in the best taste; but to do it in prayer, is certainly a much graver offence against the dictates of sound judgment.
VIII. It is a serious fault in public prayer to introduce allusions to party politics and especially to indulge in personalities. As the minister of the gospel who leads in public prayer is, as it were, the mouth of hundreds, and sometimes of thousands, in addressing the throne of grace, he ought not, if he can consistently with duty avoid it, to introduce into this exercise any thing that has a tendency to agitate, to produce secular resentment, or unnecessary offence of any kind in the minds of any portion of the worshippers. In the house of God persons of all political opinions may meet, harmoniously and affectionately meet, provided they all agree in acknowledging the same Saviour, and glorying in the same hope of Divine mercy. They may differ endlessly in their political creeds and wishes, and on a thousand other subjects, and yet assemble in the same temple, and gather round the same altar with fraternal affection, provided they are of one heart, and of one way in regard to the great system of salvation through the redemption that is in Christ. Why, then, should the feelings of brethren in Christ be invaded in their approaches to the throne of grace by unnecessary allusions to points in which the strongest worldly feelings are painfully embarked? It is impolitic. lis cruel. It often presents a most serious obstacle to the success of the gospel. It has a thousand times produced distraction and division in churches before united, and constrained many to separate themselves from their appropriate places of worship, and from all the means of grace.
Having been myself betrayed in early life, on various occasions, into a course of conduct in relation to this matter which was afterwards regretted, I resolved, more than thirty years ago, never to allow myself, either in public prayer or preaching, to utter a syllable, in periods of great political excitement and party strife, that would enable any human being so much as to conjecture to which side in the political conflict I leaned. This has been my aim; and this is my judgment still: and this course, unless in very extraordinary cases, which must furnish a law for themselves, I would earnestly recommend to every minister of the gospel. The more those who minister in holy things are abstracted from political conflicts, even in common conversation, and much more in their public work, the better. They have infinitely more important work to do than to lend their agency to the unhallowed conflicts of political partizans. ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’
No less unsuitable and unhappy is the influence of all personalities in public prayer. All praying at people; all recognition of the private scandal of the week in the devotions of the house of God; all allusions to the private injuries or griefs which he who officiates has recently received; all singling out conspicuous individuals in a neighbourhood, and holding them up to public view in our petitions, whether for commendation or censure: every thing of this kind is improper in its nature and mischievous in its influence—adapted to excite various unhallowed feelings in the house of God, and to drive individuals from the sanctuary.
On this subject I would say, that even when prayers are requested for the family, or in any respect for the benefit of persons who are supposed to be present in the assembly, we may go too much into detail—too far in holding them up personally to view, or indulging in language complimentary to their standing or importance in society. In regard to points of this sort it is always better to err on the side of reserve and brevity than the reverse.
IX. All expressions of the amatory class ought to be sedulously avoided in the public devotions of the house of God. Those who lead in prayer are sometimes unhappily betrayed into language of this kind. We sometimes, though not very frequently, hear those who are fervent and importunate in prayer, use such expressions as—’^dear Jesus’—’sweet Jesus’—’lovely Saviour,’ and various other terms of a similar class. All such language, though flowing from earnestness, and dictated by the best of motives, is unhappy, and produces on the minds of the judicious painful impressions.
X. The practice of indulging in wit, humour, or sarcasm in public prayer, is highly objectionable, and ought never to be allowed. This, though not often, is sometimes witnessed, and, perhaps we may say, especially by men of powerful minds, and strong feelings, and who are accustomed, on that account, to feel that they may ‘take liberties’ in their public ministrations. A small specimen of what is intended here will be sufficient.
It being once intimated to a popular clergyman, who was strongly opposed to the administration of President Jefferson, that his omitting to pray for the president, in his public devotions had been remarked with regret, he came out on the following Sabbath, in his prayer, with a reference to the subject, in something like the following brief and pointed style:—”Lord, look with thy favour upon our public rulers. Bless the President of the United States. Give him wisdom to discharge his important duties aright; for thou knowest he exceedingly needs it.” Another popular preacher, eminently a man of wit, warmly opposed to the administration of the then President, on a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer to which the United States had been called by the President’s proclamation, expressed himself in public prayer as follows: ‘Almighty God, who sittest as governor among the nations, and who rulest over all! we have been called by our chief magistrate to humble ourselves before thee, and to ask for thy gracious interposition in our behalf; but thou knowest he has not called us to this duty, until by his unwise administration he had brought us into a condition which renders aid from above peculiarly desirable and necessary; for vain is the help of man.’ One more example shall suffice. An excellent clergyman, of powerful mind and strong feelings, having been deeply impressed by a recent instance of parsimony on the part of a church toward her pastor, in consequence of which his health and comfort had been seriously impaired, prayed, at a church meeting, in the following strain:—’ Almighty King of Zion, guard and sustain thine own cause. Protect and strengthen thy ministering servants. Have mercy upon such of thy professing people as have no compassion on labourers in the gospel field, and who seem to be desirous of making the experiment whether they can most speedily destroy their lives by overworking or by starving them.’
It is earnestly to be hoped that such examples will not be considered as proper for imitation. If they be not profane in their spirit, they are certainly much more adapted to promote profane than devout feelings. I should expect a general smile to pervade an assembly on the ‘utterance of such petitions. There are those who call praying in this style, fidelity; but it is often the product of a very different spirit, and will be generally avoided by those who wish to utter the truth with the ” meekness of wisdom.’ If any minister of the gospel has wit or sarcasm, or any thing of like character, on his mind, of which he wishes to be delivered, as a stroke at any person or cause, it is most earnestly to be desired that he will seek some other channel for giving it vent than the public prayers of the sanctuary.
XL The excellence of a public prayer may be marred by introducing into it a large portion of didactic statement, and, either in the language of Scripture, or any other Ianguage, laying down formal exhibitions of Christian doctrine. It will be seen, in the next chapter, that the devout recognition of fundamental doctrine in prayer is an excellence, and ought ever to make a part of it; but this ought always to be presented in a devotional form, and ought never to wear the aspect of a theological lecture addressed to Him who sits on a throne of grace. This fault, however, will be sufficiently guarded against in a future chapter. In the meanwhile, it should be recognized as a real fault, and care taken to avoid every approach to it, that may be adapted to give pain to an intelligent worshipper.
XII. Another fault nearly allied to this is worthy of notice. I have known a few persons who were not only in the habit of introducing into their public prayers abundant didactic statement of doctrine; but who also seemed studious of introducing, with much point, those doctrines which are most offensive to the carnal heart, and which seldom fail to be revolting to our impenitent hearers. We Presbyterians profess to preach a system of doctrine, some of the parts of which, especially those which recognize the absolute sovereignty of God in the dispensation of his grace, all unsanctified men of course hate, and which, whenever they are announced, excite uncomfortable feelings and opposition among the great mass of mankind. Still, we are bound to preach these doctrines, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear. These doctrines were preached by the inspired Apostles. They were offensive to a great majority of those to whom they were delivered, and it is so to the present hour. Yet, we are not to preach them continually, and to the exclusion of every thing else; but, as the Apostles did, in proper order, in proper connection, and in wise measure. To be fond of introducino: them in prayer, argues a mind not cast in the apostolic mould, and inordinately set on partial views of truth.
XIII. Too great familiarity of language in addressing the High and Holy One, is also revolting to pious minds, and ought to be sacredly avoided. There are those who, on the principle of indulging in filial confidence, and a strong faith, address God as they would speak to an equal—claiming the fulfilment of his promises—insisting on the bestowment of what they wish—and, in short, employing, without scruple, the language of earthly and carnal urgency. This is not in accordance with that deep humility, that profound reverence, and solemn awe with which suppliants, conscious of unworthiness, ought ever to approach the infinite majesty of heaven and earth. The filial, but humble confidence of a dutiful child, is one thing; the presumptuous familiarity of one who thinks much more of his own wishes and will than of his deep unworthiness as a sinner, and of the infinite holiness and majesty of the Being to whom his prayer is addressed, is quite another. There is such a thing as appearing at home before the mercy-seat, and pleading with God with all the freedom and confidence of an affectionate child; and there is also such a thing as, under the guise of prayer, ‘speaking unadvisedly with our lips,’ and forgeting that even the heavens are not clean in the sight of Him who sits, on the throne of grace.
XIV. Further; there is such a thing as expressing unseasonally, and also as carrying to an extreme the professions of humility. The former is sometimes exemplified, by ministers of the gospel, in praying for themselves in the public assembly. Often have I heard ministers in leading the public devotions of the sanctuary, pray for divine assistance in preaching the M^ord. This is very proper, and may be so expressed as to be at once delicate, acceptable and edifying. But suppose the petition on this subject to be expressed in some such manner as this, which I have actually and repeatedly heard: ‘ Lord, assist thy servant, one of the most weak and unworthy of men, a very child in spiritual things, in attempting to open and apply the Scriptures,’ &c. And again, ”Help him, in all his weakness and ignorance, rightly to divide the word of truth, and to give to each a portion in due season.’ Such language might be altogether unexceptionable in secret prayer, in which, if the humble petitioner really and honestly made this estimate of himself, he might with great propriety express it before the Lord. But when he addresses God as the mouth of hundreds of worshippers, there is surely no propriety in putting into the mouths of all his fellow-suppliants, language concerning himself which he would consider as indelicate and offensive if employed by one of them in praying for him. Suppose he should hear one of his elders or deacons pray for him in similar language, and say, ‘Lord, help our minister in preaching for us to-day. Thou knowest that he is one of the weakest and most unworthy of men; thou knowest he is but a child in spiritual things, and needs thy help in the discharge of every duty.” Would he consider this as becoming language in the mouth of another concerning himself? How then can he reconcile it with propriety to put language into the mouths of hundreds concerning his own character which he would consider as unsuitable if uttered by any one of them? Whatever, then, any man might be willing to say of himself in his closet, let him never utter anything in prayer in the pulpit respecting himself, which he would not be willing that any and every person should say of him in similar circumstances.
In regard to expressions of extreme humility in public prayer, we may also find examples. It is not common, indeed, nor is it easy to take a lower place before the mercy seat than our demerit as sinners justifies. And yet I think language on this subject has sometimes been employed which a sound judgment and a correct taste ought to have forbidden. To exemplify my meaning. A warm hearted and eminently pious minister of our Church, on the occasion of a meeting of one of our Synods, when the Lord’s Supper was dispensed, and when it was customary in that ordinance, to employ a number of successive tables; the first table being filled entirely with ministers; in the course of the prayer, setting apart the elements, he expressed himself thus: ” O Lord, thou knowest we are most unworthy. Thou knewest there was never gathered round a sacramental table a more polluted, unworthy set of sinners than those who are now seated before thee.’ The good man undoubtedly meant to recognize the idea that to whomsoever much was given, of them should much be required; and that the sins of ministers, in opposition to their light and their vows and obligations, were to be regarded as inferring more guilt than those of other men. But when he ventured to say in prayer, that no band of communicants was ever more corrupt and vile than those which surrounded that table, the probability is that he went beyond the truth, and, with a good meaning, was chargeable with indulging in pious, certainly in unseasonable extravagance.
XV. Again; every thing approaching to flattery is a serious fault in public prayer, and ought to be carefully avoided. Flattery in any man and on any occasion is criminal. In the pulpit it is eminently so: but to convey anything like flattery in prayer, is undoubtedly liable to still heavier censure. Yet, something nearly resembling this, not unfrequently occurs in the public devotions of the sanctuary. I refer to the language often employed in prayer after a brother in the ministry has preached, or performed some other equivalent service. That prayer is often employed as a vehicle of strong commendation, not to say flattery of the preceding preacher. It is by no means uncommon, in this part of the public service, for him who performs it to express himself in some such language as the following: *’ We thank thee, O Lord, for the interesting, the solemn, and the truly scriptural discourse to which we have just listened;’ or,—-‘ We pray that the richly instructive, powerful and excellent discourse which thy servant has just given us, may sink down into our hearts.’ And on some rare occasions, thanks are returned that ‘such a burning and shining light has been raised up;’ and a petition offered, ‘that he may shine with increasing lustre as he advances in years;’ and that ‘ his departure, like the setting sun, may be serene and full of glory.’ In short, with many preachers, the closing prayer, in all such cases is considered as furnishing a kind of theological thermometer, by which we may graduate the warmth or the coldness of the approbation felt for the sermon which has just closed.
This ill judged and very exceptionable practice has become, with many preachers, so common, that if one should omit to convey, in some form, the usual compliment, he is by some considered as wanting in civility, and as manifesting a want of respect to the preacher. And although persons of sound judgment and good taste generally avoid this impropriety; yet, as might be expected, the more injudicious and indiscreet are most apt to launch out in language of warm eulogy, and, through this devotional medium, to pay compliments altogether unmerited, and if ever so much merited, altogether unseasonable.
It would, indeed, be over fastidious to forbid, in a closing prayer, any reference to a preceding preacher. To pray that the word as delivered by him may be accompanied with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; that it may prove like good seed sown in good ground, and bring forth abundant fruit to the glory of God; and that the preacher may be graciously rewarded for his labour of love, and may see the work of the Lord prospering under his ministrations—may undoubtedly be allowed without offence, nay, without impropriety. But nothing that savours of compliment, direct or indirect, either to the talents or the piety of the preacher, is, in any ordinary case, allowable. And certainly, it is in all cases, safest and best to err on the side of reserve and abstinence than of excess.
There is a tradition that the following circumstances once occurred in the life of the elder President Edwards. He had engaged to preach on a certain Sabbath for a neighbouring pastor. When the day arrived, the pastor went to his pulpit at the appointed time, but did not find Mr. Edwards there. He waited as long as he thought proper, and Mr. Edwards still not appearing, he began the service. In the course of the prayer which usually precedes the sermon, Mr. Edwards, who had been retarded by an unexpected occurrence, entered the church; and, being remarkably gentle and quiet in all his movements, he came into the house, made his way to the pulpit, and placed himself by the side of the pastor without being observed. The pastor, in his prayer, taking for granted that Mr. Edwards was still absent, had allowed himself to express regret that he had failed to come, and that the congregation was to be disappointed: He also launched out in expressions of profound respect for the talents, learning and piety of Mr. Edwards, thanking God that he had raised up so eminent an instrument for doing good, and that he had been enabled to accomplish so much by his learned and able works; and praying that his important life might be spared, and his usefulness extended to the remotest parts of the land. At the close of his prayer, to his astonishment, he found Mr. Edwards standing by his side, and ready to perform the service which had been expected of him. With some little embarrassment he said, ‘ Sir, I did not know that you were present; if I had known it, I should not have prayed as I did.’ But feeling as if it might do good to throw into the scale something to balance his compliments, he added—”But after all, they do say that your wife has more piety than you.’
XVI. The want of appropriateness, is another fault often chargeable on public prayer. In some rare cases, we find ministers who excel in this branch of the worship of the sanctuary, whose topics and language are all dictated by the occasion on which they officiate. From beginning to end they are appropriate. The intelligent fellow-worshipper recognizes a fitness, an adaptedness in every petition, and in every sentence. ‘Without any apparent study or effort, every thing seems to be in keeping with the occasion which has brought them together, and the scene before them. This is a great excellence, and never fails to make a happy impression on pious and enlightened worshippers. But with how.many who officiate in public prayer is it far otherwise! If they are called to conduct this exercise on the first day of the year; on a day of humiliation and fasting, or of thanksgiving; at the visitation of a Sabbath School; at the opening of a judicatory of the Church; at the dispensation of a sacrament; or at the ordination of a minister, the greater part of the petitions they utter would be equally applicable to any other service or occasion. Perhaps an eighth, or a tenth part only of what they utter can be considered as applicable to the occasion before them, or as entirely seasonable. I once knew a member of one of our Presbyteries, who, when called upon to make the ordaining prayer, at the solemnity of setting apart a minister to the sacred office, went back to the beginning of time; traced the progress of civil and ecclesiastical society; alluded to the various plans of electing and ordaining the officers of the Church all along down through the patriarchal and ceremonial dispensations; and, at length, after tiring out every worshipper with the tediousness of his deduction, he came to the New Testament dispensation, and made about one-quarter part of his inordinately long prayer really adapted to the occasion on which he was called to officiate. During a large part of the time occupied by this prayer he had his hands, as well as the hands of his fellow presbyters, pressing on the head of the candidate to the great discomfort of all.
I have heard it stated as a remarkable excellence in the late Doctor Emmons, of Massachusetts, that in all his public prayers he was so peculiarly appropriate, that, while he was richly various and judicious, every petition, from the first sentence to the last, was strictly adapted to the occasion on which he was called to preside. There is a singular beauty in this, and a direct tendency to increase the interest and the edification of the exercise; while the obvious effect of the opposite course is to exhaust the patience, and fatigue the attention before coming to that which really belongs to the occasion.
XVII. Another fault in public prayer, which I have often observed and regretted, is, the apparent want of reverence with which it is frequently concluded. It is not easy intelligibly to describe this, in many cases. The thing referred to, is an air and manner, and especially a tone of voice, indicating not only a purpose and desire to close, but some degree of haste to be done, manifested by pronouncing the last sentence or two with more rapidity, in a less solemn tone, with less fervour and apparent earnestness than the preceding. Nay, I have known some occupants of the pulpit, to all appearance, decisively pious, who, on closing a solemn prayer of otherwise excellent character throughout, have not only uttered the last sentence in the hasty and irreverent manner just described, but they have been seen, while pronouncing the last sentence, stretching fortli their hands and grasping the psalm book, that they might be ready, without the loss of a moment, to give out the psalm or hymn that followed.
There is something not a little revolting in all this. Surely he who leads in a solemn prayer ought to be at least as seriously and earnestly engaged as any other individual in the sanctuary. But what would he think if the whole assembly, or any considerable portion of them, were observed to be engaged, during the last sentences of his prayer in adjusting their dress, or in putting in their appropriate places all the fixtures around them? Surely such a sight would fill him with disgust, and would call forth a pointed rebuke. Of all persons present, the officiating minister ought to manifest the most exemplary sincerity and earnestness in ■uttering every sentence of his own devotions, and, to the last word, to exhibit an attention fixed, a solemnity undiminished and complete.
XVIII. The last fault in public prayer that will be here mentioned, is that rapidity and vehemence of utterance, which are sometimes affected as an expression of deep feeling, and ardent importunity. This rapidity is oftentimes carried so far as to be inconsistent with that calm reverence which is essential in all addresses to the infinitely exalted object of prayer. Here nothing hasty, nothing rash, nothing which has not been considered and weighed, ought ever to escape from the lips of him who leads others to the throne of grace. There is hardly any thing more attractive and impressive in this exercise than the appearance of a sanctified intelligence, as well as a warm heart, dictating and accompanying every petition; when there is an opportunity given for him who leads, as well as for him who follows, to reflect well on what is uttered; to begin no sentence without forecasting its import and its conclusion; and thus to avoid that sudden embarrassment which is often the result of inconsiderate haste. How revolting to hear him who is the mouth, perhaps, of hundreds, in addressing the High and Holy One, pouring out his petitions with such vehemence, such extreme rapidity, such a blast of voice, as to give those who are listening to him no opportunity to ponder in their hearts what he is saying, and to unite in heart with him! He who gives himself up to this kind of headlong speed of manner, will often fail of carrying along with him the intelligent concurrence of his fellow worshippers, and will be apt to stumble in his hasty progress, from not having well considered what he is about to say. Words ‘few,’ ‘well considered,’ and ‘well ordered,’ are the inspired characteristics of a good prayer.
In fact, in this exercise the whole manner is important and worthy of being sacredly regarded. Here, all unnecessary vociferation; all stern, ostentatious, disrespectful, dictatorial tones of voice; every thing not in keeping with that modest, humble, filial spirit which becomes a suppliant conscious of deep unworthiness, and pleading for mercy, ought to be carefully avoided; nay, a right frame of mind will ever spontaneously lead to their avoidance.
I once knew a young minister who, in common conversation, was remarkably gentle and deliberate; and in preaching rather below than above par in ardour and animation; but who, as soon as he commenced the exercise of prayer, became rapid, impetuous, and even boisterous. The consequence was, that he hurried on at a rate which prevented many from keeping up with him; that he began sentences without foreseeing how they were to end; that he stumbled and blundered, and sometimes excited the distrust rather than the devotion of the assembly.
I am sensible that, while I have given this formidable list of faults which frequently occur in public extempore prayer, it would be an easy thing to present an equally extended array of faults which I have heard of, or observed on the part of those who recited liturgies. The truth is, where good sense, good taste, and fervent piety are not in exercise, no public office of devotion can be really well performed. But it is no part of my plan to turn other denominations into ridicule, or to dwell on the faults of our neighbours. This would give me no pleasure. Nor would it in the least degree mitigate my pain in contemplating the faults which exist among ourselves. I submit to the pain of mentioning the faults which sometimes occur in our own beloved church, if haply I may minister to their removal, or the diminution of their number. God forbid that I should ever intrude into another Christian denomination for the sake of wounding feelings. I would much rather look at home, and ” cast the beam out of our own eye,’ that we may ‘see clearly to cast the mote out of our brother’s eye.’