Prayer, American Style

Most Americans delight to do things in their own way, especially taking the traditions of others and modifying them. American style pizza, for instance, is noticeably different than what is commonly served in Italian homes. Even our American language, English, although the common to England (the land whence it came, hence its name), differs significantly in its practice and content here — much to the disdain of its founders!

Did you know that the protestant way of praying (which also came over from England) has also been “Americanized”? The early American Puritans made some significant contributions to the practice of praying which still influence us today. A few reflections on their practices and designs for praying can be of real help to those of us (almost 400 years later), who desire to grow in godliness and prayerfulness.

In his book, The Worship of the American Puritans [Soli Deo Gloria publishers, 1999], Dr. Horton Davies reminds us how central prayer was to the early pilgrims, saying

“the Puritan’s life was filled throughout the week with individual
and family prayers, quite apart from Sabbath worship and special
days of thanksgiving or humiliation, not forgetting the weekly
lecture in a context of worship.”

For the American puritans, like most protestants, prayer was, as John Cotton then wrote, a “lifting up or pouring out of the desires of the heart for Divine blessings, according to his will in the name of Jesus Christ, by the help of the Spirit of Grace.” Or further defined as Thomas Shepherd wrote, “holy prayers are such desires of the soul left with God, with submission to his will, as may best please him.”

In their Sunday worship, puritan pastors were likely to pray aloud as long as they preached (regularly 60-90 minutes for each). A typical personal regimen was that of John Eliot (first missionary to the American Indians), whose diary recorded this sort of prayer-saturated lifestyle: private meetings on Sundays (where singing, repeating the sermon and praying took place); daily family devotions, (reading Scripture and prayer) morning and evening; daily personal devotions (“in our closets”), where further supplications and prayerful meditations took place — sometimes three times a day; numerous impromptu, brief prayers throughout the course of the day (“ejaculations” like that of Nehemiah); and, times of spiritual warfare, when pray was employed against the enemies of godly souls. Such a schedule of praying is mind-boggling to many modern evangelicals who pray at mealtimes, at daily devotions, and perhaps in between!

These same puritans had strongly objected to the constraints of the Common Book of Prayer that had been introduced throughout the Church of England. They also did not kneel in public services as did the Church of England, viewing it as a hold-over from Rome’s “noxious ceremonies” — signifying worship of the “host” [the communion bread] as the real presence of Christ in the service. Kneeling as a proper posture for prayer was encouraged in the homes and in personal devotions, though.

When they prayed, there were generally five components present,which we today readily recognize and use:
•thanksgiving / adoration,
•petitions for self & family,
•intercession for the church and the kingdom of God, and,
•consecration / dedication of self to God.

Yet three further aspects of the American Puritans at prayer should be noted, for they have significantly impacted the practice of prayer down to our day.

FIRST, the American Puritans were strong advocates of “free prayer” in place of the use of the rote prayers of the Church of England Prayer Book. Can you guess what is meant by the term “free prayer”? It is simply extemporary prayer that flows freely from oneself, not read from a book, or repeated from memory. They viewed such free prayer as the most faithful way to obey Ephesians 6:18. This sort of praying is by far the norm today among protestants, but it was an innovation then. Dr Davies makes this point when he writes:

Now it is true that the Puritans were not the first to use extemporary prayers. …What was radical and revolutionary in New England was the provision of ONLY extemporary prayers in divine worship for an entire colony…. It was a bold and daring strategy in devotion and it was later followed by whole denominations of the Protestant stripe…. In this respect it was a historic and far-reaching contribution to worship, despite its potentials for misuse, including repetitiousness, prolixity, subjectivism, faddist topicality, occasional naivete and a rambling irrelevance. But the qualities outweighing its possible defects were simplicity, spontaneity, a moving directness and immediacy of approach, and the pastoral insights into the heartaches and temptations of the members of the congregation, expressed in warm particularities instead of in cold generalities. This innovative free prayer has become a vigorous tradition that is widely influential to this day… [p. 155]
Thank God for these spiritual forefathers — so often falsely decried for stiff or stuffy religion — who so widely opened a door for Christians of subsequent generations to enjoy greater freedom in prayer!

SECOND, the American Puritans made ground-breaking use of written prayer requests, then called “prayer bills.” When puritan ministers were about to ascend to the pulpit (and pray at length before the congregation), typically a few of the members would present him with little written notices, or prayer bills, giving him their requests for praise, confession or petition. Much news for prayer was transmitted in this fashion. Many diaries of the American puritans record what these prayer bills included. Dr Davies passes along these examples:

Several examples can be cited. Sewall [a judge from Salem, MA] reports on April 18, 1686, that “Capt. Ephr. Savage puts up a bill to have God’s hand sanctified in send the small pox into his family.” Then Samuel Sewall himself reports that at a gathering of the church ar Sherburne “I put up a Note to pray for the Indians that Light might be communicated to them by the Candlestick, but my Note was with the latest, and so not professedly prayed for at all.” [p. 162]
One [presented to Dr Cotton Mather] reads thus: “Benjamin Elton, bound to sea, desires prayers for him, that God would bless and prosper him and in safety return him.” Another goes: “Anne Williams would return thanks to God for his safe deliverance in child birth, and desires prayers for her absent husband, abroad at sea. Yet a third acknowledges: “Thomas Diamond, returned from sea, desires to return thanks to God for his mercies to him.”

What a tremendous contribution these personal notes made to the pastor’s public prayers on the Lord’s Day — and what further contrast to the liturgical offerings of the Anglican priest before his passive congregation! In American, as John Cotton wrote, “the prayer of the Minister is the prayer of them [all]; the matter of his prayer is the matter of all their prayers; the form of his prayer, is the form of theirs.” Just imagine that our modern practice of submitting a prayer request in writing is largely a by-product of prayer, American style! Let us make greater use of what is available to us — at CPCC and even through email on the internet — to share with one another the burdens and the blessings we receive from the Lord.

THIRD, the American Puritans made significant advances in fostering a mind-set of prayer. Growing out of the great depth of their personal godliness, these puritan men and women cultivated a mindset of reacting prayerfully to daily occurrences. Their diaries often recorded these prayerful “ejaculations” to God — “darted brief appeals to God” — and even noted their plans to become more habitual in them. Cotton Mather, a third-generation American Puritan minister and son of Increase Mather, listed no fewer than four pages of trigger-events and prayerful responses to them. The following are a sampling from his diary (event first, followed by prayer response) gleaned from Dr Davies’ book [pp. 168-169]:
• The Gentlewoman that carved meat for us… Lord, carve of thy graces and comforts a rich portion unto that person.
• A Gentlewoman very beautiful… Lord, beautify the soul of that person with thy comeliness.
• A Gentlewoman very gay in her apparel… Lord, give that person ah humble mind, and let her be most concerned for the ornaments that are of great price in thy sight.
• A Physician… Lord, let that person be successful in his practice; and let him carry all the distemper of his own soul unto thee, as the Lord his healer.
• Upon sight of a tall man… Lord give that man high attainments in Christianity; let him fear God above many.
• Upon sight of a man on horseback… Lord, thy creatures do serve that man; help him to serve his Maker.
• Upon sight of a man passing by, who took no notice of me… Lord, help that man to take a due notice of the Lord Jesus Christ, I pray thee.
Such a mindset of intentional, responsive-prayer, I fear, is much lacking in our modern day. Perhaps it can yet be recovered? Perhaps we should study our own heritage a little more?!

Friends, let us consider what a great privilege it is to pray to the Lord God of all, and to have His ear so sympathetically attend to our cries, our confessions, and our requests. Let us resolve to make great use of times of prayer — both corporately and privately; both at length in our closets, and succinctly as we move throughout the course of our day. And may the God of all grace grant us all good things in accordance with His will, for the advancement of His glory! Amen!

Pastor David J. Bissett

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