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“Thoughts on Public Prayer” by Samuel Miller by C. Matthew McMahon

An Excellent Work on Pastoral Prayer

I’m treating this work in a different manner than my summaries of other works because much of the information that Miller has in this work is somewhat superfluous. In my estimation he could have “whittled” down this work by about half, in order to stick to the necessary aspects of the minister’s duties surrounding public prayer. Most books on Pastoral Theology contain mention of the duty of the pastor to preach and to pray. They generally spend considerable time speaking about preaching, and then add in to that praying. Some more than others concentrate a chapter at most on the duty of prayer. Miller has focused an entire 300+ page book on the subject. This does not lessen the importance of the pastoral duty of prayer, it just means that Miller’s work is rather long and verbose on the topic. I’ve decided, then, to only pull from the work the most relevant portions.

The work is only divided into 6 chapters which are the following:

Chapter 1: Introductory Remarks

Chapter 2: History of Public Prayer

Section 1: Praying toward the East

Section 2: Prayers for the Dead

Section 3: Prayers to the Saints, and to the Virgin Mary

Section 4: Prayers in an Unknown Tongue

Section 5: Responses in Public Prayer

Section 6: Posture in Public Prayer

Chapter 3: The Claims of Liturgies

Chapter 4: Frequent Faults of Public Prayer

Chapter 5: Characteristics of a Good Public Prayer

Chapter 6: The Best Means of Attaining Excellence in Conducting Public Prayer

Chapter 1: Introductory Remarks

The pulpit work of a gospel minister is his great work.[1] But public prayer is not to be neglected as a subsidiary work, but another great work of the minister. Miller says, “With a view to justify this estimate it has been said, by those who take this ground, that in prayer we speak directly to God, and implore his blessing; whereas in preaching we listen to the speculations of men exhibiting to us their own opinions of truth and duty.”[2] It is unwise to exalt either of these exercises at the expense of the other. Both are required in the New Testament Church office of Pastor; and both have a value beyond our power to estimate.[3] Presbyterians have written volumes on public preaching; especially concerning the composition and delivery of sermons. Lectures and volumes are almost innumerable and have been lavished on this subject. But how much has been written to aid ministers in the acceptable performance of public prayer![4] Prayer is a divinely prescribed and unspeakably important ordinance. “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” (Acts 6:4).

In regard to the best preparation for leading in social, and especially in public prayer, there are two things worthy of particular notice; the one is what has been called the spirit, or grace of prayer; the other is what has been denominated the gift of prayer. By the spirit or grace of prayer, is to be understood that truly devout state of mind which corresponds with the nature and design of the exercise. He has the spirit of prayer who engages in that duty with serious, enlightened, cordial sincerity; with that penitence, faith, love, and holy veneration which become a renewed sinner, in drawing near to God to ask for things agreeable to his will.[5] By the gift of prayer is to be understood that combination of natural and spiritual qualities which enables any one to lead in prayer in a ready, acceptable, impressive, and edifying manner; that suitableness and scriptural propriety of matter, and that ardor, fluency, and felicity of expression which enable any one so to conduct the devotions of others, as to carry with him the judgment, the hearts, and the feelings of all whose mouth he is to the throne of grace.[6]

Even in the hands of the most able and pious men, high excellence in public prayer is not, ordinarily, to be attained without much enlightened attention being directed to the acquirement.[7]

Chapter 2: History of Public Prayer

Prayers in the Old Testament can be seen throughout the book of Psalms, and in various histories, but public prayer is found in 1 Kings 8:22; 2 Chron. 14:11; Isa.37:15; Ezra 9:5-6; 2 Chron. 20:5. They were given by Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah, Ezra, and Jehoshaphat. Public prayer also formed an important part of the service of the Jewish synagogue, that moral institution, which, from an early period, certainly from the time of Ezra, constituted the regular sabbatical worship of the Jewish people.[8] The synagogue service was, in substance, the model of the early Christian Church. The titles and functions of the officers, and the form of worship were the same.[9]

In the New Testament, Christ taught his disciples to pray a number of times,[10] and the book of Acts furnishes us with a number of accounts of prayer.[11]

Posture in public prayer is not essential.[12] The postures in prayer, as laid down in Scripture and early usage, are four — prostration, kneeling, bowing the head, and standing erect.[13] It is incontrovertibly evident that, for the first three hundred years after Christ, standing in public prayer was the only posture allowed on the Lord’s Day, to the mass of Christian worshippers, who were in a state of union with the Church. In all Presbyterian churches standing is regarded as the appropriate posture in prayer at all times. This posture is recommended by a variety of considerations. (1.) It was evidently the apostolical and primitive plan. (2.) The first General Council, as we have seen, in the fourth century, enjoined it by a solemn canon. (3.) It is a posture expressive of respect and reverence. (4.) It is adapted to keep the worshipper wakeful and attentive; while the postures of kneeling and sitting are both favorable to drowsiness.[14]

Chapter 3: The Claims of Liturgies

We are persuaded that liturgies have no countenance in the word of God, and were unknown in the primitive apostolic Church; and, as Protestants, we feel bound to adopt and act upon the principle, that that which is not contained in Holy Scripture, or which cannot, by good and necessary consequence, be deduced from that which is contained in it, ought to have no place in the Church of God.[15] Confining ministers to forms of prayer in public worship tends to restrain and discourage both the spirit and the gift of prayer.[16] Richard Baxter remarks, that, “a constant form is a certain way to bring the soul to a cold, insensible, formal worship.”[17]

Chapter 4: Frequent Faults of Public Prayer

In the first place, a very common fault is the over frequent recurrence of favorite words, and set forms of expression, however unexceptionable in themselves.[18] If the constant repetition of the name of the Most High, even in prayer, is not, “taking the name of the Lord our God in vain,” it certainly approaches very near to that sin.[19]

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 words, all want of proper fluency ; in short, everything 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.[20]

All ungrammatical expressions in prayer — all expressions foreign from English idiom, and bordering on the style of cant and whining, low and colloquial phrases, etc., ought to be regarded as blemishes, and to be carefully avoided.[21]

The need of regularity and order is a fault which frequently and greatly impairs the acceptable and edifying character of public prayers.[22]  Miller says, “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.”[23]

Too much detail in particular departments of prayer is another fault of unhappy influence in this part of the public service.[24] Connected with this is the prayer that is too long.[25] Other considerations are, an abundant use of highly figurative language, apparent lack of reverence, praying too quickly, and praying politically.[26] The practice of indulging in wit, humor, or sarcasm in public prayer, is highly objectionable, and ought never to be allowed.[27]

Chapter 5: Characteristics of a Good Public Prayer

One of the most essential excellencies in public prayer is that it abound in the language of the word of God.[28] This language is always right, always safe, and always edifying. Another excellence of a good public prayer is, that it be orderly. That is, that it have a real and perceptible order. Not that it be characterized by formality; not that it be always in the same order; but still that its several parts of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, should not be jumbled together in careless, inconsiderate mixture.[29] A suitable prayer in the public assembly is dignified and general in its plan, and comprehensive in its requests, without descending to too much detail.[30] Other considerations are that a good public prayer should be carefully guarded, in all its parts, against undue prolixity, should have some variety, and should make mention of the spread of the Gospel.[31] It is important to add, that the whole manner of uttering a public prayer should be in accordance with the humble, filial, affectionate, yet reverential spirit, which ought to characterize the prayer itself throughout.[32] It would seem, from 1 Cor. 14:16, that it was customary in the Apostolic Church for those who united in prayer, to signify their assent to what had been uttered, by saying Amen, at the close.[33]

Chapter 6: The Best Means of Attaining Excellence in Conducting Public Prayer

No minister can hope to attain excellence in the grace and gift of prayer in the public assembly, unless they abound in closet devotion, and in holy communion with God in secret.[34] Miller says, “But, without this, there will not, there cannot be that feeling sense of divine things; that spirit of humble, filial importunity; that holy familiarity with the throne of grace, and with the covenant God who sits upon it, which bespeak one at home in prayer, and whose whole heart is in the exercise.”[35]

Another means, not so essential, and yet highly important, if any desire to attain excellence in public prayer, is, not only to read, but to study some of the best books which have treated of this subject.[36] Miller mentions Nathaniel Vincent’s work which we have published, “The Spirit of Prayer,” as well as the works of Matthew Henry and his, “Method of Prayer.” Also, Jenks, Bishop Andrews, Bishop Kenn, Bennet, Jeremy Taylor, Scott, and Jay, are among the best.[37]

Another means of attaining excellence in public prayer, is to store the mind with the language and the riches of the word of God.[38]

A further  method of attaining excellence in public prayer, is, when any dispensation of Providence occurs, which appears to demand special attention in the devotions of the sanctuary, to make prompt and special preparation of it presenting that object in public prayer in the most simple, scriptural, and edifying form.[39]

The last means of attaining excellence in public prayer is the habit of devotional composition.[40]

[1] Miller, Samuel, Thoughts on Public Prayer, (Harrisburg, PA: Sprinkle Publications, 1985) 2.

[2] Page 13.

[3] Page 14.

[4] Page 15.

[5] Page 19.

[6] Page 20.

[7] Page 35.

[8] Page 44.

[9] Page 45. Many Christian miss the point of this distinction that the early Christian church was not modeled after the temple, but the synagogue.

[10] Pages 50-53. Matthew 5-7 in the sermon on the Mount, Luke 11:1, John 16:23-34, etc.

[11] Page 56. Acts 6:4, 24; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5.

[12] Page 116.

[13] Ibid. See Joshua 7; 5:14; 1 Chron. 21:16; Job 1:20; 2 Chron. 6:3, 13; 2 Chron. 20:5, 13.

[14] Page 125. See 1 Kings 8:22; 2 Chron. 6:12; Matthew 6:5; Marks 11:25.

[15] Page 151.

[16] Page 156.

[17] Page 163.

[18] Page 178.

[19] Page 179.

[20] Page 180.

[21] Page 182.

[22] Page 183.

[23] Page 183.

[24] Page 184.

[25] Page 187.

[26] Pages 194, 210, 212.

[27] Page 195.

[28] Page 217.

[29] Page 224.

[30] Page 228.

[31] Page 239.

[32] Page 250.

[33] Page 254.

[34] Page 260.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Page 268.

[37] Page 270.

[38] Page 275.

[39] Page 284.

[40] Page 289.

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