Puritan Prayer

Move over Pentecostals:

> After the people had gathered in the meetinghouse, “men with their heads uncovered the women covered,” the pastor opened worship with prayer, wh ich lasted “about a quarter of an hour.” …

>The major prayer wa alwo about equal to the sermon in length. Thacher wrote on one occasion that he “stood about three hours in prayer and preaching.” On another: “God was pleased graciously to assist me much beyond my expectation. Blessed be his holy name for it. I was near an hour and half in my first prayer and my heart much drawn out in it and an hour in the sermon.”

>Jasper Danckaerts likewise attested to the length of the prayers. “We went to church, but there was only one minister in the pulpit, who made a prayer an hour long, and preached the same length of time, when some verses were sung. We expected something particular in the afternoon, but there was nothing more than usual.” On a fast day he even reported that “a minister made a prayer in the pulpit, of full two hours in length.”

> In the afternoon “three of four hours were consumed with nothing except prayers, three ministers relieving each other alternately.” THe norm on a common Sabbath seems to have been a major prayer of sixty to ninety minutes, with the sermon about the same.”

This is from Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe’s classic on New England Puritan devotional life, [The Practice of Piety](http://www.amazon.com/Practice-Piety-Devotional-Disciplines-Seventeenth/dp/0807841455). I’d heard of the Puritan practice of 3-5 hour church services, complete with ushers armed with hot pokers to keep the parishoners awake. Even as somebody who *loves* long services, it was a little unnerving for me. I never realized though, that approximately half of the service was consumed with a single public prayer. I know it probably aims to high for today’s culture, but honestly, this is something I could really get behind.

Hambrick-Stowe continues with a quote from Increase Mather, who did us the favor of recording some of his extemporaneous prayers, after the fact:

> Now dearest Lord,
If ever there were poor creatures in this world,
that ever had cause to love and bless the Lord,
we are they.

> We have done you Infinite wrong,
but you have forgiven us all those wrongs,
and deal with us as with thy friends this day.

> How can we but mourn for the wrong we have done you?

> If we had wronged though an enemy,
and that in a small matter,
we should grieve for it.

> But we have wronged the son of God our Savior;
yea we have killed him.

> He had never come to the cross,
had it not been for our sins
as we are the elect of God

> But this blood which we have shed has procured our pardon,
As it did for the Jews that killed him,
so many of them as belonged to election.

> Also Christ prayed for them, saying,
Father forgive them,
And so you know he has done for us.

> Christ has said before thee concerning us,
Father, forgive them.

> If children offend their Father much,
yet if any of them come and say,
I am sorry for what I have done,
I’ll do so no more,
Father be reconciled to me,
will not a Father then forgive them?

> Oh! our Father, we have sinned against thee,
but we are sorry for it,
and would do iniquity no more;
Father forgive us.

> You know our hearts,
you know that we could be glad
if we might never have so much as one sinfull thought in our hearts
nor speak so much as one unprofitable word more while we live.

> And there is another thing w hich we would beg of thee,
if ever you will hear the cries of poor creatures,
deny us not that request,
It is, oh Lord, that you would sanctify us by thy spirit.

Can you hear the rolling cadences as this man speaks, eyes closed, face upturned to heaven? This is no quiet somber churchman! It’s your best bet whether the congregation was whispering, or shouting agreement, or merely nodding their heads, but these are prayers that every bit match the intensity of later pentecostal and traditional black congregations.

A last thought, of course: Whence has this passion fled? I’m not concerned so much about the time spent in the service, though that is a wonderment to me – that we could expect to develop seriously as a community set apart by our Christian worldview with so little time spent together as a church. What gets me is that in most churches I’ve been in, even the most “expressive” of them all, has made very little room for formally recognising this kind of earnest prayer before the lord. It’s unrehearsed; it’s unscripted; it might throw off the agenda! But if we cannot pray like this in public, how can we ever expect our church to pray with any kind of fervor in private? Who will model for them, if not the leaders and speakers in the church?

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