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Pray Like a Puritan

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

This week we read chapter 54 which discusses the Puritans and prayer. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they prayed.

TC: The Puritans are known today for the importance they placed on corporate worship and family worship. Would they also have integrated private worship (or personal devotions) into their lives? What would that worship have consisted of?

JB: The Puritans saw personal devotions as the root of family and public worship. The Directory for Family Worship actually begins by commending “secret worship” as “most necessary” where each individual devotes himself “to prayer and meditation” as a special means of “communion with God.” Pastors and fathers, it said, should exhort “persons of all sorts to perform this duty morning and evening.”

The chief elements of personal devotions are meditation on the Word and prayer to God. Meditation feeds the soul with the Word for each day of serving God. Thomas Manton said, “He that labors must have his meals, otherwise he will faint. Painted fire needs no fuel.” John Cotton said, “Feed upon the Word, and that makes [us] to rejoice in the Word.”

TC: Matthew Henry wrote a very popular book on prayer and among his first directions was “begin each day with God.” What might the Puritans have said if someone suggested that the Bible does not command daily devotions or daily private worship?

JB: Manton said, “Though there be not an express rule particularly set down how often we should be with God,” yet God’s commands and calls to prayer “are very large.” He pointed out that the Word commands us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and to be “praying always” (Eph. 6:18). This implies a continual habit of prayer, and also set times especially devoted to prayer. He offered us the examples of David (Ps. 55:17) and Daniel (Dan. 6:10), both of whom prayed three times a day. It is true that we can shoot up sudden prayers (Neh. 2:4) in the middle of our ordinary work. But we must also “strive” in prayer (Rom. 15:30), which implies a longer time given exclusively to prayer. Some of those longer prayer times are with the family or with the church, but Christ taught us especially to pray alone in a secret place (Matt. 6:6), and in that same context to pray “daily” (Matt. 6:11). We should not view prayer as a mere religious performance, asking, “How often do I have to do it?” Instead, Manton said that prayer is the conversation of “a loving soul with God,” and “acts of friendship and communion must not be rare and unfrequent, but constant and often.” He wrote, “If we have a love to God, we cannot keep long out of God’s company, but will be with him pouring out our hearts to him.”

TC: There has been much talk in the Christian world lately about the importance of praying Scripture. Yet the Puritans were doing this centuries ago. How and why would they use Scripture to pray?

JB: The Reformation was not just a return to biblical doctrine, but also a return to biblical spirituality. One scholar writes, “For Luther, the reformation was about how the church prays.” Luther encouraged people to leave behind the medieval preoccupation with saints and mindless repetition in prayer, and to return to simple, heartfelt prayers based on the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. As the Reformation proceeded through men like John Calvin and the Puritans, God renewed an interest in allowing God’s Word to direct both how we pray and what we pray.

The Puritans prayed out of hearts saturated with Scripture. They especially delighted in turning promises into prayers. William Gurnall said, “Prayer is nothing but the promise reversed.” He also said, “The mightier any is in the Word, the more mighty he will be in prayer.” This pattern of praying the Scriptures culminated in Matthew Henry’s book, A Method for Prayer, where he collects hundreds of Scriptures under different headings to guide the Christian in prayer.

TC: What are some of the best Puritan resources to turn to if we would like to learn to pray better?

JB: Two accessible little books in the Puritan Paperback series are Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven, and John Bunyan, Prayer. You can still find some copies of the out-of-print, The Puritans on Prayer, which includes writings by John Preston, Nathaniel Vincent, and Samuel Lee.

For praying the Scriptures, see the Matthew Henry book I just mentioned. For inspiring samples of Puritan prayers, see The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett.

You can also find a good introduction to the Puritans on prayer in the book I edited with Brian Najapfour, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. Rev. Najapfour has also published The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards, His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer.

Of course, the Puritans would tell us that the most important book on prayer is the Bible!

Next Week

If you are reading along with us, be sure to read Chapter 55 (“The Puritan Practice of Meditation”) by next Thursday. Then simply check in here to see what Dr. Beeke has to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. Please feel free to leave a comment below or to provide a link to your own blog if you have discussed this week’s chapter there.

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