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Public Prayer in the Reformed Tradition:
    A Brief Examination of the Nature, Structure,
    and Performance of Public Prayer

    by Jules Grisham

For whatever comparative estimate we may form, in our wisdom or our folly, I hope, in the following pages to satisfy every impartial reader, that public prayer is not only a divinely prescribed, but an unspeakably important ordinance; and that both the nature and the means of excellence in the dispensation of this ordinance are such as not only to admit, but to demand appropriate study, and careful moral and mental culture.
        – Samuel Miller [1]

If the Heart be full of its good matter, it may make the tongue as the pen of a ready Writer. But this is a case that rarely happens, and ordinarily there is need of proposing to ourselves a certain method to go by in prayer, that the service may be performed decently and in order; in which yet one would avoid that which looks too formal…. It is only the effectual fervent prayer, the in-wrought in-laid Prayer that avails much. Thus therefore we ought to approve ourselves to God in the integrity of our hearts, whether we pray by, or without a pre-composed Form.
        - Matthew Henry [2]

1. Introduction

This latter quote, by Matthew Henry, captures one of the most appealing characteristics of public prayer in the Reformed tradition, which is that it simultaneously strives after both excellence, in terms of its human crafting and conceptual forethought, and openness, as to the powerful moving of the Spirit at the time of its actual utterance. Samuel Miller speaks of this goal, as we shall see, as the happy confluence of spirit and gift. And as we study the thought of various Reformed leaders who wrote about the topic of public prayer, we come to appreciate not only the great maturity but the remarkable consistency which characterizes their thinking. In this paper we will examine five sources – William Perkins’ The Art of Prophesying, Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer, Samuel Miller’s Thoughts on Public Prayer, Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s Theology of Prayer, and the “Directory of Public Worship” published and enacted by the Westminster Assembly. In the course of this analysis we will discover and discuss what these have to say about the nature of public prayer, its theological foundations, its constituent elements, suggested orders within the worship service, and suggested modes of presentation. This sounds very broad indeed, but, as I hope will become apparent through the course of these pages, there are really just a few powerful threads of thought which we will need to follow and finally connect. We hope to show that these writers help to give us a picture for what public prayer is supposed to look like in the Reformed worship service, and in the end we will discuss these aggregate issues in light of Hughes Oliphant Old’s thoughts in his book, Leading in Prayer.

These things said, I would make one personal comment before launching into our examination, and that is that I greatly enjoyed reading these sources. It was a thrilling, eye-opening, at times convicting, at other times challenging journey, but well worth it in every way. I have included more quotes from these sources than I might otherwise have done in a different paper, but our goal here is different. I want to let these writers’ voices be heard in these pages, so that as they combine together we can begin to form an aggregate picture of what public prayer is supposed to look like in our tradition. In this regard, note that I have not followed a chronological order in presenting each of these works, but have endeavored to present them as their thought moves logically from foundational and general issues to much more specific ones. Accordingly, let’s turn our focus first to foundational matters.

2. Foundational Considerations

We begin with an analysis of the “what” of public prayer: What is it, exactly? What function does it serve in the worship service, in the most general sense? And what basic ideas can we learn about how such public prayer is prepared and delivered in the Reformed tradition? These questions are addressed by William Perkins, to whom we will turn first.

William Perkins

William Perkins (1558-1602) has been described as “the Puritan theologian of Tudor times.” [3] He was an advocate and exponent of the so-called “Plain Style,” according to which preaching was to be seen and done as “the open manifestation of the truth” (2 Corinthians 4:2), as marked by great “plainness of speech” (2 Corinthians 3:12). [4] Preaching was thus always to be “aimed at the mind in order to affect the conscience,” and was to conform to a threefold structure of contextual explanation, doctrinal elaboration, and practical application. [5]

In his book The Art of Prophesying (1592) Perkins explains the two-sided prophetic ministry of preaching and prayer. Specifically, he viewed prophesying as “the task of the minister of the gospel as he stands in the great succession of biblical prophets and apostles who expounded God’s word and prayerfully stood between God and the people.” [6] The minister’s prophetic function was thus seen to consist entirely in the two parts, first, of preaching the Word, i.e., “prophesying in the name and on behalf of Christ” for the advantage and benefit of his people”; and second, of praying to God in the name of the people. “Thus,” he wrote, “every prophet’s task is to speak partly as the voice of God (in preaching), and partly as the voice of the people (in praying).” [7] In sum, whether, as in preaching, the flow is from God to the people, or, as in prayer, the flow is from the people to God, in either case the flow is transmitted through the spoken words and voice of the minister. This intercessory, mediatorial – indeed, priestly – function of the minister Perkins referred to as prophetic.

We see, further, that the business of the minister is the Word of God, which Perkins neatly defines as “God’s wisdom revealing from heaven the truth which is according to godliness.” [8] And it is on the basis of the Word, in all its purity, perfection, and eternity, that the minister performs his prophetic function. Perkins subdivides the category of preaching into preparation and preaching proper; and though he is indeed speaking here of preaching, and not of public prayer per se, he offers us a number of insights into the preparation and performance of the Lord’s Day worship, which entail in turn a number of implications for corporate prayer which shall show up again in the writings of other, later Reformed thinkers. For example, with regard to the use of memory in preaching, Perkins notes that “it is customary to preach directly from the heart (or memory),” and goes on to urge a mode of preparation which carefully imprints the mind, especially as this is done “with the help of an axiomatical, syllogistical, or methodical way of thinking.” He continues:

The practice of memorizing a sermon manuscript word for word has many disadvantages. For one thing, it involves an enormous amount of work. For another, if in our anxiety we lose the place then the congregation is in difficulties and our own mind ends up in a state of confusion. In addition, this practice hinders freedom of pronunciation, action, and the Spirit-given flow of spiritual affections, because our minds are almost obsessed with whether our memory – which we have burdened with so much information – is going to fail us. [9]

This important idea of “preparation in advance, but delivery without notes,” as it were, looms large in the Reformed concept of conceived prayer, to which we shall return shortly. But first, we would note two other suggestions which Perkins makes for effective preaching, but which also have bearing for effective public prayer. First, there is his counsel on the different ways in which the Word of God ought be applied for various groupings of people (e.g., depending on whether they be, as he puts it, both ignorant and unteachable, or teachable but ignorant, or knowledgeable but never humbled, or already humbled, or already believing, or fallen back in faith or in knowledge, or a mixed lot [10] – all of which has import for the shaping and structuring of public prayer for which, after all, the minister will be standing between the people and God, in a priestly and mediatorial function, assuming their voice in Godward-directed address). And second, there is the importance of presentation, according to which the minister endeavors to conceal his own human wisdom and to manifest most clearly the wisdom of the Spirit, by means of gracious speech, uttered in holiness and grace, and supported by appropriate physical gestures. On this last category, clearly one full of relevance for the performance of public prayer, Perkins advises the use of a voice sufficiently loud for all to hear; gravity of bodily gestures (by which the body’s trunk remains erect and still, “while other parts like the arm, the hand, the face and eyes may express and, as it were, speak the spiritual affections of the heart”); and eyes lifted upward to signify confidence or cast downward to indicate sorrow. [11]

After such richly detailed information on the prophetic function of preaching, we might well be surprised that on the topic of prayer, Perkins is concise to the point of being terse. Even so, he restates his basic contention, that public prayer is “the second aspect of prophesying, [and that] in it the minister is the voice of the people in calling upon God.” [12] And he goes on to distinguish between the subject of public prayer and the form of public prayer. With regard to the subject of prayer he advises that the matter of “the deficiencies and sins of the people” ought be put before the Lord first, “and then the graces of God and the blessings they stand in need of.” [13] First, confession, then intercession. [14] And with regard to the form of prayer he emphasizes that it is to consist in “one voice, that of the minister alone, [who] should lead the prayer, the congregation joining silently but indicating their agreement at the end by saying, ‘Amen.’” [15] Moreover, that one voice of the minister needs to be understood; “it should not lead in prayer in a jagged and abrupt fashion, but with a steady flow of petitions, so that empty repetitions are avoided.” [16] And finally, Perkins notes that there are three elements in public praying: (1) “carefully thinking about the appropriate content for prayer”; (2) “setting the themes in an appropriate order”; and (3) “expressing the prayer so that it is made in public in a way that is edifying for the congregation.” [17] Thus, we see again the great value which Perkins places upon preparation, even if that which is finally prayed is not read but recited from a pre-conceived and memorized structure.

In sum, then, we have seen that Perkins sets many foundational themes and motifs in order as we consider the issue of public prayer in Reformed worship. Prayer is a prophetic ministry of the minister, in which he, in a mediatorial and priestly manner, stands between God and his people, assuming their voice as he speaks to God – in Jesus’ name and on their behalf. Such prophesy as this is pre-conceived and carefully structured, but is not read in such manner as to hinder the direction of the Spirit. It is applied as appropriate to its context, and is delivered with holiness, grace, and gravity of word and gesture. And finally, with regard to the place of prayer in the course of the public worship, we would note that Perkins’s emphasis on preaching first and then on prayer strongly indicates that preaching (in which the minister serves as the manward-directed transmitter of God’s Word) works to open up and energize the prayerful response (in which the minister serves again, now in a complementary fashion as the Godward-directed transmitter of the people’s Word-charged and Spirit-quickened confessions and intercessions). In short, in Perkins’ view the public prayer was to follow the preaching during the course of the worship service – which is rather interesting to consider in light of the fact that in our modern, Presbyterian churches, the main portion of the public prayer tends to precede the preaching of the Word. We shall return to this important issue soon enough. But first let us conclude this analysis of Perkins’ thought by giving him the last word. Speaking of the prophetic function of prayer, he writes:

It’s for this reason that we spend time preparing the congregation in prayer, because of its prophetic dimension. As the Spirit inspires the prophet to give us these oracles from God, so too with us as pastors in preparing our flock. Not only did the prophets speak the word of God to men, but they also spoke the word of men to God. There’s something oracular about prayer. It’s one of the ways God searches our hearts, and makes it possible for us to express the concerns of our flock. We need to know what the problems of our congregation are, the problems of our age. [18]

Benjamin Morgan Palmer

If Perkins has thus served to introduce us to a number of key motifs and concepts which are foundational in any consideration of public prayer in the Reformed tradition, we would now jump ahead in time some 250 years, to the nineteenth century American South and to Benjamin Morgan Palmer, who will provide us with our theological and organizational foundations. Palmer was born in 1818, in Charleston, South Carolina, to a family of preachers. He was for over a third of a century the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, where he was widely known for his sermons and for his ministry to the needy of that city. [19] Having been chosen as the first moderator of the Southern Presbyterian Church when it was established in 1861, he experienced terrible personal tragedy during the war years, losing three of his five daughters and returning home afterwards to a destroyed home. [20] In the midst of the enormous disruption of the war and its aftermath in the Reconstruction and in the ruined economy of the post-bellum South, he wrote Theology of Prayer, which is a book of staggering depth, full of wisdom and, perhaps most remarkably, a calm, even joyful, serenity, which swells the spirit of the reader as he or she is drawn into a long gaze on the riches of God’s mercy.

Palmer begins by defining prayer, and he does this by combining the relevant answers from the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, respectively. “Prayer,” he writes, “is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” [21] In prayer, he adds, we offer up “the calves of our lips.” [22]

This established, Palmer proceeds to mine a rich trove of thoughts on the subject of prayer, as he begins with basic principles and proceeds to greater and greater differentiation. He begins by asking, “What is prayer but the language of creaturely dependence upon what God from whom being itself is derived?” [23] Prayer is the address of the creature to its creator, a sort of fundamental acknowledgment of a most fundamental reality. Prayer is in the first instance an expression of dependence. And this acknowledgment of dependence, Palmer argues, is unavoidable. It is the condition of our finite creatureliness confronted ever by the reality of the infinite Creator. To be sure, man is indeed capable of greatness – he is the very crown of creation. Yet, he writes, even “when we have reached the utmost highest of our ideal, we must come back to the mortifying truth, that man is still a creature locked up within limits which he cannot pass…. The spiritual within us which would know the Infinite, falls back in the faintness of exhaustion to the finite and the conditioned… [And] the consciousness of dependence finds its only full expression in prayer; we lean upon God and are at rest.” [24]

And yet it is in this rest of dependence, this acknowledgment of our subordinate place, of our limitation, of our finiteness, of our creatureliness, in face of the Almighty and Infinite and Uncreated One, that we most clearly manifest his image and thus most clearly reflect his glory. Speaking of man’s true nature, which is to be found in the image of God in which he was first created, Palmer writes the following beautiful passage:

Upon his soul is stamped the seal of the divine attributes. In his intelligence man dimly reflects the divine wisdom; in his affections, the divine benevolence; in his conscience, the divine rectitude; in his will, the divine power. All these endowments point to that august source from which they are derived, as the only goal to which they can aspire; and the comprehensive act in which they all embark is the homage of an intelligent and eternal worship. Toward this end was man invested with dominion over the works of God’s hands, that, as the priest of nature, he might walk through the aisles of her vast cathedral, and lead the whole choir of earth in chants of thanksgiving and joy. It is his office to gather the inarticulate praises of this dumb world into his censer, investing them with his own intelligence and thought, and lighting them at the fire of his own devotion; and then, as the voice of nature, to pour the flood of praise forever upon him who has created all for his own glory.” [25]

What a vision for man, as he would find his (natural) glory most blazingly manifest at the very point of acknowledging God’s infinite glory in the homage of worship! “The depths of reverence and awe within him,” Palmer writes, “resounding with the echoes of the spiritual and the divine: all these make him a worshipper.” [26]

But prayer, the language of worship, is not only an expression of dependence but an expression of homage to the One whose being and glory and infinity is so utterly glorious and majestic beyond measure; it is a falling down in utmost awe in the presence of the Holy One. As Palmer declares, “The prostration of the soul in humility before God is essentially prayer.” Thus, prayer “is not only the expression of a creature’s dependence upon God, but also the soul’s intelligent homage rendered to his infinite perfections.” And when we add into this consideration the fact of our having fallen from our created condition into an estate of sin and misery, the darkness of which has imposed so profound a breach in our fellowship as we are unable on our own account to repair, then we are driven in our approach to God to a confession of sin, and we realize that prayer expresses yet a third fundamental reality of our relationship with God: not only is it the language of homage and of dependence, but it is also the language of guilt. [27] Of this last, Palmer writes:

Under the crushing weight of his guilt, the penitent exclaims with the publican in the court of the temple, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ This, again, is prayer; not, as before, the simple recognition of dependence upon sovereign power, nor as the homage paid to infinite perfection; it has now gone into depths far gloomier than mere sense of insufficiency and weakness…. This is prayer; not simply asking for blessings which shall fill the measure of its need, but bewailing the sin which is strangling the soul with its serpent coil, and seeking deliverance from its hideous embrace.” [28]

In summary, prayer is the language of worship, by which we express the most profound realities of our existence in relation to God, in terms of our dependence, our guilt, and our homage, respectively. Indeed, we see upon deeper reflection that “under the first, God is regarded in his natural relation as the creator and preserver of his creatures. Under the second, he is contemplated in his gracious relation as the Redeemer and Saviour of sinners. Under the third, he is adored in his consummate holiness and glory.” [29]

Palmer proceeds to argue with regard to this definition of prayer, which has thus far unfolded as three diverse expressions in light of three diverse relations, first, that it provides a place for prayer in every form of religion, whether natural or revealed (on account of the fact that the operative principle is the universally shared experience of creatureliness in relation to the Creator, and that “the fundamental idea underlying creatureship is that of insufficiency and dependence, [which] lies at the very root of prayer”); [30] second, that it establishes a universal obligation of prayer (on account of the fact that “all were made originally in his image, and cannot, therefore, withhold their homage without apostasy from that nature which is their glory,” for to do so, he writes, would be “an apostasy from ourselves, not less than from God”); [31] third, that it establishes the crucial principle that prayer can only be addressed to a personal God; and fourth (and most importantly from our perspective in this paper), that it yields all the elements of prayer in their natural and logical development (i.e., “prayer, as the language of worship, divides easily into adoration and praise; as the language of dependence, it breaks into petition and thanksgiving; as the language of guilt, it gives both confession and supplication; there remains only intercession, the seventh of these prismatic rays, and this springs from all these conjoined, since man, clothed with many relations, must worship God in the furniture of all his affections and ties”). [32] Thus we observe the marvelously adept unfolding of Palmer’s argument, from a foundational definition, to a threefold expression of a threefold relation, and now to a seven-fold character, six of whose elemental parts emerge in pairs from each relation, while the seventh represents a composite. Great stuff!

Palmer now examines each of these seven elements in turn. First, then, with regard to adoration and praise: recall that these are expressions of homage. He writes, “Adoration may be defined as the homage rendered to God in the immediate view of his majesty, blessedness, and glory, filling the soul with corresponding emotions of veneration and awe.” [33] And he continues:

Subjectively viewed, [adoration] is the entire prostration of the spirit before God, under its conception of the grandeur and holiness of the divine nature itself. Objectively considered, it is the outpouring of these conceptions and emotions in the language of direct worship to him in whom these consummate perfections reside. Praise, on the other hand, springs from the reflected consciousness of the delight felt in this divine contemplation; and fastens rather upon the outward manifestations of the Deity in his works, upon which it dwells with sparkling and enthusiastic encomiums.” [34]

We see in these well-crafted definitions the close relatedness of and yet distinction between adoration and praise. Whereas the former views God in himself, as it were, in terms of the perfections of his attributes, the latter views him in the operations of his will, as that is evidenced in what he does. Again, whereas the former apprehends its object in conceptions “grand, solemn, and subduing” (e.g., via divine titles), the latter does so with emotions that are “buoyant, lively, and joyous.” And again, whereas in adoration the soul is “wrapped up in its own contemplation and worship,” praise entails “a reflex action of the mind, in which it awakes to the recognition of its own pleasure.” [35] And Palmer notes:

Adoration, however, from its nature, cannot be continuous. The effort is too exhausting, and the emotions excited are too overwhelming to be long sustained in this mortal state. The mind seeks relief in more detailed exhibitions of the divine power, as seen in his works…. Adoration is more or less complete in the conception of the whole. When limited in its range, it tones down into praise; which, on the other hand, may rise until it swells into adoration. [36]

Either way, however, whether expressed as adoration or as praise, this language of homage represents the highest form of worship of which we creatures are capable; this indeed is “characteristic of the service which will obtain forever in the temple above, [and as such] it commends itself to the saints on earth.” [37]

Now we turn to petition and thanksgiving: recall that these are expressions of dependence. Arising from the acknowledgment of our limitations and of our subordination as finite creatures to the infinite Creator God, petition and thanksgiving give clear voice to this dependence. Palmer notes that they are strictly correlative. Whereas “in petition, we seek the blessings that are needed; in thanksgiving, we are grateful for mercies which are bestowed.” [38] Petition is grounded upon a sense of need which has been awakened in the soul. “The want,” Palmer explains, “must not only exist, but must be felt.” This is because in God’s economy he would drive the creature to seek relief from its proper source, which he identifies as the third component aspect in petition: petition involves a need felt and given expression as a desire for relief, aimed at the source from which that relief can be had (i.e., God of course). [39] In fact, it is this recognition of the source of supply “which distinguishes a prayer from an outcry of distress.” Palmer continues:

It is the expression of intelligent hope, as well as of impassioned desire. Over against the insufficiency of the creature stands the fullness of the Creator. They are two poles of the same conception, and reciprocally imply each other. Prayer establishes the circuit between the two, and puts them in actual connection. [40]

We see, then, that the elements for true petition are a known need, expressed as a desire for relief, directed to the source from which relief may come, with hope that this directed expression of desire will issue in effective relief. In light of this we can define petition as “seeking a supply for the creature’s need, with a just expectation that it will not be denied.” [41] And, defined thus, it becomes obvious that petition plays a very large and very crucial part of prayer. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, “answers to petition as its counterpart, the complement by which the two are rounded into one. If the feeling of want leads the creature to God for relief, this relief will in turn bind the soul over to gratitude for the favor conferred.”

Next, we turn to confession and supplication: recall that these are expressions of guilt. As we’ve seen, we find ourselves in the unhappy estate of sin and misery, cut off from fellowship with God by our sin, wholly polluted by it, filthy, and unclean in his sight. But for his intervention on our behalf, we would be utterly lost, knowing that “every right has been forfeited by transgression” and that “we cannot approach the Deity except in sackcloth and in shame.” Given this unhappy situation, it is quite as imperative as was original obedience that now we approach God – who is light, in whom there is no darkness at all – in a stance of repentance and confession. [42]

Indeed, “confession is a necessary part of the prayer with which the sinner approaches a pure and holy God,” by means of which communicative transaction “man comes to look at sin from God’s point of view, and pronounces upon it just as God pronounces.” [43] Thus, confession is manifested by four defining aspects: first, it is characterized by a clear perception of the nature of sin; second, it entails a conviction of the heart, by which it will be aroused to holy indignation against the sin (“a cultivated resentment,” Palmer calls it, “a virtuous and burning hatred of that which robs God of his honor, and himself of peace”); third, it also entails “a judicial pronouncement against it before the tribunal of conscience”; and fourth, all of this is characterized by true repentance and abandonment of the sin which is thus confessed. [44]

Supplication follows from confession. Convicted by the sin for which we know we are guilty and professing God’s justice in judging against it, now we implore God’s mercy for the pardon of our guilt, and his power to deliver us from guilt’s bondage. We see, then, in this regard, that supplication is like an intensified petition. Palmer points out that the very word, “supplication,” carries inhering connotations of humility and vehemence of prayer, and is derived from the picture of the suppliant kneeling at the feet of the master. “The prayer of the sinner must therefore carry, along with the confession, the continued imploring of God to interpose his executive clemency and saving power in delivering the sufferer from the curse which he has incurred.” [45] In sum:

In repentance and confession, the believer continues to repudiate the sins which God has graciously remitted, and from which he desires forever to be separated… Indeed, sin is seen only the more heinous in the light of that love which blots it out forever; and the more God forgives, the less is the Christian able to forgive himself. [46] [Amen!]

Finally, we come to intercession, or, in effect, supplication for others (which is enjoined in any number of Scriptural passages (e.g., Rom. 15:30; 2 Cor. 1:11; Eph. 1:16; 6:18; Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:1; 2 Thess. 3:1; Heb. 13:18). Intercession is that form of prayer which arises from the social nature of human reality. Of intercession Palmer writes, “In no part of prayer do we so grandly approach the priestly office as when breaking through the crust of selfishness, and forgetting our own wants and sins, we can take up the cares and woes of others – putting our souls in their souls’ stead, that with priestly fervor we may lay them on the heart of God.” [47] Accordingly, then, we see, first, that intercession is involved in the obedience we owe to the second table of the law (which Jesus, recall, resolves into love); second, that it springs out of “the trusteeships with which we are severally invested on earth” (by which we are constituted one another’s guardians in circles widening to the entire circumference of the earth, yet whose sacredness of trust increases with the nearness of the relationship); and third, that it is in part the communion of the saints (by which our union is made manifest in our common dependence on God and common interdependence with one another). [48] In sum, the nature of intercession is that by which “we identify ourselves with those whose cause we espouse, so as to plead it like our own” in a “priest-like sympathy with others.” [49]

Finally, Palmer treats us to a number of principles of prayer, according to which he points out the following: first, that we are commanded to pray by God himself; second, that this duty to pray finds expression in each of the three aspects of prayer, whether as the language of homage, or that of guilt, or again that of dependence; third, that prayer is an instinct of man’s religious nature; fourth, that prayer is the moral discipline by which “the faculties of the soul are brought to their fullest development and to the fullest enjoyment of which they are capable”; and fifth, that prayer, “as the medium of this intercourse, becomes the necessary discipline through which he is perfected for immortal destiny.” In short, Palmer concludes, “if man is to be a willing co-worker with God in the execution of his plans, then must he pray.” [50]

3. Structural Considerations

Our first two authors have laid out a very stable foundation for our further consideration of Reformed public prayer. Perkins spoke to the fundamental question of what public prayer is (answer: it is a prophetic ministry, the pastor-borne and Godward-directed voice of the people assembled in worship, in Jesus’ name). He also introduced us to certain key concepts which, again, are foundational in understanding the Reformed approach to public prayer. First, as we’ve seen, he elaborated the concept of “conceived prayer,” by which the prayer was to be well-prepared and thought out in advance, yet still be open to the movements of the Spirit in its delivery (i.e., not bound to a written text); and second, he provided powerful theological support for placing the main portion of prayer in the worship service (i.e., that which includes the intercession – the “pastoral prayer”) after the sermon – on the basis that as God had by his Spirit spoken manward through the minister in the sermon, so now as the prayer was the Godward-directed response of the people to that Word, it ought certainly to follow the sermon if it is rightly to pray in light of it. Next, we’ve read as Palmer introduced us to the seven elements of prayer (comprised of the three pairs, adoration and praise, confession and supplication, and petition and thanksgiving, and then intercession), as well to their theological foundations and basic functions in the worship service. Now that we’ve got the basic issues under our belt, as it were, let us turn our attention to Samuel Miller, as he builds especially upon Perkins’ thought, giving us a picture of how public prayer ought to be done in Reformed worship.

Samuel Miller

Samuel Miller (1769-1850), another American, was born in Delaware, but was ordained and installed as one of the pastors of The Presbyterian Church in New York City, in 1793. He wrote books against certain Episcopal doctrines which were then being promulgated (e.g., that sacraments were necessary for salvation, that non-Episcopal ministers were invalidly ordained and were therefore no ministers at all, etc.), publishing among other works, one titled Presbyterianism. In it, he covered Presbyterian rejections of prescribed liturgies, holy days, God-parents, the practice of genuflecting at baptism, confirmation, kneeling at the Lord’s Supper, private administration of the Lord’s supper, bowing at the name of Jesus, and the reading of Apocryphal books in public worship. [51] Miller played a prominent role in the founding of Princeton Seminary, and was then elected to teach there, where he would remain as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government from 1813-1850. During these years, “his greatest contribution to American Presbyterianism appears to [have been] in the area of church polity. Apart from the foundational Protestant Reformers (Calvin and Knox), it is questionable whether any individual has ever had a greater impact on American Presbyterian government than Samuel Miller.” [52]

Thoughts on Public Prayer was his last major work, and was published in 1849, one year before his death. Written in part to address what might be referred to some Protestants’ “over-compensation” in their reaction against and corrections of Roman Catholic liturgical excesses. Specifically, if it is no doubt true that the Catholics had denigrated the relative importance of preaching vis a vis public prayer, Protestants – Miller argues here – might themselves have gone too far in the opposite direction – as in their so asserting preaching’s primacy in the worship service as effectively to have denigrated the importance of public prayer.

“Poor fallible mortals,” he writes in his Preface, “are ever prone to extremes, and, in balancing between attainments and duties do make sad mistakes in their estimates.” [53] The Romanists had especially esteemed prayer, wherein we speak directly to God; but conversely, they tended to dismiss preaching as consisting in little more than listening to the speculations of men. As a consequence of this outlook, they more or less shoved preaching off into the corner, as a thing of inferior concern to the worship service as a whole. But Miller turns this Catholic argument around on itself (and in so doing recalls the ideas of Perkins which we discussed above), pointing out that, well, “if, in prayer, we always speak to God, in the way of his own appointment; [yet surely] in preaching God speaks to us by his commissioned servant, if that servant preaches the preaching which the Master bids him.” [54] In other words, if indeed prayer is our talking to God, then preaching must be apprehended as God’s talking to us… But then he goes on (gently) to rebuke Presbyterians for their own tendencies toward undervaluing public prayer. He notes all the volumes which have been written on preaching, versus the paucity of materials available for the proper service of public prayer. And it is at this point that he writes the passage which we quoted at the top of this paper, which we will repeat here:

For whatever comparative estimate we may form, in our wisdom or our folly, I hope, in the following pages to satisfy every impartial reader, that public prayer is not only a divinely prescribed, but an unspeakably important ordinance; and that both the nature and the means of excellence in the dispensation of this ordinance are such as not only to admit, but to demand appropriate study, and careful moral and mental culture. [55]

With regard, then, to the question of what public prayer ought to be characterized by in its right presentation, Miller notes two key things: the spirit (or grace) of prayer, and the gift of prayer. He defines the spirit of prayer as “that truly devout state of mind which corresponds with the nature and design of the exercise.” Accordingly, he declares, “a heart in which the Holy Spirit dwells and reigns: that man has the spirit of prayer, the grace of prayer” – and that is so no matter what his eloquence or vocal power… or lack thereof. [56] The gift of prayer, on the other hand, he defines as “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 ardour, 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.” [57] Note that there can be much of the one and much lacking in the other. But “the happy union of the spirit and the gift of prayer, is the great object to be desired, and the attainment of which is so truly important to the acceptance, and especially to the usefulness of every minister of the gospel.” [58]

Miller now turns his attention to patterns and norms of public prayer as they have expressed themselves throughout the history of the church. And during the course of this examination, he raises three points which loom large in his overall presentation of how public prayer ought to be performed, these being, first, the importance and historical evidence for extemporaneous prayer; second, the importance and historical evidence for standing during the public prayer; and third, the role of the Directory in the Reformed worship service, as replacing the liturgy with a non-impositional tool for guidance.

First, then, with regard to extemporaneous prayer, he provides a number of (I must say, humorous in their effect if not their intent) examples of “illustrious delinquents” – such as Dr. Twisse, who, for all his accomplishments in preaching, was blasted by Baillie in his Letters on the Westminster Assembly for being simply terrible at extemporaneous prayer. [59] Miller proceeds to argue at some length against “confinement to servile forms.” [60] He declares that there were no written forms and prayers during the first centuries of the church. Rather, prayer was in the vulgar language, and included no responses (the latter’s importation into prayer being apparently the result of a shifting over from the initially more limited domain of church music). [61] His point in all of this is to cultivate a more “spiritual” public prayer, not dependent on pre-written forms but upon the thoughts of the pastor (conceived in advance, to be sure), but delivered extemporaneously, and open thereby to the moving of the Spirit. We would note that in the course of this discussion, Miller makes a rather interesting historical assertion with regard to the reading of sermons, which, he asserts that “though the universal practice of the established clergy in Virginia, [reading] had been seldom or never allowed among Presbyterian ministers, especially in the middle and southern colonies.” [62] This is a fascinating historical detail in that it shows something of the extent of the Presbyterian emphasis (at that time) on extemporaneous public worship.

Second, with regard to posture in prayer, Miller begins by noting that this is not an essential issue… But, he hastens to add, neither is it “unworthy of consideration or inquiry.” He goes on to explain that the Scriptures provided evidence for four valid postures to assume when praying. These include prostration, kneeling, bowing the head, and standing erect. All of these, he notes, are biblically attested, significant, and admissible. [63] First, then: prostration is to be reserved for days of special humiliation and mourning, but is not therefore the posture to be employed for ordinary public settings; second, kneeling is to be used primarily in private devotion or family prayer (of which Miller writes that “this is, undoubtedly, a significant and becoming posture in prayer, strongly expressive of humility, reverence, and earnestness”); third, bowing the head is taken as intermediate between kneeling and standing (of which Miller notes that “this easy and convenient method of manifesting a spirit of devout reverence may be employed at all times, and in all circumstances, when the worshipper is standing erect, and when neither prostration nor kneeling could be without great difficulty adopted”); and fourth, standing, which is to be adopted in public devotion, as in the Church of Scotland and by the English Puritans and by the American descendants of both of these. [64]

Miller blesses us with another rich historical insight when he relates the following passage from Lord Chancellor King’s “Inquiry into the Constitution of the Primitive Church within the first three hundred years after Christ,” to wit:

As soon as the sermon was ended then all the congregation rose up to present their common and public prayers unto Almighty God; as Justin Martyr writes, that when the preacher had finished his discourse, ‘they all rose up, and offered their prayers unto God’; standing being the usual posture of praying, (at least the constant one on the Lord’s Day, on which day they esteemed it a sin to kneel,) whence the preacher frequently concluded his sermons with an exhortation to his auditors, to stand up and pray to God, as we find it more than once in the conclusion of Origen’s sermons; as, for example, ‘Wherefore, standing up, let us beg help from God, that we may be blessed in Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen!’ And again, in another place, ‘Wherefore, rising up, let us pray to God, that we may be made worthy of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion, for ever and ever. Amen!’ And again, ‘Standing up, let us offer sacrifices to the Father through Christ, who is the propitiation for our sins, to whom be glory and dominion, for ever and ever. Amen!” [65]

Note that the italics in the passage above are mine. Miller’s point is to show conclusively that standing during prayer was not just an accepted practice in the early church, but an expected norm. This is very interesting, and we’ll speak more about it momentarily. But first let’s also note that I’ve italicized the references to this standing for prayer as occurring consistently after the sermon. Thus, almost in passing, perhaps unintentionally, Miller supports Perkins’ earlier point (recall: that the main prayer should follow the sermon rather than precede it, because the Word from God administered by preaching should precede our word back to him). In short, to Perkins theologically-driven point, Miller adds a confirmatory historical note: the prayer is to follow the sermon… We’ll speak more on this later when we discuss the Directory of Public Worship.

Meanwhile, and moreover, the congregation was to stand during the public prayer. Miller becomes very exercised about this issue. Standing during prayer, he argues, was a right reserved to members in good standing, while kneeling was reserved as testimony to deep humiliation. [66] And the twentieth canon of the Council of Nicea (325) specifically prohibited kneeling on the Lord’s Day (as well as during the entire stretch of fifty days from Easter to Pentecost), as “unbecoming the privileges and hopes of the Christian.” Penitents, on the other hand, were compelled to kneel all the time. [67] Now turning his attention to the contemporary context, he continues:

In all Presbyterian church 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, 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 favourable to drowsiness. [68]

He proceeds to argue there is no Scriptural evidence for sitting during the public prayer. Indeed, he claims, sitting “has no countenance either from Scripture, from reason, or from respectable usage, in any part of the Church’s history.” [69] And he continues, as with increasing agitation:

It were greatly to be wished that this matter should engage the attention of pastors and church sessions to an extent commensurate with the evil to be remedied, and which is evidently gaining ground. Thirty or forty years ago [i.e., the 1810s], nineteen out of twenty of all Presbyterian worshippers were in the constant habit of standing in public prayer. [But now,] sitting has almost become the general rule, and standing the exception… This surely ought not be so. It is unscriptural, unseemly, and highly revolting… Let [the ministers] raise their voices against this growing evil. Let them warn their hearers against the indulgence of a spirit of lounging indifference in the house of God. [70]

I’ve italicized Miller’s references to the increasing tendency toward sitting as “evil.” Clearly, he feels strongly about the issue of standing! And as a matter of history and Scriptural warrant, he seems to make his case: perhaps we ought to be standing during the public prayer!

Third, with regard to the Directory, Miller discusses the historical context out of which the Reformed worship developed. For the Catholics, of course, liturgy meant the mass and all its accompaniments. But among Protestants, the term had come to be “commonly employed to express the forms adopted and prescribed, by any church for conducting her public, devotional, and sacramental services.” [71] Of these, the Episcopal churches follow rigidly prescribed formularies. Others (e.g., the French, the Helvetic, the Genevan, the Dutch churches, and many German churches, as well as the American Methodists) extended these formularies “only to the administration of the sacraments, the celebration of marriage, the burial of the dead, and the prescribed forms for sacred praise; leaving all the other devotional exercises of the sanctuary to be conducted extemporaneously, according to the discretion of each officiating minister.” [72] But for the Presbyterians (of both Scotland and America), as well as the Independents (of England and America) and some other Reformed churches, Miller writes that “all prescribed forms of devotion, excepting those of Psalmody, are excluded, and every other part of the public service is conducted on the extemporaneous plan.” [73] For example, he notes that as early as 1564 the Book of Common Order of Geneva was in extensive use in Scotland, but that “the prayers and other forms prescribed in that book were not intended to be throughout rigorously imposed on the conductors of public worship. It was, in fact, rather a ‘Directory’ for the worship of God, than a liturgy to be verbally and serviley repeated.” [74]

Here then is a crucial distinctive of the Reformed tradition: the Directory preserves the form of worship according to certain agreed upon patterns, agreeable to Scripture – but this pattern is not imposed in a rigorous sense. There is thus in the Reformed performance of public prayer both freedom and structure. Again, Miller writes that “the Scottish liturgy was intended as a help to the ignorant, not as a restraint upon those who could pray without a set form… [And] this Directory, as it seems never to have been serviley recited by the most intelligent of the clergy was soon laid aside.” [75]

In summary, Miller has added to our sense of what the public prayer should look like in the Reformed worship. He picks up on several strands and threads which had been introduced by Perkins (e.g., prayer as a prophetic ministry which ought to follow the prophetic ministry of the sermon; and the importance of conceived prayer), and now expands these (speaking of the goal in prayer as the confluence of spirit and gift; arguing for extemporaneous delivery, for standing during the public prayer, and – almost in passing – for the prayer to follow the sermon). And finally, he raises the important issue of the role of the Directory in the Reformed tradition as a sort of guidance and structure. [76]

Matthew Henry

Following along with our admittedly peculiar, non-chronological discussion of our sources, we will now turn to consideration of Matthew Henry, and of his superb book, A Method for Prayer. As Perkins had introduced us to certain key, foundational ideas, which Miller then effectively built upon and elaborated, so too here: we’ll see that Palmer’s introduction to the elements of Reformed prayer (his sevenfold distinction – of adoration and praise, confession and supplication, petition and thanksgiving, and intercession) will now be elaborated in Henry with greater specificity.

Henry (1662-1714) was born near Whitchurch, England. He spent most of his years of ministry as pastor of a church in Chester, and there wrote the book for which he is now most famous – his Commentary on the Whole Bible. He completed A Method for Prayer very near the end of his pastorate, in 1712. In it, he gives us innumerable insights for re-conceiving our prayer life along a more consciously Scriptural grounding, and provides an invaluable index of Scripture passages to help out and illuminate each point Henry makes. The book is like a handbook of great value, but due to its structure is not easy to convey its ideas (e.g., in the manner in which we were able to convey those of Palmer). Even so, Henry provides us with a superb definition of “prayer” in his Preface to the Reader, writing that “prayer is a principal branch of religious worship, which we are moved to by the very light of nature, and obliged to by some of its fundamental laws… [It] is the solemn and religious offering up of devout acknowledgments and desires to God, or a sincere representation of holy affections, with a design to give unto God the glory due unto his name thereby, and to obtain from him promised favours, and both through the Mediator.” [77] He rightly points out that our word for this crucial activity, “prayer,” fails adequately to capture this full scope of meaning, managing instead to convey only the sense of “petition” or “request.” The Greek word is better, he notes, meaning as it does “a vow directed to God.” But other phrases capture the sense as well: “conversing with God,” “drawing near to God,” “lifting up our souls” to him, etc.. And it is Henry’s task in his book to show us a method in such prayer. He would that we, if not necessarily using entirely Scriptural language, would use what he refers to as “the sacred dialect.” This, he writes, “is sound speech that cannot be condemned.” [78] And then he provides us with what we might well consider to be his thesis statement:

If the Heart be full of its good matter, it may make the tongue as the pen of a ready Writer. But this is a case that rarely happens, and ordinarily there is need of proposing to ourselves a certain method to go by in prayer, that the service may be performed decently and in order; in which yet one would avoid that which looks too formal. [79]

Here, in other words, several of the themes we’ve been developing will come together. Here in Henry we will at last turn to specifics with regard to this “conceived prayer” of which we’ve been speaking. There is a method to the Reformed balance between formalism and spontaneity, and that is characterized by extensive preparation along the certain lines of thought and development… The goal is to match the spirit with the gift, and to achieve that happy confluence of a simultaneously well-prepared and Spirit-saturated prayer. Here Henry will deal with adoration (and praise), confession, petition and supplication, thanksgiving, and intercession, respectively. Note that all seven elements of the prayer are present. But now we will begin to see how these elements actually fit into the Reformed service, into the “five parts” of prayer (adoration and praise being, naturally enough, bound together; and one “petition and supplication” category, rather than “confession and supplication” and “petition and thanksgiving”).

Henry begins by noting the first part of prayer, the “Address to God, Adoration of him, with suitable Acknowledgements, Professions, and preparatory Requests.” Here is the content and function of the invocation. We begin by engaging our hearts to the staggeringly important business of presenting ourselves to him as living sacrifices. Then we are provided with fifteen component aspects of what ought properly be included in this “first part” of prayer:

For our adoration and praise:

1.   We must solemnly address ourselves to God in all his glory, and in holy awe of him;
2.   We must reverently adore God in the perfection of his attributes;
3.   We must praise him according to his splendor and glory;
4.   We must acknowledge him as the Creator Protector, Benefactor, and Ruler of the world;
5.   We must give honour to the three persons in the Godhead distinctly, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost;
6.   We must acknowledge our dependence upon God, and our obligations to him, as to our Creator and Preserver;
7.   We must acknowledge God as our God;
8.   We must acknowledge that grace by which “we are not only admitted, but invited and encouraged to draw nigh to God in prayer”;
9.   We must express the reality of our own unworthiness to draw near to God;
10.   We must all the same profess our desire for God’s fellowship;
11.   We must profess our faith, hope, and trust in his will and promises for us;
12.   We must ask that God’s accept us in Christ;
13.   We must ask for the Sprit of grace;
14.   We must “make the glory of God our highest end in all our prayers”; and
15.   We must profess our reliance upon Jesus only, in whose name we pray. [80]

Henry now moves to the “second part” of prayer, “Confession of Sin, Complaints of ourselves, and humble Professions of Repentance,” by which, having given glory to God, we now turn to humble ourselves before him, in light of our own sinfulness. Even here we give glory to him as our righteous Judge, yet hope in and through Christ, to be acquitted and absolved. [81]

For our confession:

1.   We must acknowledge our profound sinfulness and shame as offending his holiness;
2.   We must “take hold of the great encouragement God hath given us to humble ourselves before him with sorrow, and shame, and to confess our sins”;
3.   We must confess our original sin;
4.   We must confess our sinful dispositions;
5.   We must confess our omissions of duty;
6.   We must confess our actual transgressions;
7.   We must acknowledge the great evil that there is in sin;
8.   We must look upon our sins in the worst light;
9.   We must “judge and condemn ourselves for our sins, and own ourselves liable to punishment”;
10.   We must “give to God the glory of his patience and long-suffering towards us”;
11.   We must “humbly profess our sorrow and shame for sin, and humbly engage ourselves in the strength of divine grace, that we will be better, and do better for the future.” [82]

As for the third part of prayer, we come to “Petition and Supplication for the good things which We stand in need of.” Our sins exposed to the light of God’s judgment we now must turn to him for remedy. Indeed, Henry writes, “we are qualified, according to the tenor of the new covenant, to receive his favours, and are to be assured that we do, and shall receive them.” [83]

Thus, for our petition and supplication:

1.   We must pray for the pardon and forgiveness of all our sins;
2.   We must pray that God will be reconciled to us;
3.   We must pray for our reconciliation to God;
4.   We must “pray for the grace of God, and all the kind and powerful influences and operations of that grace” (i.e., that he would “fortify us against every evil thought, deed, and work”; that he would “furnish us for every good thought, deed, and work”; etc..). [84]

The fourth part of prayer, “Thanksgiving,” is for the mercies we have received from God, “and the many favours of his we are interested in and have.” Here, in thanksgiving, we would turn from our seeking after divine favours to giving him glory, “and that not only by an awful adoration of his infinite perfections, but by a grateful acknowledgment of his goodness to us.” Our thanksgiving comes thus “from a heart that is humbly sensible of its own unworthiness to receive any favour from God, that values the gifts, and loves the giver of them.” [85]

In offering up thanksgiving, then:

1.   We must “stir up ourselves to praise God with the consideration both of the reason and of the encouragement we have to praise him”;
2.   We must be particular in our thanksgivings to God (i.e., for the many actual instances of his goodness). [86]

And finally, we come to the fifth part of prayer, “Intercession, or Address and Supplication to God for others…” Now our attention turns outward, as we would make supplication for others.

In intercession, we must pray:

1.   For the lost of the whole world;
2.   For the spread of the gospel in missions;
3.   For the conversion of the Jews;
4.   For the eastern churches;
5.   For the churches overseas;
6.   For the universal church in its aggregate;
7.   For the conversion of all those who hate or deny the truth;
8.   For the “amending of every thing that is amiss in the church [and] the reviving of primitive Christianity”;
9.   For the defeat of the church’s enemies;
10.   For the relief of the suffering churches, and the deliverance those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake;
11.   For the various nations;
12.   For our own land… “which we ought in a special manner to seek the welfare of, that in the peace thereof we may have peace” (with regard to which, we ought to be thankful for God’s mercies to us; to be humbled for our national sins; and to pray for God’s presence to be among us; for the continuance of the gospel among us; for victory against our enemies; and for “all orders and degrees of men among us” – in sum, to pray “for our enemies and those that hate us,and for our friends and those that love us.” [87]

Taken altogether, then, we see that Matthew Henry has drawn us a long way from the theological grounding and basic “look and feel” of the seven elements of prayer as they were introduced to us by Palmer, having contextualized them with specific content and structures as they should appear and be used in the Reformed worship service. Most interestingly, perhaps, we’ve seen how these seven elements of prayer find expression in five types of prayer – or, as Henry refers to them, as the five parts of prayer. And in these parts we are now begin to see the actual building blocks of our ordinary worship: invocation (in which adoration and praise are emphasized), confession, petitions and supplications, intercession, and thanksgiving. The question of how, finally, these five parts of prayer are organized and ordered within the course of the ordinary worship service brings us to our last source.

“The Directory for the Publick Worship of God”
The Westminster Assembly

The Directory was agreed upon by the Westminster divines at their Assembly, and was approved by Act of Parliament in the same year, 1645, establishing the Directory throughout the realm. Its stated goals were that “it be carefully and uniformly observed and practiced by all the ministers and others within the kingdom whom it doth concern,” and that “a printed copy of it be provided and kept for every kirk of this kingdom; also that each presbytery have a printed copy thereof.” [88] Moreover, the Preface refers to various errors which are to be done away with, including the mass, the Latin service, the “burdensome ceremonies,” the reading of all the prayers, etc.. On this last, it weighs in against the liturgical pattern which “contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer.” [89] In sum, the Assembly resolved “to lay aside the former Liturgy, with the many rites and ceremonies formerly used in the worship of God; and have agreed upon this following Directory for all parts of the publick worship, at ordinary and extraordinary times.” [90] The divines suggested a structure for the service to follow along what might easily be conceived as a six-part pattern, as follows:

First, “Of the Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behavior in the Publick Worship of God.” The minister, having called the people to the worship of God, begins with a prayer, consisting in terms of its total content of three parts: (1) an acknowledgment of the greatness of the Lord and of our own vileness in relation to him; (2) a beseeching him “for pardon, assistance, and acceptance” in the service to be performed, and for a blessing on the portion of the Word to be read; and (3) all this done “in the name and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.” We would note in this Directory-recommended invocation the presence of various elements, including adoration and praise, confession and supplication, and petition.

Second, “Of Publick Reading of the Holy Scriptures.” This follows the opening prayer, and is to be performed by the pastors and teachers (and possibly, sometimes, interns). The divines suggest that one chapter of each Testament be read at every meeting, and sometimes more, as may be appropriate. Further, “it is requisite that all the canonical books be read over in order… and ordinarily, where the reading in either Testament endeth on one Lord’s day, it is to begin the next.” [91] They also commend not just the singing but also the reading of the Psalms. And finally, a principle: that the minister who would expound on any part of what was said should not do so until the whole reading be complete.

Third, “Of Publick Prayer before the Sermon.” The minister who is to preach is “to endeavor to get his own and his hearers to be rightly affected with their sins… and hunger and thirst after the grace of God in Jesus Christ, by proceeding to a more full confession of sin.” [92] The divines suggest that this prayer incorporate the following elements: first, that it acknowledge our guilt and sinfulness (both in terms of original sin and actual sins committed); second, that it be sure to “bewail our blindness of mind, hardness of heart, unbelief, impenitency, security, lukewarmness,” etc.; third, that it conveys the conviction that, insofar as we stand convinced and confessed of our sin, we are thereby most worthy of God’s wrath; fourth, that nevertheless we should be bold “to draw near to the throne of grace, encouraging ourselves with hope of a gracious answer of our prayers”; fifth, that it should include entreaty that the Lord might “seal unto us, by the Spirit of adoption, the full assurance of our pardon and reconciliation”; sixth, that it should be sure to pray for the mortification of sin; seventh, that it should include prayer that the gospel be propagated throughout all the nations; eighth, that it should include prayer for all those in authority; ninth, that it should include prayer for the sanctification of the Sabbath day; tenth, that it should include the petition that the Lord “pour out his Spirit of grace, together with the outward means thereof”; and eleventh, that it should include appeal “that God would in a special manner, furnish his servant… with wisdom, fidelity, zeal, and utterance… and that the Lord would circumcise the ears and hearts of the hearers.” [93] Note then that the divines have clustered much into this pre-sermon prayer, including in it not just confession, supplication, and petition, but also intercession, as well as prayers for specific blessing of the time, situation, and persons assembled. Here, in short, is the “pastoral prayer,” the great prayer of the worship service. We shall speak more about this in a moment. But first let us note the important point that, even so, this order and pattern is not imposed. Rather, write the divines, “we judge this to be a convenient order, in the ordinary publick prayer; yet so, as the minister may defer (as in prudence he shall think meet) some part of these petitions till after his sermon, or offer up to God some of the thanksgivings hereafter appointed, in his prayer before the sermon.” [94]

Fourth, “Of the Preaching of the Word.” We will skip this very interesting and valuable section as being beyond the scope of our present purpose.

Fifth, “Of Prayer after the Sermon.” Here the divines suggest a four-part structure, to include (1) the giving of thanks for the great love of God in Christ Jesus; (2) the praying for the continuance of the gospel in its purity, power, and fruitfulness; (3) the praying for “preparation for death and judgment, and a watching for the coming of the Lord Jesus”; and (4) the Lord’s Prayer. Once again, the point is clearly made that the minister has wide latitude of liberty in the structuring of the worship service, and that, either before or after the sermon, the minister may add such elements as he deems appropriate to the occasion. [95]

Sixth, and finally, the divines recommend that a psalm be sung, followed (except when the Lord’s Supper should be administered) by the minister’s dismissing the congregation “with a solemn blessing.” Here at last is that most explicitly priestly of the minister’s prayers, based as it is upon the model of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6. Indeed, relates Hughes Oliphant Old, “in benediction, the ministers are understood to be the priests of the gospel, the spiritual descendants of the house of Aaron.” [96]

In summary, we see that the Directory has squeezed the five parts of prayer into a three-prayer structure (plus a benediction). We’ve got the invocation (emphasizing adoration and praise; but also including elements of confession, supplication, and petition); the pre-sermon prayer, also known as the “pastoral prayer” (emphasizing confession and supplication, petition, and intercession); and the post-sermon prayer (emphasizing thanksgiving, but also including further petitions). And as we examine the shape and pattern of this suggested worship, we see that there is much to recommend it. There is a clear chiastic structure as the beginning invocation pairs naturally with the ending benediction, and as the pre-sermon and post-sermon prayers enclose the sermonic centerpiece. But there is also a pronounced, even dramatic, forward movement evidenced in this pattern, as the worship moves generally from the anxieties induced by confession to the joys and comforts of thanksgiving. We might also note the movement at the extremities from praise (in the invocation) to blessing (in the benediction), from an outpouring of exhilaration at the approaching into God’s presence which worship represents to a receiving and reflecting of that divine blessing by the people themselves at the end. [97]

4. Conclusion: Some Reflections on the Directory in Light of All the Preceding

There are two main issues with which we are faced, then, as we examine the suggestions and structure of the Directory, and as we consider the structure and function of public prayer in our Reformed worship. First, we must at least address the issue of the order of prayer – in particular, the placement by the Directory of the intercessory portion of the public prayer before the sermon. And second, we will want to examine the issue of the nature of the Directory itself. Thus, with regard to the first issue, recall Perkins’ definition of public prayer as a prophetic ministry, by which the people’s voice was expressed in a Godward direction through, as it were, the ministerial mediator. Insofar as preaching represented the other side of this prophetic ministry, by which God’s Word was expressed in a manward direction through the mouth of the same minister, then it seems most proper that the main portion of the public prayer should be done after the sermon, when we should have been illumined by God’s message to us and awakened as to what we ought rightly pray for in light of that message. Recall, too, then, how Miller, almost accidentally, in showing us historical evidence for the congregation’s standing during the public prayer, also showed with resounding clarity that it had thus been the practice of the early church to pray after the sermon. With these things in mind, we see that Calvin also followed this sound logical pattern, and put the pastoral prayer after the sermon – “conceived” in advance, prepared, structured, ordered, well-thought out, but in the final analysis uttered in an extemporaneous manner, allowing the Spirit to work in the insights of the preceding message. Why then did the Directory not follow this entirely wise pattern and structure? Hughes Oliphant Old answers:

Because of the influence of the Congregationalists’ influence. The Presbyterians were willing to compromise on these things to get a broader English Puritan consensus. The Congregationalists wanted one big prayer, in which invocation, confession, praise, supplication, intercession, and thanksgiving were all pressed together. They wanted to maintain the movement [which we’ve noted] from confession to thanksgiving. Remember: this is a compromise document. [98]

Even so, perhaps in light of all this evidence we can begin gradually to reassert the older and more truly Presbyterian pattern of worship. As we’ve seen, it is both theologically appropriate and historically attested that the intercessory component of prayer should follow after the sermon. It’s no doubt true, as Old notes in his book, Leading in Prayer, that many among the Presbyterian faithful will be uncomfortable with the seeming novelty of this idea – especially as they most likely have always viewed the sermon as the centerpiece and climax of the worship service. [99] But this discomfort need not forestall some movement in this good direction, done slowly and with a view toward a longer-term goal. Perhaps, with time, an emergent consensus can gradually “nudge” our order of worship back to a more theologically appropriate and truly Reformed pattern. Thus, I would support (if only for now as an ideal pattern) a revision of the structure suggested by the Directory, by which it would continue to consist in its present pattern, but with the separation of the intercessory component from the pre-sermon prayer to a much expanded post-sermon prayer. Thus, (and I’m following Old’s suggested structure here): (1) invocation (as now); (2) confession, supplication, and petition (as now, minus intercession); (3) intercession (added, post-sermon); (4) thanksgiving (as now); and (5) benediction (as now). [100]

Finally, we ought perhaps briefly note the significance of the Directory itself in the structure and pattern of our Presbyterian worship. Speaking of the Westminster Assembly, Miller noted that the divines “agreed, by a large majority, to lay aside the use of all prescribed and imposed forms, and to report in favour of extemporary prayer.” But, he continued, “in order to avoid the imputation of opening the door too wide to irregular and undigested effusions in public worship, it was agreed to form and recommend to the Parliament what was denominated a ‘Directory for the Worship of God.’” The Independents protested, but the Directory passed, “as a plan intended to supercede the Liturgy.” [101] The crucial thing to keep in mind, then, with regard to the Directory, is that it was never intended as a substitute liturgy. Rather, and in conformity with the entire tenor of Reformed theology, it was given as an aid and guide for the public worship, one agreeable to the norm and pattern of Scripture and therefore most highly recommended, but in no manner to be imposed down to the specifics of what is prayed in what order. In this regard, we come to appreciate the Directory as a very symbol of this most impressive characteristic of Reformed theology, which is, as we remarked at the beginning, its striving simultaneously to be the best to which careful preparation and forethought can attain and the most open to the Spirit as permissible for the orderly expression of the worship service. It is this goal, of a happy confluence between gift and spirit, between structure and liberty, which is the key dynamic of our Reformed worship.



Bunyan, John. Prayer. Puritan Paperbacks. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965.

Henry, Matthew. A Method for Prayer. Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1994.

_______. The Secret of Communion with God. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Inc., 1981.

Miller, Samuel. Thoughts on Public Prayer. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1985.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Palmer, Benjamin Morgan. Theology of Prayer. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1980.

Perkins, William. The Art of Prophesying. Puritan Paperbacks. Foreword by Sinclair Ferguson. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996.

Watts, Isaac. A Guide to Prayer. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001.

Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994.

APPENDIX A: Miller’s List of Frequent Faults which Manifest Themselves in the Performance of Public Prayer

1.   The too-frequent recurrence of favorite words, themes, and/or motifs;
2.   Hesitation or seeming embarrassment in speech;
3.   Ungrammatical expressions of all sorts;
4.   Irregularity and disorder of structure;
5.   Too much minuteness of detail;
6.   Excessive length (per Miller, “an ordinary prayer before sermon, ought not to exceed twelve, or at most fifteen minutes in length”);
7.   Abundant use of highly figurative language;
8.   The inclusion of references to party politics and personalities;
9.   Any expressions of the “amatory class” (e.g., “lovely Jesus…”);
10.   Indulging in wit, humor, or sarcasm;
11.   Excessive didacticism;
12.   The insistent and didactic inclusion of doctrinal content which is offensive to the carnal hearts of the impenitent;
13.   Too much familiarity in addressing the High and Holy God;
14.   Too much profession of humility;
15.   Everything approaching flattery;
16.   The want of appropriateness to the gven day or occasion;
17.   The want of reverence in conclusion (e.g., rushing to conclusion); and
18.   Rapidity and/or vehemence of utterance. [102]

APPENDIX B: Miller’s List of the Characteristics of Good Public Prayer

1.   That it abound in the language of the word of God;
2.   That it be orderly;
3.   That it be “dignified and general in its plan, and comprehensive in its requests, without descending to too much detail”;
4.   That it not be too-wordy;
5.   That it be appropriate to the situation and occasion of its utterance;
6.   That it be full of the gospel truth so as to feed the hungry souls who hear it;
7.   That it be marked by a certain variety of form and content;
8.   That the closing doxologies be Scriptural in pattern, but varied in performance;
9.   That it be characterized by a pronounced reference to the spread of the gospel;
10.   That the manner of address vary through the course of the prayer;
11.   That it be “strongly marked with the spirit and the language of hope and confidence”;
12.   That the prayer after the sermon ought be, not a “general, pointless, and uninteresting effusion,” but rather “as far as possible, one of the most solemn, appropriate, and impressive parts of the whole service”;
13.   That though the Lord’s Prayer need not be used in a “permanent, precise, verbal form,” yet in the Directory its recitation is recommended in the “prayer after sermon” section;
14.   That the prayer be uttered in accordance with “humble, filial, affectionate, yet reverential spirit”; and
15.   That with regard to “Amen,” “in all the Presbyterian churches throughout the world, the officiating minister, it is believed, is in the habit of pronouncing this word himself, which all his fellow-worshippers are expected silently to adopt and make their own.” [103]

APPENDIX C: Notes on Palmer’s Chapters Pertaining to Prayer and the Offices of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

In the second part of the book, entitled “Prayer in the Religion of Grace,” Palmer sets forth the covenant of grace, and then elaborates prayer in this context of grace, as it relates to the offices of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are superb chapters, but for our purposes, we will only summarize them, as they pertain specifically to the theology underlying the structure upholding our public prayers. With regard to the Father: (1) prayer may be offered to him as he is the official representative of the Godhead; (2) in whom resides the seat of sovereignty in providence; (3) whose office is to enforce the claims of the violated law; (4) who is the author and source of adoption into his family; (5) in whom is embodied the obligation of supreme worship; and (6) in whom especially we contemplate God as the portion of the soul. [104]

With regard to the Son: (1) It is the Son’s prerogative to be the immediate revealer of God (according to which, first, it is evident that the truth thus revealed furnishes the material of true prayer; second, prayer gathers confidence to itself from the entire certainty of the truth addressed to its faith; third, we consider the value of this testimony as delivered to us in the form of testimony; fourth, the scheme of grace provides that divine truth shall be made effectual in the salvation of them that believe; fifth, prayer is wonderfully enriched by the new discoveries of truth which this revelation unfolds; and sixth, through the truth thus revealed, holy beings hold communion with each other and with God); (2) the second great aspect of the Son’s work is the redemption of a lost race by the sacrifice of himself on the cross (according to which, first, only through this redemption is restored man’s forfeited right of approach to God; second, the word of the Redeemer furnishes the argument to be used in prayer; third, in the work of redemption is laid the ground of peace to the sinner’s conscience, and of security in the believer’s seasons of trial and conflict; and fourth, upon Christ, the redeemer, depends the believers progress in holiness on earth, and his hope of heaven hereafter); (3) the third aspect of the Son’s work is his intercessory pleading in the court of the Father above (by which, first, the life of Jesus, after the resurrection, was held upon a tenure by which it could not be subject to the conditions of a state of probation and of trial; second, his departure from the earth was required as proof that his work of sacrifice was finished – incapable therefore either of being supplemented or repeated; third, Christ’s translation to heaven proved the Father’s acceptance of the atonement, thereby authenticating it to our faith; fourth, Christ’s removal from earth becomes the pledge of our sanctification – teaching that sin is to be taken away from the believer as to its being no less than its guilt; and fifth, Christ must needs go to heaven as the representative of his people, in their name and on their behalf to take possession of their home); and (4) the fourth aspect of the Son’s work is his mediatorial kingdom and rule (according to which, first, this dominion is acquired through the Father’s grant; second, this mediatorial rule is not only bestowed by grant, it is also secured by a purchase; third, this mediatorial empire belongs to the Son, as the architect of grace; fourth, the government of this lower world pertains to Christ as the Second Adam; fifth, mediatorial rule is involved in Christ’s headship over the church; and sixth, if the Priest procure salvation, the King must ensure it to the redeemed). [105]

With regard to the Holy Spirit: (1) His first work is the work of inspiration in creating the sacred Scriptures, and his second work is spiritual illumination; (2) he is the living bond between the believer and Christ; (3) the Spirit’s work blends with the priestly intercession of our Lord, carrying it out in the experience of the believer, as he becomes our Advocate, the Spirit of adoption, bearing witness to the sonship of Christ; and (4) he is a seal, which marks the people of God as his possession, authenticates God’s people to the world outside, and whereby God secures the righteous to himself – the Spirit sealing the believer that he may illustrate the riches of divine grace.


1   Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 16.
2   Matthew Henry, A Method for Prayer (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 16.
3   M.M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago, 1939), 375, cited in William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, foreword by Sinclair Ferguson (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), vii.
4   Perkins, Prophesying, foreword, viii-ix.
5   Ibid., ix. On this point, it is interesting to note in passing that Perkins saw the preacher “as a spiritual apothecary whose knowledge of biblical remedies enabled him to bathe the wounds and heal the spiritual sicknesses of God’s people with the grace of Christ.”
6   Ibid., xi.
7   Ibid., 7.
8   Ibid., 9. Though the subject matter is tangential to the limited focus of this paper, I must at least mention Perkins’ marvelous compression of “the sum and substance of the message of the Bible” as a syllogism, whose major premise (entailing a description of who and what the Messiah will be) is the scope and burden of the Old Testament; whose minor premise (that Jesus meets all these requirements) is the scope and burden of the New; leads inexorably to the conclusion (therefore, that Jesus is the true Messiah). See p. 11.
9   Ibid., 69-70.
10   Ibid., 56-63.
11   Ibid., 71-76.
12   Ibid., 77.
13   Ibid..
14   To support this statement, Perkins cites 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Let us note, too, as in passing, his six-fold structuring of the Lord’s prayer, according to the headings of God’s glory, God’s kingdom, our obedience, the preservation of life, the forgiveness of sins, and the strengthening of the spirit.” (Ibid., 77.)
15   Ibid.. Note that this congregational function of affirming the words offered up by the minister the minister in prayer, by means of its assenting “Amen,” may be seen in this context as the end and affirmation of its “carefully weighing what was said” by the prophet. (See 1 Corinthians 14:29.)
16   Ibid..
17   Ibid..
18   Hughes Oliphant Old, “Leading in Prayer” Class Notes (Orlando: RTS, Winter Semester 2003).
19   Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Theology of Prayer (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1980), 2.
20   Old, “Leading in Prayer” Class Notes.
21   Palmer, Prayer, 13. He points out an interesting fact: that whereas the Shorter Catechism omits vital information, in re: the agency of the Spirit, which the Larger Catechism includes; so too does the Larger Catechism omit crucial information of its own, in re: the necessity that things be agreeable to God’s will, which the Shorter Catechism includes! Thus Palmer’s “composite” answer is rather helpful on this point.
22   Ibid., 14.
23   Ibid., 15.
24   Ibid., 16.
25   Ibid., 17.
26   Ibid., 18.
27   Ibid., 19.
28   Ibid., 19-20.
29   Ibid., 20.
30   Ibid., 23.
31   Ibid., 25.
32   Ibid., 24-25.
33   Ibid., 28.
34   Ibid., 28.
35   Ibid., 29. In the course of this material, Palmer is fascinating on the relationship between invocation and petition, as he notes how “when the heart is burdened with a desire for any good, the mind instinctively casts about to discover in the character or relations of God that which will justify the request.”
36   Ibid., 34-35. Of praise he adds, “Its natural pitch, however, is upon a lower key, both as springing from a narrower view of the divine excellency, and as involving a measure of self-contemplation, enabling the spirit to recognize its own delight.”
37   Ibid., 36.
38   Ibid., 36.
39   Ibid., 37.
40   Ibid., 38.
41   Ibid., 39.
42   Ibid., 41.
43   Ibid., 42. Palmer notes how in Greek, Latin, and English, confession means “speaking together.”
44   Ibid., 43-44. On this issue, Palmer notes that “the judgment recognizes the standard of duty, and notes the deviations from it. The conscience feels these deviations to be wrong, and fills the souls with shame. The heart kindles with a holy abhorrence of what is impure within ourselves. And the will turns from its commission ‘with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.’ Thus is the sinner purged from guilt, when his confession has been heard by him who is able to forgive.”
45   Ibid., 45.
46   Ibid., 46.
47   Ibid., 47.
48   Ibid., 48-49.
49   Ibid., 50.
50   Ibid., 51-66. See Appendix for Notes in Relation to the Offices of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
51   Miller, Thoughts, viii.
52   Ibid., xvi.
53   Ibid., 12.
54   Ibid., 14.
55   Ibid., 16.
56   Ibid., 20.
57   Ibid., 20-21.
58   Ibid., 23.
59   Ibid., 26.
60   Ibid., 49.
61   Ibid., 115.
62   Ibid., 29.
63   Ibid., 116.
64   Ibid., 116-21.
65   Ibid., 122-23. Italics mine.
66   Ibid., 123. Italics mine.
67   Ibid., 125.
68   Ibid..
69   Ibid., 128.
70   Ibid., 128-29.
71   Ibid., 131.
72   Ibid., 132.
73   Ibid., 132-33.
74   Ibid., 135.
75   Ibid., 137.
76   Miller goes on to identify frequent faults which manifest themselves in public prayer and then to list characteristics of good public prayer. These are beyond the scope of this paper, but are nevertheless very interesting; so I’ve included them as Appendices A and B. Note that in point 6 of his “frequent faults, Miller speaks of the prayer before the sermon. Therefore, despite the fact that the weight of the argument would push toward having the prayer after the sermon, it seems that Miller followed the example of the Directory of Public Worship here and had the prayer precede the sermon.
77   Henry, Method, 11.
78   Ibid., 15.
79   Ibid., 16.
80   Ibid., 19-32.
81   Ibid., 35.
82   Ibid., 35-50.
83   Ibid., 53.
84   Ibid., 53-78.
85   Ibid., 82.
86   Ibid., 82-104.
87   Ibid., 108-123.
88   Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994), 372.
89   Ibid., 374.
90   Ibid..
91   Ibid., 375.
92   Ibid., 376.
93   Ibid., 376-78.
94   Ibid., 378.
95   Ibid., 381-82.
96   Old, “Leading in Prayer” Class Notes.
97   On this topic, note the fascinating discussion by Old, when, following his in-class examination of the zahar, yadah, todah (i.e., the remembrance, thanksgiving, thank offering) structure of so much of our prayer, he discussed the sometimes subtle differences between praise (hallal), thanksgiving (yadah), and blessing (barach). Praise not the same as thanksgiving, he noted (though in Psalm 100 the words are used synonymously); they should be properly distinguished. Thanksgiving is a recounting of the mighty works of God for our salvation. Praise, on the other hand, is… “Wow!” To offer up praise is to respond to the amazing presence of God. Blessing, on the other hand, often used for thanksgiving, entails a different sense, a reflexive, reflective sense. To bless God is to reflect God’s blessing; God blesses us, and we bless him – there’s a reflexive quality at work here. These distinctions are rather interesting to bear in mind as we consider that our worship is thus framed by a movement from “praise” (behold the glory of his presence!) to blessing (we his people now reflect the glory of his presence). See Old, “Leading in Prayer” Class Notes.
98   Old, “Leading in Prayer” Class Notes. Old adds that, “though the Presbyterians conceded what is really perhaps the most important point (in having the intercessory portion of the prayer before the sermon), they also won some concessions from the Congregationalists, getting a separate invocation and a post-sermon prayer (however brief that may have been).”
2   Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 364.
100   Ibid., 365-66.
101   Miller, Thoughts, 173.
102   Miller, Thoughts, 177-215.
103   Ibid., 216-257.
104   Ibid., 199-211.
105   Ibid., 214-89.

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