The duty of prayer

Daily Reading for November 26 • Isaac Watts, Hymnwriter, 1748

The duty of prayer is so great and necessary a part of religion, that every degree of assistance toward the discharge of it will be always acceptable to pious minds. The inward and spiritual performance of this worship is taught us in many excellent discourses; but a regular scheme of prayer, as a Christian exercise, or a piece of holy skill, has been much neglected. The form, method, and expression, together with other attendants of it, such as voice and gesture, have been so little treated of, that few Christians have any clear or distinct knowledge of them: and yet all these have too powerful an influence upon the soul in its most spiritual exercises; and they properly fall under various directions of nature and scripture. Now, while institutions of Logic and Rhetoric abound, that teach us to reason aright, and to speak well among men, why should the rules of speaking to God be so much untaught?

It is a glory to our profession, that there is a great number of ministers in our day and nation, who are happy in the gift of prayer, and exercise it continually in an honorable and useful manner. Yet they have been contented to direct others to this attainment merely by the influence of a good example. Thus, all are taught to pray, as some profess to teach French and Latin; i.e., only by rote; whereas, those that learn by rule, as well as by imitation, acquire a greater readiness of just and proper expression in speaking those languages upon every occasion.

I am persuaded that one reason of this neglect has been the angry zeal for parties among us, which has discouraged men of sober and moderate principles from attempting much on this subject, while the zealots have been betrayed into two extremes. Some contend earnestly for pre-composed set forms of prayer, and will worship no other way. These have little need of any other instructions but to be taught to read well, since the words, matter, and method of their prayers are already appointed. Other violent men, in extreme opposition to them, have indulged the irregular wanderings of thought and expression, lest by a confinement to rules, they should seem to restrain the Spirit, and return to carnal ordinances.

But, if the leaders of one party had spent as much time in learning to pray, as they have done in reading liturgies, and vindicating their imposition; and if the warm writers of the other side, together with their just cautions against quenching the Spirit, had more cultivated this divine skill themselves, and taught Christians regularly how to pray; I believe the practice of free prayer had been more universally approved, and the fire of this controversy had never raged to the destruction of so much charity. My design in this treatise has been to write a prayer book without forms; and I have sought to maintain the middle way, between the distant mistakes of contending Christians.

From “A Guide to Prayer” by Isaac Watts, in Aids to Devotion: in Three Parts, including Watts’ Guide to Prayer by Isaac Watts (Boston: Lincoln and Emands, 1831).

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