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The next source of evidence here looked to, is the practice of the apostles; which, so far as it can be ascertained from scripture, seems much in fayour of us. The only instances of their own prayers which have been handed down to us, are two: That in the first chapter of the Acts, relative to the supplying of the place of Judas; and that in the fourth chapter of the same book, after their return from prison. To say the least, these prayers have much the appearance of preconcert. Their being on record, is in agreement with the sentiment. So is its being said, that the apostles put up the prayers as a company, without any notice of a leading voice. But what most looks this way, in the last of the two prayers, is its being stated, that the company “lifted up their voices with one accord:” Or, with one mind” which is a more strict translation. Now it is difficult to conceive of there having been many voices, and but one mind, except on the principle of preinditing. In what follows in holy writ, there are but few references to occasions of social prayer. In these references, it is not even alleged, that there is any fact proving it to have been.extemporaneous. The two facts presented on the other side, are not here deemed to amount to more than probabilities. But there is another fact, on which much more stress may be laid. It is the allowed attendance of the Jewish Christians on the service of the temple, which continued to the time of its destruction. This itself is presumptive evidence, that Christian worship was like the Jewish, as to the point in question; because, if it had been otherwise, and a new way had been adopted of greater purity and perfection, the very prayers of the Jews would have been unfit for Christians to have joined in, now that clearer light had beamed on them. In consequence of this, such prayers would have been abandoned; as classing with other beggarly elements, to which they had been long in
bondage, but from which Christ had now made them free.
: As the subject has been brought before you in the historick form; it will be in analogy with what has been already offered, to descend to the ages subsequent to that of the apostles; because the practice of the one reflects back its light on the other. Of the times immediately following the days of the apostles, very few monuments have descended to us. We however have early accounts of titles de signating the devotions of Christians; such as “common prayers," "solemn prayers" and " constituted prayers;” which titles, seem to apply to forms. And besides, within the times in which the Church was as yet free from the superstitions at last grafted on her institutions, there were prayers, especially for the administration of the Eucharist; which have been handed down to us with such evidence of authenticity, as has not been questioned. Now if such was, at such a time, the practice of the Christian Church in general; how, we may ask, did it happen, unless sanctioned by usage from the beginning? Did Christians, in different parts of the world, at a time when no general councils of the Church were held, fall from primitive purity, with a criminal consent of mind; but without leav. ing any vestiges of the change? And was there no advocate of the primitive practice thus abandoned, who would lift up his voice against the dangerous novelty? Nothing of the kind appears: And the subject stands on quite a different ground, from those errours of which we can trace the rise and progress. It would therefore seem, that while some are in pursuit of a perfection of piety, not to be found in forms, the sober-minded Christian may be content with the measure of it which the Church possessed, when her highest praise were the holy lives of her members; and while she continued to offer up her sacrifices on the altar of persecution.
After this statement of the origin of our mode of publick prayer, it would not be doing justice to the subject, if the noticing of its utility were omitted: The utility of the individual's knowing what petitions he is to consent to, and therefore being excused from the necessity of calling in the exercise of his judgment, before the yielding of the devotion of the heart; the utility also to the congregation, in not being subjected to the consequences of the ignorance or the vanity of a minister, occasionally officiating. Nothing is further from the present de. sign, than to bring the charge against any of insufficiency for such a holy exercise, on the mere ground of their practice being different from our own. On the contrary, it is confessed, that there are many to whom this applies, who habitually put up prayers, worthy of being heard on earth and actually heard in heaven. But such would consent in the remark, that nothing can be imagined too extravagant, to be prompted by the wild zeal of some persons, in the act of prayer: descending to idle declamation, to impious familiarities, and to low buffoonery. If the evil were no greater, than the defacing of prayers by vulgar, or by puerile, or by ungrammatical, or by abstruse expressions; it would be a sufficient reason for the rescuing of the subject from the discretion of the individual. For although the Almighty Father does not expect from any of his children, beyond the talents and the opportunities bestowed; and, of course, the devout prayer of the meanest of them, however discordant in expres. sion, is as acceptable to him as in other circumstances the most correct and polished style; yet, when we render our imperfect return of gratitude for his mercies, it should be from each of us the best he has to offer; and therefore, from collective bodies, what the most intelligent among them must approve of.
The reasons which have been offered are sufficient. And yet, they derive additional evidence from the manifest insufficiency of the authorities, which are commonly urged from scripturc, in favour of unpremeditated prayer.
There is pleaded the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and its effects on the assembled disciples; which are pretended to bear a near resemblance of the agitations produceck in some assemblies, under the praying of their ministers. But the subject of that passage, has in reality no connexion with the present. It does not even appear, that prayer was any part of the effect produced. If it were, whatever was peculiar to the occasion, was the effect of miracle evident to the senses. Besides, the whole design of the extraordinary dispensation, was to convey to the apostles in a most signal manner, and to be witnessed • by numbers from various quarters then assembled
to celebrate a festival-the gift of divers languages, for the preaching of the gospel among all nations. If the events of that day be necessary to spiritual prayer, how was it offered up, as we find in scripture, by saints of preceding ages; who have left devotions bearing evident impressions of the unction from above? But if, after all, the passage can be thought by any to apply to the present subject, they ought to consider it as extending beyond what has been as yet pretended; and as proving, that every member of the assembly should put up his prayers, as the Spirit may give him utterance:” For otherwise, what the minister delivers, though it should be confessed a spiritual prayer to himself, is a form and nothing more to those who follow him.
Another misapplied text, is where St. Paul says
I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the understanding also.” The praying with the spirit, is supposed to be put in opposition to the praying with a form. But it might have been expected, that the passage would have been secured from such abuse, by the words immediately following—“I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also.” The absurdity of joining musick
and poetry to the unpremeditated effusions of the heart, has rescued this part of the passage from a similar interpretation: And it is not easy to perceive, that precomposed prayers are inconsistent with praying with the spirit, any more than precomposed psalmody with singing with the spirit. In truth, the passage has no connexion with the subject, as the context may plainly show. The praying with the spirit and the singing with the spirit, were the praying and the singing in a foreign language, under the gift of inspiration: And this, as the apostle shows, could be of no benefit to the hearers, without interpretation; which he calls praying and singing with the understanding.
There is another passage, in which the same apostle speaks of " having a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof." Now although there is a misunderstanding of these words, when applied as here alluded to; yet we might allow the construction, without admitting its effect. Forms of prayer, are not alleged to be an actual praying; and it will be acknowledged by all, that the best forms may be made use of, without a spark of the Holy Spirit which they breathe. Still, the passage is misunderstood by those who so apply it. For the form of godliness there spoken of, as the original word* proves, is a show-an appearance-a pretence of it. In short, the matter censured is hypocrisy, not formality; although this itself is not piety.
I desist from the exposure of the poverty of such pleas; and conclude with confidence, that, when we read in the bible of the prayers of the saints being an incense presented by the holy angels before the throne of God, the sweet savour of it is not spoil. ed, by their being previously considered and indited; under the influence of an ardent piety, combined with correct ideas of the evangelical dispensation. (See Dissertation XII.]