Chapter 7. Public Prayer and Other Devotional Services
IT is necessary to give so much space to the function of preaching and other collateral duties in treating of a pastor’s ministrations, that a comparatively brief discussion must suffice for what concerns the devotional part of the church-service. (Compare Allon’s Essay on Worship, in Ecclesia.) It scarcely, indeed, admits of prolonged discussion, unless where the service has been permitted to grow into a mass of liturgical observances. A certain measure of simplicity of worship may still be preserved, though a liturgy is used in the main parts of the service, as is the case in some of the churches of the Reformation, Presbyterian as well as Episcopal. But in these cases the responsibility and the power of the pastor are of a very limited nature. He has the matériel of the service prepared to his hand; and to give the proper tone and character to this, is the whole that can justly be expected of him. Even that, however, is not so easy as might at first sight appear; for though it neither demands nor admits of any fresh thoughts or independent manifestations of pious feeling, it necessarily owes much of whatever interest or impressiveness may belong to it to the manner in which it is performed. If the officiating minister should go through this department of his work in a dull and spiritless style, like one treading the routine of a prescribed formalism, the performance is sure to repress and deaden the devotional feelings of the people rather than stir and quicken them into lively exercise. Let the mode of conducting divine worship be what it may, if it is to be for a congregation of believers a worship in spirit and in truth, the person who conducts it must himself enter into the spirit of the service, uttering from his own heart what he would have re-echoed from the hearts of others. And, obviously, the more beaten the track that is to be followed, the more familiar to all the specific forms of devotion, the greater at once must be the need of a lively devotional sentiment to inspirit them with life, and the difficulty also of expressing it through the appointed channels.
But with liturgical services we have at present nothing to do, as they have been rejected from a place in our public worship. With us the minister who has to address the people on God’s behalf has also to address God in behalf, and indeed in the name, of the people. The responsibility here, therefore, is considerably greater. The matter of devotion, as well as its manner and the fitting adaptation of one part of it to another, are left entirely in his hands; so that, according as he possesses or wants the requisite qualifications for the work assigned him, must the edification and comfort of the worshippers be promoted or marred in the service. It is chiefly, of course, in connection with the prayers offered in the sanctuary that these qualifications will be brought into play, but other parts of the service will also afford a certain scope for their exercise. The psalmody of the congregation is always so far under the pastor’s control, that to him belongs the selection of the pieces to be sung; consequently it is his part to see that they are appropriate to the lessons of the day, and of a kind fitted to sustain and raise the devotional spirit of the worshippers. In the majority of cases, perhaps, he may not be able to do much more directly in this line, as the musical accompaniment must be managed by others. He should, however, take an interest in this, and endeavour to diffuse a sense of its importance in the congregation, and encourage by every legitimate means its due cultivation. The remarks of Baxter on the general subject are nearly as applicable now as when they were originally penned: ‘A great part,’ says he, ‘of God’s service in the Church assemblies was wont in all ages of the Church till of late to consist in public praises and eucharistical acts, and the Lord’s day was still kept as a day of thanksgiving in the hymns and common rejoicings of the faithful, in special commemoration of the work of redemption, and the happy condition of the gospel Church. I am as apprehensive of the necessity of preaching as some others, but yet methinks the solemn praises of God should take up much more of the Lord’s day than in most places they do.’
It is not, however, the comparatively small space given to the celebration of God’s praise in public song, so much as the imperfect and unsatisfactory manner in which it is often performed, that is cause of regret. A prolonged singing of praise soon becomes wearisome, unless it is peculiarly varied and finely adjusted as to the mode of execution; and then comes the danger of allowing it to degenerate into a mere artistic display. The happy medium is to have the singing arranged and modulated, so as at fitting intervals to relieve the service, and by the lyrical fervour of sacred song, chanted to appropriate melodies, to give vent to the devotional feelings and aspirations of the worshippers. For this, unquestionably, a certain attention must be paid to the aesthetical element, to the cultivation of sacred music as an art, without which there never can be anything like a properly varied and effective psalmody; and the pastor should exert his influence, especially on the younger members of his congregation, for the purpose of inducing them to lend their efforts in this direction. Still, of course, the mere mechanical part of the work, even though it were performed with the most correct taste and propriety, is but, as it were, the shell of the service of praise; the kernel must be sought in something higher, in the spirit and life that are infused into it on the part of those who chiefly engage in it. Everything here in a manner depends on the state of devotional feeling in the congregation, which, when lively and strong, never fails to impart a freshness and fervour to the singing which would be sought in vain from simply artistic cultivation. It is therefore the primary duty of the pastor, with respect to this department of public worship, to endeavour to awaken and foster the devotional element among his people; and this will of itself, if wisely directed, dispose them to give the requisite heed and application to the subsidiary means, which, in their own place, are capable of rendering important service toward the perfecting of praise.
It is further to be remembered, that the celebration of divine praise in the sanctuary is only in part to be identified with the congregational psalmody. Formally, the chief part is to be found there; but the praise of God should also have expression given to it in the portions of Scripture read, which will sometimes, at least, contain what is preeminently matter of praise, and still more in the direct addresses made to the throne of grace. In what is called common or public prayer, thanksgivings and adorations should ever form a prominent part. And they will be a fit expression of the general sentiments of devout acknowledgment and grateful feeling, cherished by the better portion of the assembled people, only when the pastor who represents them, and speaks in their stead, is in his own soul properly responsive to the infinite goodness and manifold grace and wisdom of God. In this alone there is matter of serious concern to the pastor; and the more so when the further consideration is added, that not merely the united weekly ascription of a people’s thank-offerings to God, but also their collective experiences and desires, their confessions of sin, their sense of want and danger, their fears, temptations, hopes, deliverances, must all, in like manner, find their utterance through his lips. To be thus the representative and organ of a religious community in their stated meetings for intercourse with Heaven, is to occupy one of the highest positions at once of privilege and responsibility; and in no part of his vocation more than in this is it desirable that the pastor should be a kind of typal Christian; one in whose bosom every pious thought and feeling may lodge as in its proper home, and come forth in suitable times and ways for the glory of God and the edification of His Church. It will be a grievous mistake if this should be supposed to be a simple thing; for there can be no reasonable doubt that the difficulty of doing it aright, and doing it with some degree of regularity, is what originally led to the use of liturgies, and what still leads many persons of unquestionably sincere and earnest piety to prefer them to extempore prayer in the sanctuary. (See Shield’s edition of the Book of Common Prayer, as to the relative place of prayer and praise.)
1. The primary requisite, therefore, for pastoral work here, as for the preaching of the gospel, and, if possible, still more here, consists in the pastor’s own state, in the qualities which go to constitute a man of God. There must be an enlightened discernment and appreciation of the truth as it is in Jesus; and along with that, an experimental acquaintance with the heart, so that he may be able to hold communion with God as one who is in a sense familiar with the divine presence, and has known what it is to transact with God for his own salvation. Yet, standing as he does in the room of so many others, and pleading with God for them, he must be able to combine with a regard to self in the matters of religion a regard also to the state of those around him, repressing what is more peculiar to himself where it might fail to meet with sympathy in his fellow-worshippers. A man may not, in public prayer any more than in private, indeed he cannot, if he throws his soul into the exercise, lose his proper individuality. Both in the things he utters and the manner in which he utters them, there will undoubtedly be the impress of his own cast of thought and feeling, and in that, what will, no doubt, serve to distinguish his prayers from those of other men. Yet in public prayer this individuality should be kept within comparatively narrow bounds; since it is only what is proper to the individual believer, in so far as it is in a measure shared in, and is capable of being sympathized with, by the company of believers whom the minister for the time represents, that should find articulate expression before the throne of the Majesty on high. It is what is common to the heart of faith and love, rather than what is peculiar to one or a few, which should at such times be brought into notice. The tendency which minds of strong individuality have to run out into veins of thought and forms of expression which carry an air of extravagance to ordinary men, should here especially be kept in check. The thought of the awful presence in which we stand, and of the feelings and necessities of those who are partaking with us in the exercise, should of themselves shame into silence every idea or word which might seem to others forced and unnatural, and aimed, perhaps, at display. (There could scarcely, perhaps, be found a better description of what is here meant than is given by Jonathan Edwards in his account of the eminently devout David Brainerd’s manner in prayer: ‘This,’ he says, ‘was very agreeable; most becoming a worm of the dust, and a disciple of Christ addressing an infinitely great and holy God and Father of mercies, not with florid expressions, or a studied eloquence, not with any intemperate vehemence, or indecent boldness. It was at the greatest possible distance from any appearance of ostentation, and from anything that might look as though he meant to recommend himself to those that were about him, or set himself off to their acceptance. It was free also from vain repetitions. He expressed himself with the strictest propriety, with weight and pungency; and yet what his lips uttered seemed to flow from the fulness of his heart.’ A very different sort of praying, therefore, from that mentioned by an American periodical not long ago of a Mr. Everett, and characterized as ‘the most eloquent prayer ever addressed to a Boston audience; ‘a rhetorical effusion, formally, no doubt, addressed to God; but in reality, as the paper stated, to the audience that listened to it with such admiration. Prayers of that description do not reach beyond the place of meeting where they are spoken.)
2. If the possession of a Christian state and sympathy with the Christian mind of a congregation be the primary element in a minister’s qualifications for conducting aright the united prayers and thanksgivings of those among whom he ministers, the cultivation of an appropriate manner may certainly be placed next. It is of importance that the devotional spirit should give vent to itself in a natural and becoming mode of expression. For devotion, as well as popular speech, has a style of its own, though the one is no more than the other a uniform style. There may be as many shades of difference in the mode of presenting prayer to God, as in the sacred oratory which aims at instructing and convincing a fellow-creature. But never, when sincere and genuine, will the one take precisely the hue and tone of the other; since no truly humble and enlightened Christian can speak forth his feelings to God after the same manner that he would utter his mind to one of like passions and infirmities with himself. The former kind of address will naturally be pervaded by a subdued, reverential, hallowed air, which, if not wholly wanting in the other, will not at least be found in anything like the same measure; and the perfection in this respect may be said to be reached when the feeling instinctively arises which has been known to be expressed respecting an exemplary pastor, ‘The man prays as if he lived at the throne of grace.’
Let it not be imagined, however, that there is any need for the manner being artificial or stereotyped, as if some peculiar pitch of voice, or a kind of tone and cadence essentially different from that of ordinary discourse, were required to give to prayer its appropriate devotional impress. There are cases, no doubt, in which the devotional spirit does clothe itself with some such peculiarity, and does so, possibly, without the effect being sensibly marred in the experience of those whom use has familiarized to the distinctive habit. It is still, however, a defect, as all mannerism is; and in the great majority of cases it will be found, if closely investigated, to prove more or less an impediment to the proper efficiency of the service. The artificial form insensibly usurps to a certain extent the genuine spirit of devotion. Some please themselves with the tones of a sanctimonious manner, instead of pressing into the realities of a true spiritual intercourse with Heaven; while others, perhaps, suffer themselves to be arrested by the peculiarity of the manner, instead of being silently and powerfully borne along with the stream of spiritual thoughts and aspirations expressed. To aid this concurrence of devotional sentiment, an agreeable simplicity and naturalness of manner in the officiating minister is of great service; it should be such as befits one with his habits of thought and feeling when assuming the attitude of profound reverence and holy earnestness. Such a manner, however, though in itself only what might be deemed natural, may not be quite easily arrived at; in certain cases, at least, it may call for a good deal of patient and assiduous effort, but it is what no one should rest satisfied without having in good measure attained. And even when attained, it is of real avail only when it is the vehicle of a quickened spirit. (Two things may be mentioned in particular as desirable to be avoided in prayer. One is quickness and rapidity of utterance, a fault young preachers are very apt to fall into; and objectionable, both because it has an irreverent appearance, and also because the people cannot intelligently follow. The other is boisterousness, which Mr. James justly discriminates from earnestness; the confounding of the two he characterizes as ‘a mistake too commonly made by many, who work themselves up into vociferation and actual contortion. Such vehemence, ‘he properly adds, ‘like a violent blast of wind, puts out the languid flame of devotion, when a gentle breeze would fan it into greater intensity.’—Earnest Ministry, p. 125 sq.)
Perhaps more pains should be taken in this direction than is commonly done even by the more pious portion of evangelical ministers. Cecil has noted it as a defect that appeared among them in his time, although his mode of doing so, as it appears in his Remains, is by no means free from exception. He is reported to have said, ‘The leading defect in Christian ministers is want of devotional habit. The Church of Rome made much of this habit. The contests accompanying and following the Reformation, with something of an indiscriminate enmity against some of the good of that Church as well as the evil, combined to repress this spirit in the Protestant writings; whereas the mind of Christ seems to be, in fact, the grand end of Christianity in its operation upon man.’ There is an element of truth undoubtedly in the remark, both on the Protestant and the Romish side; but it is too broadly announced, and with less of the clearness and discrimination which usually distinguish Mr. Cecil’s remarks. He could scarcely have meant, though the words ascribed to him seem to imply as much, that there is more either of the mind of Christ or of true devotion among Popish priests than with evangelical ministers as a class. The whole that could justly be said, and probably the whole really meant by Mr. Cecil, is that the devotional element has had a more prominent place assigned to it in the system represented by the one class than in that represented by the other, and that in this relative prominence the Romish party have acted more in accordance with the mind of Christ. But in such a matter the appearance must not be taken for the measure of the reality. In the public services of the Church of Rome, the devotional form has become well-nigh the one and all; and the officiating priests, who are constantly employed about the services, naturally acquire much of the devotional habit; though, as possessed and exercised by them, one would never think of characterizing it as a nearer approach to the mind of Christ than what is to be met with in Protestant worship. Still something may be learned from them in respect to the point to which they have given their chief attention; and however little the devotional habit may be worth, when unaccompanied by the devotional spirit, it is not in itself to be undervalued.
3. Another thing requiring careful attention in respect to public prayer is the selection of appropriate language, the use of a suitable and becoming phraseology. Very commonly this may be assumed as a thing almost certain to follow from the possession, in any adequate measure, of the spirit and manner already adverted to. But such is not uniformly the case; and by ministers themselves it should never be regarded as a matter of course, coming without pains or consideration on their part; it should engage more or less of their attention. And the fundamental ground on which they should proceed is the representative position they are called to occupy in presenting the adorations and prayers of the congregation. The officiating minister personates a body of worshippers; he must therefore endeavour to give his ideas the form and clothing which they can readily understand and appropriate as their own. If the language is too ornate, if it is such as would appear to them artificial and far-fetched, it will inevitably jar upon their feelings, and disturb the heavenward flow of their thoughts and desires; to suit its purpose, it must, in general, be embodied in such a mode of expression as they are wont to associate with the exercises of devotion.
Now, to this nothing is more indispensable than simplicity; it is an unfailing characteristic of all profound and earnest devotional utterances. It is so even when these take a poetical form, and appear in psalms and hymns, though from the demands of the verse a certain freedom in respect to language is easily conceded to them. But only within comparatively narrow limits; for in such compositions unusual forms of expression, remote or technical terms, and pompous phraseology are fatal to success. ‘Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found that the simplest expression is the most sublime,’ said Samuel Johnson truly, though he made a wrong application of it, when on the ground of this thought he argued against the possibility of a high religious poetry. But the fact is decisive as to the proper style and diction of prayer; if it wants simplicity, it wants the most essential element of adaptation to the minds of a Christian congregation. And for more effectually securing this element, or securing it in the best possible form, the whole should be cast much in the mould of Scripture, and should be marked by a free use of its language. For, being the storehouse alike of God’s more special communications to men, and of the returns made to Him by His more elect worshippers, Scripture provides, not merely in the matter of its contents, but also in the very form into which they are thrown, the best directory and most fitting vehicle of devotion. Its utterances of faith, of desire and hope, were in a peculiar sense prompted by the Spirit of God; and the more that believers are under the power of His grace, the more will they ever be disposed to pour out their hearts before God in what may justly be termed the Spirit’s own style. I am not, however, to be understood as indicating that passages of Scripture alone should be employed in prayer; this is neither necessary nor is it expedient. A prayer simply and wholly composed of such passages cannot fail to wear a sort of borrowed, miscellaneous, and commonplace character. It will seem as if the mind, when speaking only in forms prepared to its hand and culled from all parts of Scripture, were somewhat formal and apathetic in its own frame. Yet, while Scripture should not constitute all, it should undoubtedly give the tone and character to all. And he who would excel in this spiritual gift must be at pains to have the word of Christ dwelling in him richly. (In addition to the more general directions given above, I would notice a few things which ought to be avoided in prayer. I. Ungrammatical or vulgar expressions, such as ‘Grant to impart unto us;’ ‘We commit us unto Thee,’ ‘We commend us unto Thee, and to the word of Thy grace. ‘Now we may commend others to God and His Word, but it is a very inaccurate, and indeed scarcely intelligible mode of speech to say that we commend ourselves to these. And I confess I do not like the expression, ‘Come into our midst, ‘or ‘Be in our midst.’ 2. The too frequent use of the same forms of expression, such as Heavenly Father, or any particular name of God, when almost solely used, has the appearance of a kind of mannerism; and Oh! much repeated, becomes a mere expletive. Scripture is in this a fine example. 3. Amatory language, such as ‘Lovely Jesus, ‘Dear Lord,’ ‘Sweet Saviour.’ Here, again, Scripture is the best model. 4. Undue familiarities, which may take different forms, such as ‘metrical quotations,’ extreme professions of unworthiness, personalities either of a flattering or sarcastic kind; all such things are in bad taste.)
4. In addition to these general prescriptions, which have respect to the matter as a whole, I would earnestly advise a certain measure of special preparation for the devotional work of the sanctuary. The preparation, indeed, should be twofold, consisting partly in having the heart brought into a suitable frame for, the exercise, and partly in having it provided with fitting materials of thought and expression.
The former is also, no doubt, somewhat general; it must be in a great degree habitual to the minister; and yet, even where it is so, he will rarely find that he can safely dispense with some special pains of a preparatory nature before actually proceeding to the duty. The bustle and anxiety connected with the working out of his discourses for the Sabbath, will naturally have the effect of repressing the immediate outgoing of devotional sentiment, will even occasionally render the mind less apt to cherish it; and a little time will be needed to get the desires of the heart back, and the mind raised to such a spiritual tone, as will render the work of communion with God altogether congenial to its existing state.
In regard, however, to the other kind of preparation, that which refers to the providing of materials of thought and expression suited for the occasion, something more precise and definite may be said. For, as the pastor, when going to conduct the services of the sanctuary, has to bear on his heart various interests and relations, none of which should be overlooked or passed slightly over, he both may and should have in his eye distinct topics for notice in prayer, and particular trains of thought to be pursued. Not otherwise will he be able to give sufficient freshness and point to his supplications, or present them in a form altogether appropriate to the occasion. Entirely unpremeditated prayers will usually partake much of the character of unpremeditated discourses; they will consist chiefly of commonplaces which float upon the memory, rather than of thoughts and feelings that well up from the hidden man of the heart; and as they have stirred no depths in the bosom of the speaker, so they naturally awaken but a feeble response in the minds of the hearers. Nor can it fail, when this offhand method is systematically pursued, that sentiments and expressions will occasionally come out which are in bad taste, or palpably wanting in adaptation to the time and circumstances wherein they are employed. Hence, I fear, it is that there is so often a marked difference in the interest felt, even by good people, in the prayers offered at their stated meetings for worship, as compared with that arising from the sermons delivered; the one does not, while the other does, spring from a background of well-arranged thought and spiritual consideration.
A sensible American writer in the Princeton Review, some time ago gave expression to the same view of the subject, and supported it by some remarks that are well deserving of consideration. ‘Ministers,’ he says, ‘labour hard to prepare to address the people, but venture on addressing God without premeditation.’ (Quoted in British and foreign Evang. Review, p. 14.) Dr. Witherspoon says, ‘that the Rev. Dr. Gillies of Glasgow, who in his judgment exceeded any man he had ever heard in the excellency of his prayers, was accustomed to devote unwearied pains to preparation for this part of his ministerial work; and for the first ten years of his ministry never wrote a sermon without writing a prayer appropriate to it. This was also Calvin’s habit; and many of the sermons printed in his works have prayers annexed. An aid which Calvin found needful, no man living need be ashamed of employing.’
It is true that most of the prayers appended to Calvin’s printed sermons are very short, more like brief collects than regularly constructed prayers, expressing in a few pregnant words the thoughts and desires naturally suggested by the subject which had formed the matter of discourse. But the mind which was habituated to such pieces of devotional writing could not be negligent of preparation for more lengthened services of the same description, whether they might take the form or not of written compositions. Probably the more advisable course for ministers of settled congregations will be to meditate, rather than formally commit to writing, the chief prayers they are going to offer in the public meetings for worship; to think carefully over, occasionally also to note down, the train of thought, or the special topics and petitions they mean to introduce, with such passages of Scripture as are appropriate to the occasion. The mind will thus be kept from wandering at large in the exercise, and yet will move with more freedom than if it were trammelled by the formality of a written form; will be able more readily to surrender itself to the hallowed influences of the moment. At the same time, I cannot but regard it as a good exercise for the pastor, calculated to improve his gifts in this direction, and to render him more apt and felicitous in his method of conducting public prayer, if he should accustom himself, not only to peruse some of the best models of devotional utterance, but also to compose particular forms for his own use. Such a practice, though only pursued at intervals, will bring here also a measure of that advantage which always springs ‘from sustained application and cultivated skill; and cannot but help to check the tendency, which is so apt of itself to grow, of doing little beforehand even by way of premeditation, and of performing the service in a kind of slovenly and conventional manner.
5. Nothing has yet been said as to the length of time proper to be spent in public prayer, or to the greater or less frequency with which it should be introduced into the regular services of the sanctuary. But these are obviously points which call for some consideration. They are also closely connected with each other; for the less frequent the acts of common prayer are, the more protracted will each particular exercise naturally be. It has been for long a very common practice in Scotland to have only two prayers at each meeting for public worship; and to make the first prayer, the one before sermon, by much the longer of the two, so that it not unusually runs out into a continuous address to God of twenty minutes or upwards. I cannot but think this practice unhappy, since it necessarily tends to fatigue the mind by too long a strain in this one direction, and to leave the service of the sanctuary bereft of that variety of relief which, within certain limits, are not only allowable, but of material use, as helping to sustain the attention and keep alive the devotion of the worshippers. A measure of respect is due to an established practice in worship, even though, abstractedly considered, it may not approve itself as in all respects the best; and it would be unwise rashly to interfere with it, or strike at once into a path altogether new. It is right, however, to bear in mind, that the usage in question rests upon no proper authority; that it is, indeed, an innovation of comparatively late times; for, according to the authorized Directory for public worship, there should be at the principal meeting of the congregation each Lord’s day three several prayers, and, with the Lord’s prayer, four; for the latter, though not authoritatively enjoined, is yet recommended as deserving a place in the stated observances of worship. (‘And because the prayer which Christ taught His disciples is not only a pattern of prayer, but itself a most comprehensive prayer, we recommend it also to be used in the prayers of the Church Directory.’) The order there set forth as the most fitting to be observed consists, first, of a brief prayer as soon as the minister enters the pulpit, composed chiefly of adoration and invocation; then the singing of Psalms and the reading of sacred Scripture, of which a portion is to be taken as well from the Old as from the New Testament; after this comes another prayer of greater length, in which there should be made humble confession of sin, also acknowledgment of the loving-kindness and mercy of God in providing the blessings of salvation, with an earnest and varied supplication of an interest in these for different ranks and conditions of men; then the discourse, which is again to be followed by prayer, singing of Psalms, and the benediction. No particular place is assigned for the introduction of the Lord’s prayer; this was left to the discretion of the minister, as was the place also for supplicating the divine blessing on magistrates, rulers, and other subjects of public interest; they might be noticed before or after sermon, as appeared most suitable and convenient. As a whole, this order is undoubtedly better than the one previously referred to, though I am not inclined to advocate a uniform and rigid adherence even to it; and whenever a change is deemed desirable on the mode of service that has been in use in any congregation, care should always be taken to carry the feelings and inclinations of the people along with us.
Perhaps the chief point in respect to which a nearer approach to the Directory should be generally aimed at, is the introduction of two prayers before sermon in the principal service instead of one. The advantage of this will be, that the devotional element will obtain a more prominent place, and also that, by dividing into two what otherwise would need to be compressed into one, each exercise will be less protracted, and the attention, especially of the young and the less informed, will be more easily sustained. But whatever may be the precise number of devotional services, public prayer should never be much protracted, should rarely if ever, I would say, exceed at a stretch a quarter of an hour, and, as a general rule, two prayers within that limit would be greatly preferable to one going beyond it. For, if a few individuals in a congregation of strong intellects and ardent piety might be found capable of enjoying and profiting by a more prolonged exercise of devotion, with the great majority it will certainly be quite otherwise. And in nothing does undue protraction more infallibly defeat itself than in prayer; for if once the minds of the worshippers relax their attention and get into a wandering mood, the proper frame is gone, and it will rarely be possible to have it again restored by subsequent effort.
Further specification or more minute detail on such a subject seems to be unnecessary. A right state of feeling regarding it, with some measure of common sense, will be of much more avail than a thousand specific rules and directions. Let the pastor, first of all, place this branch of public duty among the things which demand his earnest consideration, and which, with regard alike to the substance and manner of the exercise, call for serious forethought and application. Let him also bear in mind that the spirit manifested by him, and the power put forth in the devotional parts of the service, will be sure to leave its impression on the minds of his people; and that, according as he rises toward the proper measure of excellence, so are they likely to become elevated in their tone and practice as worshippers. Let him still further bear in mind that, for the character of other parts of the service, and especially for the effect of the discourses he may deliver, much depends on the interest he throws into the work of prayer, and the spirit of devotion thereby evoked on the part of the people. For when the result in this respect is as it should be, when the hearts of the people have really been borne along with the pastor in his supplications at the throne of grace, and a profound sense of God’s presence is in consequence awakened in them, vast preparation is made for the earnest consideration and belief of the truth. They are thus brought to feel that it is with God rather than with man they have to do in the treatment they give to the preached gospel, and that the matter demands their most serious thought. On this account, no doubt, it partly is that the ministrations of deeply pious, though comparatively weak or unlettered men, have often been accompanied with results upon the hearers more lasting and productive of spiritual good than by the exertions of those who have been able to bring the highest powers and attainments to the work. The spirit of prayer resting upon them diffuses itself among the audience, and disposes them to receive the word as it is preached in simplicity and godly sincerity. Hence, seasons that have been remarkable for the spirit of grace and supplication have also been the most noted for the successful preaching of the gospel, even sometimes when the style of preaching has been by no means distinguished for the graces of pulpit oratory. Nor is the fact unworthy of notice which is reported by Gillies (Historical Collections, p. 201.) to have been observed by a Mr. Hutcheson, minister of Killellan: ‘When I compare,’ he said, ‘the times before the Restoration with the times since the Revolution, I must own that the young ministers preach accurately and methodically; but far more of the power and efficacy of the Spirit and grace of God went along with sermons in those days than now. And for my own part (all the glory be to God), I seldom set my foot in a pulpit in those times but I had notice of some blessed effects of the word.’ It were wrong, perhaps, to ascribe the whole of this difference to the greater prevalence of the spirit of prayer at the one period as compared with the other; for various things of a peculiarly grave and stirring kind undoubtedly contributed to make the period before the Restoration and that also preceding the Revolution times of great moral earnestness and awakened interest about the concerns of salvation in Scotland; but it assuredly had an important bearing on the matter. The public troubles and convulsions then constantly transpiring drove the hearts alike of pastors and people to close communion with God, and prompted the one to preach and the others to hear in a different manner from what is too often witnessed in more quiet and easy-going times. Such things are lessons in Providence to us, and it is our duty to profit by them, yet so as to make due allowance for circumstances of place and time, and thinking rather of the general principles of instruction furnished by them than of simply adopting them as patterns for servile imitation.