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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Forms of Prayer
are set prayers, prepared to be used in worship, public and private. As to the propriety and utility of such forms there has been much dispute. The arguments are about as follows.
I. From Scripture. —
1. On the one hand it is asserted against the use of forms that "there is not the slightest trace in all the New Testament of any established liturgical service of Christian worship. There are no forms of prayer prescribed for such worship — a thing which we conceive must be inevitable if such liturgical form had been the best form, the most accordant with the will of the Great Head over all things to the Church, and the most consonant with the mind of the Spirit, the most appropriate for the bestowment and exercise of his influences. In things of much less importance we have explicit directions; and it is hardly to be supposed, if a liturgy for public worship were most appropriate for the wants of men, and most agreeable to the will of God, that there should have been no directions, nor even intimations in regard to it. It is hardly to be. supposed, when all things were set in order in the churches, that this main thing should have been neglected, or left at loose ends — so loose that not a single trace even of so much as a prescribed articular confession of faith or form of prayer can be found in the New Testament oracles" (Cheever). In the same spirit, Coleman (Apostolical and Primitive Church, chapter 11) undertakes to prove,
1, that the use of forms of prayer is opposed to the spirit of the Christian dispensation;
2, that it is opposed to the example of Christ and of his apostles; and,
3, that it is unauthorized by their instructions.
2. On the other hand, in favor of forms, it is declared that ‘ the slightest acquaintance with Scripture is enough to convince cavillers that contrary to Scripture could not be that practice for which we can plead the precedent of Moses and Miriam, and the daughters of Israel, of Aaron and his sons when they blessed the people, of Deborah and Barak; when the practice was even more directly sanctioned by the Holy Ghost at the time he inspired David and the Psalmists; for what are the Psalms but an inspired form of prayer for the use of the Church under the Gospel, as well as under the law? The services of the synagogue, too, it is well known, were conducted according to a prescript form. To those services our blessed Lord. did himself conform; and severely as he reproved the Jews for their departure, in various particulars, from the principles of their fathers, against their practice in this particular never did he utter one word of censure; nay, he confirmed the practice when he himself gave to his disciples a form of prayer, and framed that prayer, too, on the model, and in some degree in the very words, of prayers then in use. Our Lord, moreover, when giving his directions to the rulers of his Church, at the same time that he conferred on them authority to bind and to loose, directed them to agree touching what they should ask for, which seems almost to convey an injunction to the rulers of every particular Church to provide their people with a form of prayer" (Hook). But "far more weight than all other arguments together has the one obvious and simple reason that our Lord's especial blessing and favorable reception of petitions is bestowed on those who, assembling in his name, shall agree touching what they shall ask in his name. Now this surely implies the exclusive use of precomposed prayers in a congregation, since it plainly seems an impossibility for uninspired men to agree together in a prayer offered up by one of them if they do not know at least the substance of the prayer before they hear him utter the words. In their private devotions, let individuals address their Father who seeth in secret in any expressions (that are but intelligible to themselves) which occur at the moment. But congregational prayer, common supplication, joint worship, is a very different thing. And accordingly our Lord supplies to his disciples no form of words for solitary devotion, but does teach them a form evidently designed for joint worship. The contrast is most remarkable: ‘ Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,' etc.; when ye pray, say, ‘ Our Father,' etc. Our Lord, by teaching this form (and which he delivered on two distinct occasions in nearly the same words — Matthew 6:9, and Luke 11:1-2), gave the strongest possible sanction to the use of precomposed prayers for congregational worship."
II. From Antiquity and Usage. — Extreme views are maintained as to the usage of the primitive Church in prayer.
1. On the one hand, lord King says (Constitution of the Primitive Church), "There is not the least mention of fixed forms in any of the primitived writings, nor the least word or syllable tending thereto, that I can find, which is a most unaccountable silence if ever such there were, but rather some expressions intimating the contrary." One of the principal authorities which he adduces is Justin Martyr, who, describing the manner of the prayer before the celebration of the Lord's Supper, says that the bishop sent up prayers and praises to God with his utmost ability (ὅση δύναμις ). This he expounds, that he prayed with the best of his abilities, invention, expression, and judgment, exerting his own gifts and parts in suitable manner and apt expression. He also quotes Tertullian and Origen in vindication of his views, that written forms of prayer were never used in the Church. To the same effect Coleman (Apost, Church, chapter 11) primitive worship," and that their use, in fact, "was unknown in the primitive Church." In proof of this position, he (with lord King) adduces Justin Martyr (t 165) (translation by Semisch, 1:72), and Tertullian (t 220) (Apolog. chapter 39), who uses the phrase we pray without a monitor, because from the heart (sine monitore, quia de pectore), and also the fact that the four earliest liturgies originated in the 4th century.
2. On the other hand, it is argued that the Jewish synagogue: had its liturgy, to which Christ and the apostles conformed; that John Baptist taught his disciples to pray, and that Christ gave a form to his followers in answer to their request: that if the four ancient liturgies can only be traced to the 4th century, there are numerous passages in the fathers that imply their use in the apostolic age, and that fragments of them as far back as Clemens (A.D. 194) and Dionysius of Alexandria (247) are found; that the passages from Justin and Tertullian, rightly interpreted, bear as strongly in favor of liturgies as against them; that the Apostolical Canons (q.v.) enjoin them; and that, from the 4th century downwards, both the Eastern and Western churches have uniformly used forms of prayer. On the historical questions as to the early use of liturgies, (See LITURGY).
III. From the Tendencies and Results of their Use.
1. Against forms, it is alleged that those adopted in one age are unsuitable to another; that the perpetual repetition of the same prayers makes them wearisome, and destroys their significancy; that they must often be unsuited to the occasion, to the sermon, and to the circumstances of the congregation; and that their general tendency is, and always has been, to formalism and a mere outside worship, not of the heart, but of the lips.
2. For the use of forms, it is asserted that the forms in use are, like the Psalms, from which they are largely derived, adapted to the worship of the Church in all ages; that forms are not as wearisome to a devout mind as extempore prayers of the same length; that for special occasions special prayers can always be framed; and that their tendency has been proved, in the history of the Church, to be most salutary. It is further objected to extemporaneous prayers that
(1) "it must be generally impossible that the whole congregation should join in a prayer they never had heard before, the instant it is uttered; uniformly employing the same extemporaneous prayer."
(2) That free prayer gives too little scope to the congregation; nothing is left for them to do; they are, throughout, passive and receptive; they hear the minister pray rather than join in public prayer; at best, they follow the minister rather than worship in prayer.
(3) That free prayer tends to degenerate into preaching or exhortation; that the preacher can hardly fail to aim at edifying his congregation instead of being simply their mouthpiece in the act of worship, and so his prayers become homiletical instead of devotional.
(4) That unpremeditated prayers are apt to depend on the impulse of the moment in the preacher, his state of health, etc., and may therefore be either short and cold on the one hand, or long and diffusive on the other; and that it is apt, therefore, to be personal rather than representative, if the prayer is the natural outflow of the minister's heart, which, on the theory, it ought to be.
A judicious writer in the Brit. and For. Evang. Rev. (July, 1857), after stating that there are only three positions possible on this question — (1) the use of forms, with the exclusion of free prayer; (2) free prayer, excluding all forms; (3) the combination, in greater or lesser measure, of both argues that the Reformers and fathers of Protestantism favored the third. "In practice they stood precisely midway between the two antagonist positions of modern times, and can be legitimately claimed as partisans by neither. They were the advocates neither of form nor of freedom, but of both. They at once sanctioned the use of liturgical aids, and vindicated the right of personal freedom, Whether rightly or wrongly, whether as a remnant of the old bondage which they could not all at once throw off, or the dictate of that divine conservative wisdom which in most things so marvellously guided them in reforming, not new founding, the Church, having regard also, perhaps, in some measure, to the circumstances and necessities of their times, the fact, at least, is historically certain that with one consent they aimed rather at the combination and mutual cooperation of both elements than the exclusive predominance of either.
While not confining their churches to any unbending ritual, they yet deemed it their duty. to provide for them such fit and solemn forms of common prayer as should serve at once as a model and as an aid in the public worship of God. This was the principle alike of Knox and of Cranmer, of Calvin equally with Luther and Melancthon. At Geneva, at Zurich, at Wittenberg, at St. Andrew's — wherever the great leaders of the Reformation were at liberty to carry out their views, the solemn service of the house of God proceeded according to a certain normal order, which was designed to regulate and assist, not to restrain, the free outpourings of the heart. England was an apparent, but only an apparent, exception, to this rule. In her case the more rigid enforcement of an unvarying ritual was rather the result of urgent circumstances than of the personal convictions of her leading divines. The principle of comprehension on which her reformation was based rendered a certain restraint necessary in the interest, not of ritual uniformity, but of Protestant truth. The object of suspicion then was the Roman priest, not the evangelical pastor, and the design of ritual restriction was rather to curb the license of the one than to fetter the liberty of the other. Ave Marias must be silenced, even though at the sacrifice of free prayer; the communion service must be prescribed by imperative rubric, or it will be turned by many into a mass. But for this adventitious, and, in their view, probably temporary necessity, there is every reason to believe that the liturgical ordinances of the English reformers would have been much less fixed and stringent, and that in the matter of worship, as well as in other elements of her constitution, the Church which they founded would have been brought into much nearer conformity with the general model of other Reformed communions. Be this, however, as it may; the real and essential point of difference, even in practice, between Canterbury and Geneva was not the use, but the exclusive use of forms. The one confined, the other permitted and encouraged, the spontaneous utterances of devotion. The one supplied an aid, the other ordained a law. In truth, in the Scottish form at least, while much was provided, nothing was prescribed. Instead of the Anglican then shall the priest say, ‘ its gentler and wiser language is the minister useth one of these two confessions,' or this prayer following, ‘ or such like.' The accustomed order, in short, was rather observed as a rule than obeyed as a law; worn as a dress than borne as a burden; followed with free and willing heart in the spirit rather than the letter — as a law of liberty, not a yoke of bondage" (page 600 sq.). We cite also the Princeton Review as follows: "As to stated forms of prayer, their value must vary with circumstances. In no case ought the liberty of extemporaneous prayer to be taken from the minister in the pulpit. As well might preaching be confined by authority to prescribed forms of words.
The discretion of the ministry may be trusted as freely in the one as the other. But if, in the solemn office of leading the united devotions of the assembly, the ministry might exercise a judgment better informed by approved examples set forth for that end, and if it might even have an election between extemporaneous prayer and a form appointed to be used at option the standard of extemporary prayer itself would rise, and the edification of our people in public worship would be enlarged. We must not make our liberty a cloak of licentiousness. There are few of our most able and eminent ministers who come as near the true standard of pulpit prayer as they do that of the sermon. When we hear it said of such a man as Robert Hall that his prayers were felt by his hearers to be strikingly unequal to his sermons, we seem to discern in a mind keenly sensitive to the proprieties of pulpit prayer an aversion to making prayer the work of genius, and at the same time some lack of zeal in cultivating the peculiar talent for its just and most useful performance. But among our brethren of the lower grades of ability and industry we not unfrequently observe habits in this service from which many of our sensible and pious people would gladly take refuge in a. book of prayers. When we sometimes hear the intimation that the Book of Common Prayer, could it be quietly introduced, would be an improvement upon the present forms of devotion in many of our pulpits, we know this preference not to be for written prayers in general, but as an alternative and a way of escape from peculiar and unnecessary faults in prayers with which the observers are often afflicted. We cannot assent to such a remark, but we have a deep impression of the needless imperfection of our present standard, and desire to speak that impression with emphasis. We are confident that our standard may be so raised that all would feel the transition from extemporaneous to written prayers as a descent and a defection. When we observe the special satisfaction of thousands of devout worshippers with what appear to us the indefinite and comparatively barren forms of the English liturgy, we see the great power of a few striking points of propriety in public prayer to engage the heart of true demotion" (January, 1847, pages 81, 82).
The conclusion arrived at by Richard Watson (Institutes 2:507) is just and temperate, viz. that there are advantages in each mode of worship, and that, when combined prudently, the public. service of the sanctuary has its most perfect constitution. Much, however, in the practice of churches is to be regulated by due respect to differences of opinion, and even to prejudice, on a point upon which we are left at liberty by the Scriptures, and which must therefore be ranked among things prudential. Here, as in many other things, Christians must give place to each other, and do all things "in charity."
Among the modern Protestant churches, the Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church use forms of prayer to the exclusion (generally) of free prayer in public worship. The Methodist Episcopal Church uses liturgical forms for sacraments and other services, and free prayer in worship. The Presbyterian churches use free prayer (Directory of Worship, chapter 5). The Lutheran and Reformed churches have liturgical forms for certain services, but generally use free prayer in worship. A movement towards more full liturgical services has been going on for some time in the German Reformed Church. (See GERMAN REFORMED CHURCH, AND LITURGY). A tendency in the same direction appears to have arisen in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (see Shields, Liturgia Expurgata, Philadel. 1864; see also Baird, Eutaxia, or the Presbyterian Liturgies, N. York, 1855, 18mo; reprinted in London as A Chapter on Lit urgies, edited by Thomas Binney, 1856, 18mo). In the Established Church of Scotland, Dr. Robert Lee, of Edinburgh, was tried before the General Assembly in 1859 for using a book entitled Prayers for Public Worship in the public services of Old Grayfriars Church, Edinburgh; and the Assembly enjoined Dr. Lee to discontinue the practice. But the tendency went on; and in 1867 appeared Euchologion, or Book of Prayers, being Forms of Worship issued by the Church-service Society (Edinb. and Lond. 1867), under the auspices of Dr. Lee and Dr. Macleod. See, besides the works all ready mentioned, Bingham, Orig. Eccl. book 13; Palmer, Origines Liturgica; Leighton, Works, 2:422; Milton, Prose Works.(Philadel. 1850), 11, 96 sq. (against forms); Shields, The Book of Comm. Prayer as amended by the Westminster Divines A.D. 1661, with a historical and liturgical Treatise (Philadelphia, 1867, 12mo) Brownell, Family Prayer-book (Introduction), Butler, Common Prayer Illustrated, chapter 1; Princeton Review, 7:389 sq.; 18:487 sq.; 27:445 sq.; Mercersburg Review, January 1868, art. 7; Evangelical Quarterly Review, January 1869, page 80.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Forms of Prayer'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/f/forms-of-prayer.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.