The Puritans understood prayer as “the vital breath of our spiritual life unto God.” The practice of private prayer and meditation was common amongst all Puritans; however, little has been written on the Puritans theology of prayer. This article seeks to develop a Puritan theology of prayer from the book, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, by Arthur Bennett. The Puritans often encouraged their “congregations to put their private prayer thoughts on paper and vocalize them.” As a result, a booklet of inspiring Puritan prayers emerged for the use of the church. These aspirational units of prayer are to be used as a springboard for one’s own prayer life.
To develop a Puritan theology of prayer, we will answer three questions: what was their motivation? What was their method? And what was their content? Each question will be answered from a study of The Valley of Vision. Through this, it will be clear that the Puritans built their prayer life upon a proper view and understanding of God and His Word.
To begin, the first question we must ask is this: what motivated the Puritans to pray? As one reads The Valley of Vision, it becomes clear that their main motivation to pray was the glory of God. They realized that they could not glorify God on their own, therefore, they sought him earnestly in prayer. Specifically, they sought the glory of God in both the edification of the church and the salvation of sinners. The Puritans knew that man’s chief end is to glorify God and have personal communion with him. Therefore, the greatest privilege and blessing for a person is to have personal communion with God. As a result, the Puritans sought God for this reality, focusing heavily on God building, strengthening, purifying, and glorifying his church.
First, the Puritans realized that their sufficiency to build God’s kingdom was not in themselves but in their Great God. As one Puritan wrote, “O God, the Author of all good, I come to thee for the grace another day will require for its duties and events.” The Puritans understood that they have been called to an impossible task on their own. Thus, the Puritans were motivated to rely upon God in prayer and resist the inner tendency to rely upon human ability. They knew that apart from Christ and his Spirit they could do nothing (John 15:5). This realization of their utter dependency upon God, for even the daily tasks of the Christian life, drove them to their knees in prayer. The Puritans knew that to grow in grace, they must first go to the God of grace.
Secondly, the Puritans were motivated to pray by seeing the outward needs of the world. The Puritans prayers highlighted the glory of God in the salvation of sinners. Since Scripture molded their prayers, the motivation of their prayers was often evangelistic: “Sovereign God, thy cause, not my own, engages my heart, and I appeal to thee with greatest freedom to set up thy kingdom in every place where Satan reigns; Glorify thyself and I shall rejoice.” The Puritans valued the souls of their neighbors, and as a result, they sought to pray for the extension of the gospel around the entire world. Therefore, we have seen that the two primary motivations for prayer in the Puritan era were the edification of the church (individually and corporately) and the salvation of sinners.
In this next section, we will discuss two different methods of prayer that governed the Puritans prayer life, i.e., the Lord’s prayer and the promises of God. Both methods were derived from their conviction that God’s word is the prayer book for the church. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, and as a result, he gave them a pattern to follow (Luke 11:1). The Puritans were convinced that the Lord’s prayer was the key pattern for the church to follow. Therefore, each prayer in The Valley of Vision focuses on each aspect of the Lord’s prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer
First, each prayer began with an upward reverence and focus of worship beginning with the character of God. The Lord Jesus began his prayer with “our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). This shows the importance of addressing God properly in prayer, as one focuses on his Divine Character and being. The Puritans would often take an attribute of God and worship him for who he is. The prayers often began with large thoughts about God, i.e., he is the “Divine Redeemer,” the “Saviour of sinners,” and the “changeless God.” Therefore, as the Puritans began to pray, they first thought about God. He is the caring and intimate, transcendent, holy, and separate God. There is none like him.
Next, the Puritans would respond to God’s character by confessing their sinfulness, and yielding themselves to God’s will, i.e., “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). As one Puritan prayed, “I humble myself for faculties misused, opportunities neglected, words ill-advised.” The Puritans saw their own inadequacies in fulfilling the great commission on their own. However, after confessing their sin, they prayed that God would set up his kingdom “in every place where Satan reigns.”
Then, their prayers would focus on inward requests, which would express their trust in God’s provision for their daily needs, i.e., “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:11-12). A primary focus of the Puritans was to look inwardly on their own sinfulness and weakness and see the necessary need for the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the prayers of the Puritans were often clothed with a confession of sin and pleas for cleansing and sustaining grace. “Help my infirmities,” “I am blind, be thou my light, ignorant, be thou my wisdom, self-willed, be thou my mind.”
Finally, their prayers concluded with a plea for God to prepare them for the battle and trials of everyday life. It was very similar to the prayer, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). The Puritans recognized their own inability to overcome the temptations and snares of daily life. Therefore, they prayed, “Fit me to be totally resigned to the denial of pleasures I desire, and to be content to spend my time with thee.” Like the opening of the prayer, Puritans would often conclude their prayer with a doxology. For example, “I bless and adore thee, the eternal God, for the comfort of these thoughts, the joy of these hopes.” Therefore, the Puritans primary method of prayer was to follow the pattern given by the Lord Jesus Christ in the Lord’s prayer.
The Promises of God
Secondly, the Puritans were famous for turning the promises of God into prayers and firing them back at God. Though no Scriptures were specifically addressed in The Valley of Vision, one can see that the prayers of the Puritans were deeply rooted in the promises of God. The Puritans understood that “Christ and his Word alone remain unshaken.” “All thy promises in Christ Jesus are yea and amen, and all shall be fulfilled. Thou hast spoken them, and they shall be done, commanded, and they shall come to pass.”
Therefore, the Puritans came to pray with the promises of God in their hand. They were confident that God is the unchangeable God. He alone is faithful to his word. What he has promised, that he will do. Thus, the promises of God gave the Puritans an unwavering confidence in their prayers. As they prayed through Scripture, they knew that they were praying according to the will of God. Whatever occasion, the Puritans were resolved to go to the Scriptures, find a promise of God, and pray it back to him. Therefore, we have seen the two primary methods of prayer for the Puritans. First, they made sure that they followed the pattern that the Lord Jesus laid out in Scripture. Then, they prayed the promises of God with confidence.
The final section of this paper will address the content of the Puritans prayers. As one scans through The Valley of Vision, it becomes clear that there are many different categories of prayer, i.e., redemption and reconciliation, penitence and deprecation, needs and devotions, etc. However, to understand the content of their prayers, we must ask the following questions: Who is the source of the prayer? To whom are their prayers addressed to? What can we learn from them concerning God and man? We will seek to answer these questions in this portion of the paper.
To begin, the source of their prayers is God himself. The only way that a Christian can pray is in the strength and aid of the Holy Spirit. Thus, one must be born-again if they are to pray to God. Romans 8:26 says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Therefore, the Puritans knew that if they were to pray, it must be God working in them to will and to pray. That is why they often prayed, “Teach me to live by prayer… Let me know that the work of prayer is to bring my will to thine, and that without this it is folly to pray.” Additionally, another Puritan prayed, “in public and private, in sanctuary and home, may my life be steeped in prayer, filled with the spirit of grace and supplication, each prayer perfumed with the incense of atoning blood.” We learn very quickly that God is the source of true prayer. If we are to pray, it must be by the grace of God working within us by the Spirit.
Next, it is important to note that the Puritans poured out their hearts to God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit. The Puritans understood that each person within the Godhead is actively involved in prayer. However, the Puritans primarily addressed and spoke to God the Father in prayer through the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, they knew that they were coming to God through the Lord Jesus Christ with the help of the Spirit of God. For example, one Puritan prayed: “Gracious LORD, thy name is love, in love receive my prayer… Look to the cross of thy beloved Son, and view the preciousness of his atoning blood; Listen to his never-failing intercession.” Therefore, the Puritans knew that true prayer is coming to God the Father through Christ by the help and aid of the Spirit.
Finally, the Puritans can teach us two things concerning God and man. First, we see that there was an expression of hope in their prayers. The Puritans knew of their own sinfulness and inability to please God apart from his grace. In many cases, their prayers were heavy and sorrowful over their own sin. One Puritan writes, “I have been greatly distressed of soul because I did not suitably come to the fountain that purges away all sin.” However, amid their sorrow, there is a sense of hope, a hope that is rooted in the character of the everlasting God. Though downcast, the Puritans lifted their eyes and looked toward the all-gracious God who can provide for all their needs in Christ Jesus. Many prayed “give me to believe that thou canst do for me more than I ask or think, and that, though I backslide, thy love will never let me go, but will draw me back to thee with everlasting cords.”
Secondly, there was an eschatological emphasis in their prayers. Despite suffering, the Puritans maintained an optimistic view of the end times. The trials and persecutions that they faced did not make them despair but gave them a constant hope for better days ahead. The Puritans understood that God still has work to do both in the church and in the world. They knew that this work is accomplished through the ordinary means of grace, i.e., prayer and the preaching of the word. Therefore, the Puritans looked forward to that final day when sin would reign no more, and they would be with Christ in glory. This eschatological hope kept the Puritans focused in their prayer and devotional life. As a result, they confidently lifted their prayers to the throne of grace and worked hard at promoting the gospel from sea to sea.
In conclusion, we have seen that prayer is the life and breath of one’s spiritual life. If the Puritans could be given one characteristic, it would be that they were great men of prayer. This article has sought to develop a Puritan theology of prayer. Though they suffered much, they had an eternal outlook on life. They knew they served the all-gracious God who is faithful to all that he has promised in his word. Any Christian would do well to study the spiritual life of the Puritans. It is my prayer that God would bring us back to the simplicity of the Puritans Spiritual life, i.e., the ministry of prayer and the word (Acts 6:4).
Bennett, Arthur, ed. The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions. 1975. Reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015.
Owen, John. The Work of The Spirit. Vol 4 of The Works of John Owen. 1967. Reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2017.