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It is well known, that various sects of Christians are attached to forms of prayer in the public worship of God, and sometimes even in private worship. Such forms are prescribed by them as directories of public worship: and all those, who belong to their communion, are required to worship in this manner. Every objection to extemporaneous prayer is considered, and I think justly, by these Christians as evidence of the advantages of a Liturgy; and may, without any inconvenience, and without any discrimination, be blended with the positive arguments in favour of worshipping by a form. I shall, therefore, blend them in the following examination. These arguments I consider as collected by Dr. Paley, so far as they have any force. I shall, therefore, follow this respectable Writer in this discussion.
In behalf of forms of prayer, as directories of public worship, it is pleaded,
1. That the use of them prevents the use of improper prayers ; such particularly, as are absurd, extravagant, or impious. These," says
Dr. Paley,“ in an order of men, so numerous as the Sacerdotal, the folly and enthusiasm of many must always be in danger of producing, where the conduct of the public worship is entrusted without restraint, or assistance, to the discretion, and abilities of the officiating minister."
To the argument, here alleged, I reply, That this complaint has been originated by those, who have used Liturgies; and not by those, who have worshipped with extemporaneous prayer. Yet these persons are incomparably more interested to complain; because, if the evil exists, they, and they only, suffer by it. At the same time, they are also the only proper judges, as being the only persons, who have sufficient experience of this evil, or the want of a Liturgy, to enable them to judge. The allegation was invented, therefore, to justify the use of a Liturgy, already adopted; and not admitted as a proof of the necessity of worshipping by a Liturgy; and as a truth, forced upon the convic. tion of men by the existence of the evil, which in this case it would be intended to remedy.
Facts are often discordant with theories; and often refute them. Such, I apprehend, is the truth in the present case. In the vast multitude of Christian congregations, who, in Switzer
land, protestant France, Germany, Ireland, and America; in Holland, England, and Scotland; worship without a form, no material difficulty of this nature has ever been perceived. Within the many millions of mankind, who for Centuries have worshipped in this manner, there has certainly been a sufficient number of enlightened men, a sufficient length of time, and a sufficient variety of character and circumstances, to have presented, and to have felt, this evil, if it has actually existed, in every manner, and degree, in which it is capable of existing. Yet no complaint has ever prevailed, to any extent, in any protestant age, or country, among those, who have worshipped without forms of prayer. It will not be pretended, that, among these persons, Religion, in the proper sense, has not bad as extensive and happy influence, as it has had, during the same period, among any of the human race.
That there have been solitary instances of this nature, I readily admit. But that they have been sufficiently numerous to furnish ground for this allegation, cannot be seriously maintained, for a moment, by any man, who considers this fact with candour
even with sober attention.
I speak not, here, of the performances of ignorant men, who thrust themselves into the desk without right, propriety, or even decency; nor of those, who, without any appearance of piety, are admitted into the Church, merely because they are, (in the language of Dr. Paley,)“ descendents of large families," and for the purpose of furnishing them with easy means of subsistence: men who, as this Writer says, are no farther Ministers of Religion, than as a cockade makes a soldier.” From the former of these classes, extravagant addresses to God; from the latter, such as are impious; and from both, such as are absurd ; may indeed be expected. But the existence of such persons in the desk, although an indelible reproach to those, who are bound to lay hands suddenly on no man, and to all, who voluntarily attend the ministry of these persons, infers no objection against extemporaneous prayer. Among the men, who are educated, and morally qualified, for the ministry, too few will always be found guilty of this conduct to furnish any serious argument in savour of a Liturgy. While among so many, and so discreet,
Christians, who, through many ages, and in many countries, have worshipped in this manner, no difficulty of this kind has ever been seriously felt; the objection is plainly imaginary.
Prayer is, of all kinds of discourse, that, which least demands elegance of style. Every professed ornament it rejects with disdain. The simplest, plainest, and least artificial manner of uttering his thoughts, alone becomes the character of a suppliant, or the occasion and design of his supplication. He, who feels inclined to pray, will loathe all critical phraseology in his prayers. Decency, every where demanded, is indispensable in the worship of God: but, beyond this, nothing is necessary in our prayers, beside humility, faithfulness, and fervour. But decency is easily attainable by men of moderate talents, without the aid of a superior education. Plain men, as is not unfrequently seen both in private and public religious assemblies, pray with much propriety, and with no small edification to their fellowchristians. He, who has universally made prayer a prime duty of man, has qualified man for the performance of this duty; and, as I apprehend, much more happily than this objection supposes.
2. It is objected also, that extemporaneous prayer must be attended with confusion in the mind of the hearer.
The ignorance of each petition before it is heard ; the want of time to join in it after it is heard ; the necessary suspension of devotion until it is concluded; the necessity of attending to what succeeds; the detention of the mind from its proper business by the very novelty, with which it is gratified; form, together, the sources of this confusion ; and furnish, in the view of Dr. Paley, a fundamental objection against extemporary prayer, even where the minister's office is discharged with every possible advantage, and accomplishment. Concerning this objection, I observe,
First, Thal it attaches a gross, and fundamental, impropriely to the prayers of inspired men, mentioned in the Scriptures.
The prayer of Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, was, I think, unquestionably intended to awaken the spirit of devotion in the great assembly, before which it was uttered; and to become the vehicle of their own supplications. But this design was impracticable on that occasion, and with respect to that assembly, as truly, and as extensively, as with respect to any modern congregation of Christians. There are many instances, also, in which the Apostles, and their fellow.christians, assem. bled for prayer. The prayers, actually uttered on these occasions, were, I think, with a degree of probability next to certainty, extemporary. The persons, who heard them, could no better tell the import of each petition, before they heard it, than modern Christian assemblies. Their devotion was as much suspended, until a petition was concluded. They were as much held in continual expectation ; were detained as much from their proper business of joining in prayer ; and were, in all other respects, subjected to as many disadvantages. The unavoidable conclusion from these premises is, that the Apostles prayed in a manner, 'unfitted for the purposes of devotion, unedifying to those with whom they prayed, and of course unapproved by the Spirit of God.
This conclusion no objector will admit. But if an objector refuse to admit the conclusion ; hc must, I think, give up the premises. If men could profitably unite in extemporary prayer, in the days of Solomon, or in the days of the Apostles, they can do it now.
Secondly. The same objection lies with equal force, to a great ertent, against the union, which the objectors themselves suppose to erist, and will acknowledge to be absolutely necessary, in other parts of religious worship.
A considerable number of persons, from perhaps one half to seven-eighths of the whole number, usually gathered in religious assemblies, are, throughout almost all Christian Countries, unable to read. Of these it may be properly observed, here, that, from the confused manner, in which the responses in a Liturgy will ever be read by a numerous and mixed assembly, they must very imperfectly hear, and understand, this part of the prayers. That, which they gain by hearing, however, is all which they gain. All these, unless they learn the prayers by heart, a fact, which, it is presumed, rarely happens, must be in a much less favourable situation, in some respects, and better situated in none, than when they are present at extemporary prayers.
Equally unable are these persons to read Psalms. If men cannot join in the prayers, uttered by a minister, it will be difficult to show how they can unite in the praises, sung by a choir.
My audience well know, that hearing the word of God is, in my own view, a part, and a very solemn and important part, of public worship. To receive divine truth, and divine precepts, as being really divine, with reverence, faith, and love, is an ordinance as truly appointed by God, and as acceptable means of honouring him, as prayer, or praise. To hear with any advantage, it is necessary, that we should both understand, and feel, what we hear. In order to understand, it is indispensable, that we cxamine every thing, uttered by the Preacher, which is not absolutely obvious, with a momentary investigation, employed upon each of his assertions. In order to feel, it is equally necessary, that a little longer time should be spent upon every part of a discourse, which is fitted to awaken feeling. The time, necessary for both these acts of the mind, must, at least, be equal to that, which is demanded for such union in prayer, as will make the several petitions our own.
But all the confusion, suspense, detention, and embarrassment from novelty, will here have us much influence to prevent us from hearing a Sermon, in a proper manner, as from joining in extemporary prayer. Here, also, the labouring recollection, and embarrassed, or tumultuous delivery, of which Dr. Paley complains, will have their full effect. Most men, unless when destitute of self-possession, speak extemporaneously with more distinctness and propriety, than they read ; and are, therefore, more readily, and perfectly, understood. But if an audience do not understand, and feel, a sermon, they fail as effectually of performing this part of religious worship, as of performing the duty of prayer, when they do not join in the petitions. The same difficulties, therefore, attend, thus far, the performance of both these religious services, which are here supposed to attend extemporary prayer. It is presumed, however, that they are imaginary in both cases: for,
Thirdly. The answer to the former objection is applicable, with the same force, lo this : viz. That the difficulties, complained of, have never existed in such a manner, as to be of serious