JAMES FREEMAN CLARKE
AN AFTERWORD AND A WARNING
The following essay was James Freeman Clarke’s preface to his book, The Christian Doctrine of Prayer, published by the American Unitarian Association in 1854.
THERE are two kinds of Prayer, the Prayer of Faith and the Prayer of Form. Men must either pray in earnest, because they expect their prayer to accomplish something, and ask God for what they want just as they would ask any one else, — expecting to get it; and this kind of prayer I call the Prayer of Faith. Or they must pray as a matter of propriety, and from a sense of duty, — because prayer is beautiful, or because prayer is commanded; and this kind of prayer I call the Prayer of Form.
Now when people get to praying as a form, — a proper, beautiful, excellent form though it be, — they will soon leave of praying at all. A certain insincerity is felt in such a work. We cannot go on with it. To speak to God, and ask him to give us this and that, — when we all the time believe that we shall get it not a whit the sooner for asking, but merely shall put ourselves into a better frame of mind, — is not sincere. It is not truthful, and honest men cannot do it, nor pretend to do it.
Little children pray the Prayer of Faith. They ask God to give them toys and playthings, and they bring their little wants and notions up in their prayers very artlessly and honestly. We smile, and sigh that we cannot pray so too. By and by they grow too wise to continue the childish prayer, and, like us, leave off prayer wholly.
Our ancestors prayed the Prayer of Faith. When the wind howled around their lowly huts, and the storm rushed darkly from the forests, — when the fierce Pequot and the savage Philip with his wild tribes of Indians lurked in every shaded dell of this fair New England, — when the crops failed and they were about to starve, — then they wrestled with God in prayer. They labored as men labor in ploughing a field, till in their agony of supplication they fainted. And when the help came, and the full-freighted ship sailed up the bay with its white sales spread wide like some broad-winged bird, then they believed most surely that God sent her in answer to their prayer, and no skeptic among them all asked concerning the time when she sailed from port.
But some time in the last century there arose wise men, — disciples not of Plato nor of St. Paul, but of Lord Bacon, — men who believed in science more than in inspiration, — and they could not pray any longer the Prayer of Faith. They studied the laws of nature, — they reasoned by induction from effect to cause, — they were experimental philosophers. Bishop Berkeley called them in his vexation minute philosophers. But they were good Christian men, and had not the least intention of denying what was in the Bible. The Bible said, Pray, and they said, Pray. Moreover, they had learnt to pray at their mother’s knee, and felt the happiness of communing with God, and did not wish to leave off prayer. So they said, — “Pray. Not that prayer will give you anything you could not have had without it. But it will do you good. It will give you submission to God’s will, patience, devout habits, and so forth. Pray, by all means, for spiritual things; for God will give you those readily in answer to prayer. But above all, Pray without ceasing; that is, be in a spirit of prayer always. Christ uses Oriental figures, figures of speech; he must not be taken too literally when he says, ‘Believe that ye shall receive it, and ye shall have it.’ God gives or withholds according to wise providential laws, and not according to our prayers.”
After this doctrine had been laid down, and the Prayer of Propriety or Duty or Sentiment had taken the place of the Prayer of Faith, men, as we said, ceased to pray. They could not continue using solemn words to which they attached no real importance. “No,” said they. “To work is to pray. Do your duty; that is the effectual prayer of the righteous man. Visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction. Keep yourself unspotted from the world. That is true Christianity; better than many Sabbath days full of worship; better than knees stiffened by long hours of devotion. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, not he who for a pretence makes long prayers.”
We live at present in an age saturated with these ideas. We live in an age turned wholly outward, — an age of science, of steam, of rails, and of telegraphs, — an age of cheap postage, and of all sorts of devices to make our outward life comfortable and joyous. Many run to and fro, and knowledge is increased. The Christianity of the world bears good fruit in attempts to mitigate the horrors of barbarous customs, which come down unmitigated and unrelieved through the ages of faith, — slavery, and war, and popular ignorance, pauperism, intemperance, and manifold evils. Strong, wise, and good men do not now go on their knees and wrestle all night with God in prayer; but they sit up all night by their study-table, and marshal hosts of facts into such shape as shall convince mankind what a mountain of ill they labor under, and how they shall throw them off. Good men of today — the saints of our day — do not dream dreams, see visions, commune with angels, they are caught up into no third, nor even second heaven; but they visit prisons and penitentiaries, they establish hospitals for the blind, deaf, lame, dumb, and insane, they labor to elevate public instruction, they struggle to make the laws more equitable. And for all these labors, let us be thankful to God, for in them is surely to be found the Christian seed; they are Christ-like works.
But the effect of these doctrines as regards prayer, we see all around in other forms, not so good as those. It appears in our empty churches; in young men and women deserting the house of God, where whole generations used to bond together in awe and love, the old man with white hair kneeling humbly by the little child with silky curls, — where they used to pray in earnest, and go away refreshed at heart and stronger for any work, happier for any joy. We see it in sermons changed to popular lectures, — no longer earnest arguments, appeals from dying men to dying men, but rhetorical essays on some theme of philosophy, taste, politics, or social utility. We feel it, moreover, in the emptiness of our own hearts, in our secret consciousness that we are not acting out our highest nature, not living for the great end of our being, not growing into all that God desires and intends for us. We give ourselves to the world, though the world does not satisfy us. We labor to do good in some way to those about us, but we feel that, while we are ourselves empty of spiritual life, we can do them no real, no lasting good.
And look, too, at our philanthropic efforts. They are efforts, all of them, in the right direction. This age applies Christianity as Christ himself would have it applied, and as those ages of Faith and Prayer never applied it. I therefore am not looking for salvation in the past. I thank God for the immense advances we are making, and have made, in a true understanding of the Gospel. But with all this light, where is the heat? Where is the energy which once bore men from land to land, and heaped them by myriads around an empty grave in Palestine? I stood myself in a pulpit from which Bernard of Clairvaux in 1150 preached the second Crusade. “And is it possible,” I thought, “that there was a power of faith which could carry Europe to perish on the hot sands of Asia for such an object as that, six several times, and that we cannot raise a Christian crusade to-day against our own great social evils? There, for example, is slavery, which turns our fellow-men into things, which threatens us with disunion, which tramples on the rights of men, which disgraces us before the civilized world. We, Philanthropists, when all our religion has run into philanthropy, and we say to work is to pray, — what do we? The most we.do is to make a few antislavery speeches, hold a few antislavery fairs and picnics, circulate a few newspapers and tracts, and throw a small vote here and there for antislavery representatives. Luther, by himself, a man of faith and prayer, shook with his single arm the vast power of Rome, till its foundations trembled in every country, and its battlements came down in ruins through half of Europe. Loyola, another man of prayer, came forth, and by his single voice called out an army of tens of thousands to man those broken walls and rebuild those shattered bulwarks. Xavier, and Henry Martyn, and Swartz, and Marquette, men of prayer, circle the earth in their flaming zeal, and preach the Gospel to tens of thousands. How poor a thing is our Philanthropy beside their Religion! But let our philanthropy be animated by a religion like theirs, — let us not merely say, “To work is to pray,” but “Pray that we may work, “ — and all their exploits, compared with what we may do, will be as nothing.
Every human being is an immortal soul in a mortal body. That mortal body in a few years will be laid aside, and will have gone to the earth whence it came. It is an organ, for a few years, through which the undying spiritual force within it shall be manifested and shall be developed. That spiritual force, that immortal soul, can draw its life only from God, its fount of being. Without a constant, steady communion with him, it is drawn down by its fleshly instrument, it is immersed in sense, it is buried already in the body which itself is to be buried in the grave. Inward, toward God, we must go continually for spiritual force, — outward, toward man and life, to exercise it. We must come to know and love God, the sum and substance of all spiritual life, or it is idle to talk of loving man or doing anything for him. We must have, to give. We must drain from an eternal fountain, from a well that never becomes dry, in order to water the smallest garden or plot of ground.
Now, in order to have a real energy of spiritual life, we must have actual intercourse with God himself. To think about him, to meditate upon his works and ways, is one thing; to commune with him, another. And to commune with him, we must have something to say to him; and that something must be something out of our actual life, something which really interests us, not something which we think ought to interest us. We must say to God something we wish to say, and not something we think we ought to say. Our prayer must not be made of supposed proprieties; it must be the “soul’s sincere desire.” Therefore, God, in order that men may come into real communion with him and so receive real vital energy, — faith, love, peace, joy, — has ordered it so that we may speak to him of our real wants, and of all of them, and by an earnest petition do something towards realizing those wants. Just as, when a man ploughs the ground and plants his seed, he cooperates with divine laws, the natural result of which is a harvest; so when a man prays for any thing he really wants, and while he prays endeavors to abide in the spirit of Christ and pray out of that, he cooperates with other divine laws, the natural result of which is the receiving what he asks. Not always, not always, in either case. The man may plough and sow, and no crop come; still, there is a tendency in ploughing and sowing to make the crop come. A man may pray for his sick child’s recovery, and the child die nevertheless. But there was a tendency in his prayer to save his child’s life. And in many cases, we may reasonably believe the power of prayer will accomplish what otherwise would not come to pass. We may believe that, if all those who are laboring for the downfall of social evils would work as much, and pray for their downfall too, — pray for wisdom, courage, faith, humility, with which to combat them, — they would speedily yield before this union of work and prayer.
One thing only is to be noticed. There are two conditions on which the full answer to prayer depends. One is Faith, — that is, to ask in earnest; and the other is to abide in Christ, — that is, to ask in a Christian spirit. The men who have lived in believing ages have not usually prayed in a Christian spirit, or with the Christian purpose. It was not the kingdom of God they prayed for, but their own success, the triumph of their own party, the extermination of heretics. Therefore their prayers, not being of those who abode in Christ, and his words not abiding in them, were ineffectual in obtaining their ends. The heretics were not conquered; the tomb of Christ did not re main in Christian hands. But because they asked in faith, they were themselves filled with energy which enabled them to grapple with all the powers of the world, or to stand amid flames, praising God.
But when the day comes that with their faith we shall also ask in the spirit of Christ, with his words abiding in our minds and hearts, then not only shall we have new powers of soul given to us, but we shall see God’s kingdom come. We shall see war and slavery and cruelty, all selfish institutions and all wicked customs, crumbling away. We shall see Christ coming to reign over a world subdued by the power of Faith and Goodness.