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now, to their unspeakable joy, announced to them by the subject of their intercession in person.
What happened in the apostolic age, when religion was revived, has happened in all ages since, when a similar revival took place. So it was in the land of our fathers, the Puritans. So it was in Germany, in the 17th century, when Spener and his followers arose in the Lutheran church, to contend for the restoration of true religion. Nay, the question respecting the propriety and expediency of social prayer meetings was one of the main things which formed the line of distinction between the friends and opposers of vital piety, in that day and country. And in our own times, we know that the question, whether prayer meetings shall be tolerated or not, divides the evangelical from their opponents in several denominations of Christians. But, as was intimated in the commencement of the present article, on the warrant and reasonableness of this mode of social worship, it is not our purpose to dwell. It has too long had the sanction of the wise and the good, to admit of its being now drawn into serious question.
Among the difficulties with which the friends of prayermeetings have had to struggle, when they occurred weekly or oftener, from year to year, has ever been the sameness or monotony of their character. The same general exercise, the same topics of petition, the same aspect and scope, have served to diminish the interest of those meetings, and to produce a degree of stagnation, if not weariness, even in pious minds; and with regard to all others, (and some who have not a true spiritual taste attend almost all our prayer-meetings) they have seemed to themselves to find nothing but one unvarying (i. e. unvarying except in language) strain of adoration, confession, petition and intercession, from one year's end to another. And indeed, after making all due allowance for the absence of genuine religious taste in those who make the complaint in question, it must be granted that it is not an easy matter in pursuing the ordinary, common-place course, to keep up the interest of such services, especially where there is little in the form of instruction or direct address, but a constant succession of devotional exercises, to engage the attention. There is a love of variety inherent in our nature, which may not be in all cases unhallowed, and which, undoubtedly, ought to be, to some extent, consulted and gratified.
The same difficulty exists with reference to the ordinary public service of the sanctuary. It is extremely apt to be mo
notonous and wearisome. And happy is the minister who has a sufficient knowledge of human nature, sufficient intellectual and theological resources, sufficient variety, both in matter and manner, to arrest the attention, and sustain the interest of an intelligent people, from week to week, for years together. This is no easy matter, as many excellent men have found in in their painful experience. The continual sameness has been the theme of complaint, concerning pulpit ministrations, for centuries; and in too many cases the complaint has been far from being without foundation. It is enough to put in requisition all the learning, ingenuity and holy ardour of the man of God, to “ bring forth out of his treasure," from time to time, “ things new and old,” to instruct, entertain and interest the mass of those to whom he ministers ; and all this without sacrificing any measure either of truth or duty to the love of novelty.
With respect to prayer meetings, I have a suggestion to make, which, though not new, I have never yet known to be acted upon, either so frequently or extensively as could be wished, and which some ininisters and other conductors of these meetings, would seem to me never to have thought of. It is, that there be a constant effort to DIVERSIFY THE PROMINEXT OBJECTS which are brought before the minds of the worshippers, as matter of special petition at these social meetings. The prayers at these meetings (I of course except the monthly concert and the Sabbath school concert) are all of the same general character, embracing, commonly, the same topics, and differing from each other only in the compass, order and fervour with which they are presented, there seems to be scarcely an effort made to vary from the same uniform, dull, endless round; scarcely an attempt to introduce any thing like an interesting, soul-stirring variety. But would there not be an advantage in devoting the ordinary prayer-meeting, at one time, to prayer, not exclusively but peculiarly, for the children of the church; at another, for the rising generation in general; at another, for the revival of religion in that particular congregation; at another, for a blessing on ministers of the gospel, that they may be made more faithful, self-denied, laborious, and successful; at another, for a blessing upon our civil rulers ; at another, for the smiles of Heaven on the great Christian enterprises of the day, &c. &c.? It is true, the most of these topics are generally included in one or another of the prayers which are offered at social meetings; but several of them are usually noticed only in a cursory manner, thrust into
a corner, as it were, of the exercise, and make very little distinct or solemn impression. And if, in order to obviate this undesirable result, an attempt should be made to dwell upon every topic, until an opportunity should be enjoyed to give to each the extension and impression which it merits, the prayer would of course become tediously long, and instead of rousing and interesting the hearers, would be likely to weary them. How much better to let the social service be chiefly, though not exclusively, devoted one week to one of these objects, a second to a different one, a third to another still. This would allow time for dwelling on each until some distinct impression was made. And if the minister, or the individual presiding in his place, should preface the exercises, on each occasion, with some appropriate remarks, tending to prepare the minds of the people for engaging in prayer on the subject assigned, and deeply to impress upon them its importance; can it be doubted that a more hallowed and practical influence would be likely to result from the exercises, than if managed in the ordinary manner? I have somewhere heard of a pious man, who said that in his closet devotions, his habit was to continue confessing his sins before God, until his own heart was, in some degree, melted and humbled under a sense of them; and that, in like manner, he generally resolved to go on thanking God for his multiplied mercies, until his own mind was, in some measure, expanded with gratitude and love. I cannot help thinking, that something of this kind ought to be aimed at in our social prayers; and, if so, that we ought to be more in the habit than we have usually been, of devoting a whole evening, chiefly, to spreading our desires before the Lord, on some one particular subject, and pleading with him for a special blessing in reference to that subject. Our minds are so constituted, that we cannot think of many things at once; and still less are we likely to be deeply impressed with a variety of subjects in the same exercise. It should, therefore, be the aim of the presiding minister on such occasions, to endeavour to make some one subject particularly prominent, and to dwell upon it, until it takes hold of his own mind, and those of his fellow-worshippers, with some degree of practical feeling.
But here, while one advantage is attained, the opposite mistake ought to be carefully avoided. I mean the mistake of those who imagine that, when they are assembled to pray for a particular object, they cannot dwell upon it too long, or repeat the same ideas too frequently. Hence I have, more than once,
known an assembly, if I may so express it, prayed into a solemn frame, and prayed out of it again, by a most unwise multiplication and protraction of prayers. I should say, considering the elevated nature of the exercise, that three prayers
of the ordinary length, at any one meeting, are quite as much as ought usually to be introduced; and that as much care ought to be exercised, by those who lead in the duty, as may be, without falling into formality, to enlarge chiefly on topics which had not been so much dwelt upon before, and to avoid multiplying words, as if they thought they should be “ heard for their much speaking.” The use of extemporary prayer is a noble privilege, worth contending for; but rant and battologizing ought to be avoided, and under the direction of a wise and pious leader, they may be avoid
I will suppose a prayer meeting, of the ordinary character, to take place, statedly, every Wednesday evening throughout the year. Of course, the members will assemble fifty-two times during each twelve months. Nothing is more common than for such societies to languish, and after a few months, to become thinner and thinner, and, at length, almost extinct. But if the minister or other presiding individual, at the close of the evening, were to announce, that the next evening they would come together to pray for a particular object; as, for example, for the temporal, and, above all, for the spiritual and eternal welfare of their own children, and, in a sentence or two, hint the deep importance of the subject; or, for a blessing on the ambassadors of Christ, and all who minister in holy things, that they might be visited with a new unction from above, as a foretaste and pledge of rich blessings on the flocks committed to their care, would not more people be likely to attend the next time, and to attend with raised expectations, and engaged and prepared hearts, than if nothing special had been announced ? Thus, in the course of a year, ten or a dozen great objects might be made prominent in prayer, four or five times over, to the great edification of the minister himself, and to the unspeakable benefit of all who enjoyed the privilege of attending on such a series of exercises.
I have supposed that notice of the special object of each successive prayer meeting should be given at the close of the preceding. This, in ordinary cases, might be quite sufficient. But sometimes, where the contemplated service had for its object something more than usually adapted to engage the feelings of all classes, and even to attract the attention of many
who were not pious, it might be proper to give a more public notice of it from the pulpit, on the Sabbath, for the purpose of drawing some who might not otherwise know of the service intended. Yet my impression is, that this ought not to be always, or even generally done, lest it should, after a while, degenerate into a mere common-place affair, and cease to interest any one. In short, as the object of the whole plan is, to engage and keep up attention, by endeavouring to make each successive service present, as far as possible, something new, and something adapted to reward attention-every thing calculated to make the impression of common-place routine ought to be avoided.
The learned and pious Cotton Mather, in his “ Essays to do Good,” speaks of himself as practising, and recommends to others, the habit of having stated days in each week to pray for particular persons or objects. The object of this plan is precisely that which I have in view in these remarks. It is, that, on the one hand, the various interesting objects which ought to engage our attention in social prayer, may none of them be forgotten or neglected; and, on the other, that there may be time, not merely for bringing each before our view in its turn, but for dwelling on each at some length, and in detail, until our minds come in some degree affected with them. This is, surely, nothing more than wisely consulting the structure of our minds, and adopting that course which is likely to leave the deepest and most salutary impression.
In suggesting some of the topics which may be profitably made prominent in meetings for social worship, I have only specified a few, out of the many which might be in their turn acceptably and usefully brought forward. The list might be almost indefinitely extended. And yet it may be made too large; so large as that the most vitally important topics would not be brought into view as frequently as their relative importance would render desirable. It is also to be remembered, that almost every congregation, certainly every larger district, will be apt to have some subject, growing out of its local or relative situation, which demands its special notice in devotional exercises, from time to time.
The plan here proposed, if wisely and happily executed, may be of use in another view. There is a great tendency, especially in times of revival, to multiply social meetings for prayer, to an inordinate degree; nay, to such a degree as to leave no evening free for personal or domestic edification in