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Public prayer in pulpit and prayer meeting

Category Articles
Date December 17, 2001


In secret prayer there is no necessity of a voice, for God hears a whisper as well as a sigh and a groan.

The beauty of our expressions and the tunefulness of our voice can never render our worship more acceptable to God, the infinite Spirit; yet our natures, being composed of flesh and spirit, may be assisted in worship by the harmony of the voice of the speaker. The content, method and expressions may be ever so well chosen in prayer, but it is possible for the voice to spoil the pleasure and injure the devotion of our fellow worshippers. When speeches of the best composition and the warmest language are recited in a cold, harsh or ungrateful way, the beauty of them is almost lost.

Some persons, by nature, have a very sweet and tuneful voice, and whatever they speak appears pleasing. Others must take many more pains and follow rules and directions diligently, that their voice may be formed to an agreeable pronunciation. For we find by sad experience that all the advantages that nature can supply to assist our devotions are too little to keep our hearts from wandering and to maintain delight. At least it is necessary to recognise and avoid those disagreeable ways of pronunciation that may disgust those who join with us rather than edify.

In secret prayer there is no necessity of a voice, for God hears a whisper as well as a sigh and a groan. Yet some Christians cannot pray with any advantage to themselves without the use of their voice in some degree. Nor can I judge it at all improper, rather, preferable, that you have a convenient place for secrecy. For you will not only stir up your own affections the more; but by practice in secret, if you take due care of your voice there, you may learn also to speak the better in public.

The great and general rule I would lay down for managing the voice in prayer is this: let us use the same voice with which we usually speak in grave and serious conversation, especially upon intense and affecting subjects. This is the best direction that I know to regulate the sound as well as the words. Our own native and common voice appears most natural and may be managed with greatest ease. And some persons have taken occasion to ridicule our worship and to censure us as hypocrites, when we fondly seek and affect any new and different sort of sounds or voices in our prayers.

The particular directions are such as these:

DIRECTION 1: Let your words all be pronounced distinctly and not made shorter by cutting off the last syllable, nor longer, by adding ‘hem’ or ‘0’, long breaths, affected groanings and useless sounds, coughing, etc., which some have been guilty of and have sufficiently disgraced religion.

If you cut off and lose the last syllable of your word, or mumble the last words of the sentence and sink in your voice so that others cannot hear, they will be ready to think it is because you did not speak properly and so were afraid to be heard.

If, on the other hand, you lengthen out your sentences with ridiculous sounds, you endanger the devotion of even the wisest and best of your fellow worshippers and expose the worship to profane jest. While you seem to be clearing your throat or expressing greater affection by such methods, others will suspect that it is a method only to prolong your sentences, to stretch your prayers and to recover your thoughts of what to say next. Therefore when your passions happen to be elevated with some lively expression in prayer and you are delightfully constrained to dwell upon it, or when you meditate to speak the next sentence with propriety, it is far better to make a long pause and keep a decent silence than to fall into making extraneous sounds.

DIRECTION 2: Let every sentence be spoken loudly enough to be heard, yet not so loud as to affright or offend the ear.

Between these two extremes there is a great variety of degrees in sound, sufficient to satisfy all the changes of our emotions and the different sense of every part of our prayer. In the beginning of prayer especially, a lower voice is more becoming, as it signifies both humility and reverence when we enter into the presence of God. It is also a great convenience to the organs of speech not to arise too high at first, for it is much harder to sink again afterwards than to rise to higher accents, if it is required. Some persons have a habit of beginning their prayers, even upon the most common family occasions, so loudly as to startle the company; others begin so low in a large assembly that it looks like secret worship and as though they forbid those present to join with them. Both these extremes are to be avoided by prudence and moderation.

DIRECTION 3: Observe a due medium between excessive swiftness and slowness of speech, for both are faulty in their way.

If you are too swift, your words will be hurried; they will run on to one another and be mingled in confusion. It is necessary to observe a due distance between your words, and a much greater distance between your sentences, that so all may be pronounced distinctly and intelligibly.

Due and proper pauses and stops will give the hearer time to conceive and reflect on what you speak and to join with you more heartily; and it will allow you to breathe and make the work easier and more pleasant for yourselves. Moreover, when persons run on heedlessly with an incessant flow of words, being carried, as it were, in a violent stream, without rests or pauses, they are in danger of uttering things rashly before God, giving no time at all to their own meditation, but indulging their tongue to run sometimes too fast for their own thoughts as well as for the thoughts of those present with them. Some persons have begun a sentence in prayer and been forced to break off and begin a new: Or if they have pursued that sentence, it has been with so much inconsistency that it could hardly be reduced to sense or grammar. This has given too obvious an occasion to others to ridicule all conceived prayer and has been very dishonourable to God and his worship. And all this arises from a hurry of the tongue into the middle of a sentence before the mind has conceived the full and complete sense of it.

On the other hand, if you are too slow, and very perceptibly and remarkably so, this will grow tiresome to the hearers. They will have taken in the sentence you spoke last, and wait in pain, and long for the next expression to stimulate their thoughts and carry on their devotion. This will make our worship appear heavy and dull. Yet I must say that an error in prayer of this sort is to be preferred to an excess of speed and hurry, and its consequences are less hurtful to religion.

In general, with regard to the two foregoing directions, let the sense of each sentence be a rule to guide your voice, whether it must be high or low, swift or leisurely. In the invocation of God, in humble adoration, in confession of sin, and self-resignation, a slower and a more modest voice is for the most part very becoming, as well as in every other part of prayer where there is nothing very emotional expressed. But in petitions, in pleadings, in thanksgiving and rejoicing in God, fervency and importunity, holy joy and triumph will raise the voice some degrees higher, and lively passions of the delightful kind will naturally draw out our language with greater speed and spirit.

DIRECTION 4: Let proper expression be used, according to what the sense requires.

It would be endless to give particular rules on proper expression. Nature dictates this to everyone, if we will but heed the dictates of nature. Yet in order to attain it in greater perfection and to secure us from irregularity in this point, let us avoid the following few things:

i]. Avoid a constant uniformity of voice, that is, when every word and sentence are spoken without any difference in sound, like a boy at school repeating all his lesson in one dull note, which shows that he is not truly acquainted with the sense and value of the author. Now though persons who speak without any difference of accent may be truly sincere and devout, such pronunciation will appear to others as careless and negligent, as though the person that speaks were unconcerned about the great work in which he is engaged and as though he had none of his feelings moved to modulate his voice into agreeable changes.

ii]. Avoid a faulty placement of the accents and false pronunciation. One kind of faulty pronunciation is when a person uses just the same set of accents and repeats the same set of sounds and cadences in every sentence, though his sentences are ever so different in their sense, length, or warmth of expression; for example, if a man should begin every sentence in prayer with a high voice and end it in a low; or begin each line with a hoarse and deep bass and end it with a shrill and sharp sound. This is as if a musician should have but one sort of tune or one single set of notes and repeat it over again in every line of a song, which could never be graceful.

Another instance of false pronunciation is when strong accents are put upon little words and particles which bear no great force in the sentence. Some persons are so inept that the little words ‘they’ and ‘that’ and ‘of’ and ‘by’ have the biggest force of the voice bestowed upon them, whilst the phrases and expressions of chief significance are spoken with a cold and low voice.

Another example of false pronunciation is when a calm plain sentence, in which there is nothing fervent, is delivered with much force and violence of speech; or when the most fervent and emotional expressions are spoken with the utmost calmness and composure of voice. All of these are very unnatural in themselves and to be avoided by those who wish to speak properly, to the edification of those who worship with them.

The last instance I shall mention of false pronunciation is when we fall into a musical turn of voice, as though we were singing instead of praying. Some devout souls have been betrayed into such a self-pleasing tone by the warmth of their spirits in secret worship, and having no one to hear and inform them how disagreeable it is to others, have indulged it even to an incurable habit.

iii]. Avoid excessively colouring every word and sentence to extremes, as if you were upon a stage in a theatre. This fault also some serious persons have fallen into for lack of caution. And it has appeared so like affectation that it has given great ground for censure.

One example is to express every humble and mournful sentence in a weeping tone and impersonate someone that is actually crying. That is what our adversaries have exposed by the name of canting and whining, and have thrown blame upon a whole party because of the imprudence of a few.

Another instance of this excessive affectation is when we express every pleasurable sentence in our prayers, every promise or comfort, every joy or hope, in too free and airy a manner, with too bold an exultation, or with a broad smile. These indeed look like too familiar a dealing with the great God. Every odd and unpleasant tone should be banished from divine worship. Nor should we appear before God in humility upon our knees yet with grandeur and magnificence upon our tongues, lest the sound of our voice should contradict our gesture, lest it should savour of irreverence in so awful a pretence and give disgust to those that hear us.


The above is an extract from a new Banner of Truth book, “A Guide to Prayer” by Isaac Watts, 186 pp, hardback

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