Old Princeton: Samuel Miller on Public Prayer

Samuel Miller (1769-1850) was a noted pastor-theologian remembered for his wise council concerning revivals as well as his fervent commitment to praying for authentic revival (as opposed to the pelagian-styled revivalism of Charles Finney). His keen theological mind was used by God in training up young ministers in the early days of Princeton Theological Seminary and because of this Samuel Miller was preeminently a churchman. He loved the church and gave his life to serving his own Presbyterian denomination. One such invaluable service comes in the form of his small book Thoughts on Public Prayer.  

This treatise was written by Miller to “impress upon the mind of every young Presbyterian minister... who wishes to make the most of his services in the sanctuary, for the glory of God, and the best edification of his people... to pay a greatly increased attention to the whole subject of public prayer.” For Miller, it was a travesty that a minister give the best of his attention to preparing a sermon all while the prayers of a Lord’s Day service receive no thought or preparation at all. “Nothing can be more evident than that, in the New Testament history, public preaching makes a much more prominent and important figure as an instrumentality for converting the world and edifying the church.” “But”, warns Miller, “I hope to satisfy every impartial reader that public prayer is not only a divinely prescribed, but an unspeakably important ordinance; and that the excellence of [corporate prayer] demands appropriate study, and careful moral and mental culture.”

 After his beginning “Introductory Remarks”, Miller begins by giving a very detailed history of public prayer and worship, beginning in the Old Testament and tracing his theme all the way up to his own time of writing. He then spends a long chapter examining the roots of liturgical forms of worship and weighing the biblical and historical evidence for extemporaneous prayer over and against prescribed liturgies and formalized meditations and prayers. For Miller, though prescribed forms of prayers are not unlawful and at some points even helpful, a slavish commitment to only this kind of liturgy is unhelpful, unwise, and unbiblical. Hence he spends the rest of his book in giving advice and help to ministers on how to pray well during a service. Besides, says Miller, “it is the fault of the officiating minister in the Presbyterian Church, if prayer be not made the most tender, touching, and deeply impressive of all the services of the public sanctuary.”

He first lays out eighteen common faults which tend to mar public prayer, giving not only a clear description of each but also many examples of how he’s seen it done. He warns, for example, against the “over frequent recurrence of favourite words, and set forms of expression”, pointing out that their constant use and repetition, will “render them cheap, and, after a time, not merely superfluous, but disgusting.” Indeed, the danger for some verges uncomfortably close to taking the name of the Lord our God in vain.

Other faults to watch out for are the use of bad grammar in corporate prayer, which tend to distract many within the congregation; a lack of order and no prescribed logic to the prayer, which make it difficult for those listening to follow along; clear allegiance to party politics; wit and humor; or even turning your prayer into didactic teaching, which actually isn’t even praying at all.

 One serious fault which Miller describes is giving too much minute detail which ends up making the prayer much longer than it needs to be, thus unreasonably burdening a congregation. Miller recounts here a story of George Whitefield, who in the middle of a friends inordinately long prayer, “rose from his knees, sat in his chair and groaned audibly; and when it was ended, he took his friend by the hand, and said with strong feeling, ‘Brother, how can you allow yourself to indulge in such tediousness in your [family] devotions? You prayed me into a delightful frame of mind, and you prayed me completely out of it again.’”

 Turning from the bad, Miller then gives excellent instruction on what marks good public prayer. Here he lays out fifteen characteristics. The very first and perhaps most important characteristic which Miller points out is that public prayer “must abound in the language of the word of God.” This language, says Miller, “is always right, always safe, and always edifying.” In fact, Miller argues that “there is in the language of sacred Scriptures a simplicity, a tenderness, a touching eloquence peculiarly adapted to engage and impress the heart. Among all the stores of human diction, there is nothing so well fitted to take hold of the mind... and, by association, to connect with all that is solemn in eternal things, and with all that is interesting in the hopes of the soul.”

 One particularly helpful bit of advice is the attention and work a pastor should give to his post-sermon prayer. As Miller acknowledges, all too often “the prayer after the sermon, which is commonly short, is very often, not only brief, but a mere pointless and uninteresting effusion, simply imploring a divine blessing on what has been said, equally applicable to every other occasion, and only adapted to prepare the way for the close of the service.” Instead, Miller maintains that “the closing prayer ought to be... one of the most solemn, appropriate, and impressive parts of the whole service.” “It ought to be formed upon the plan of taking hold of the conscience and the heart most deeply and effectually, and of uniting as far as possible the most pointed and searching solemnity of application.”

 Miller ends his Thoughts On Public Prayer with advice on how to best attain excellence in a pastor’s corporate leading of prayer. Preeminent is his suggestion that “none can hope to attain excellence in the grace and gift of [public] prayer, unless they abound in closet devotion, and in holy communion with God in secret.” In fact, without private prayer, “there will not, there cannot, be that feeling sense of divine things; that spirit of humble, filial importunity; that holy familiarity with the throne of grace, and with the covenant God who sits upon it, which bespeak one at home in prayer, and whose heart is in the exercise. To expect the latter without the former, would be to look for an effect without its necessary cause.” For Samuel Miller, strength in public prayer is only truly had with much exercise in private prayer.

 Miller also advises on writing out prayers at home. This does not mean that a pastor should read his prayers, or even recite from memory his written prayers, in public. Nor does he encourage writing simply for refining, beautifying or working on rhetorical elegance. Rather, a pastor ought to write out his prayers at home “to study brevity, simplicity, and comprehensiveness; to study that which is natural, plain, and perfectly intelligible to the humblest worshipper.” Doing this, says Miller, will engage the mind and make a man’s thoughts more subservient to extemporaneous prayer which is “most appropriate, happy, and acceptable.”            Thoughts on Public Prayer is a work that ought to be read and re-read by every pastor concerned with a right worship of God. Samuel Miller was certainly a man who gave his life to this end, and has provided the church, a church which he clearly loved, with a magnificent resource on how to worship God well in public prayer.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

Stephen Unthank