Walk Over the Vast Ocean (4)

Reformed, experiential Christianity birthed the pioneer missionary efforts of men such as John Eliot (1604–1690), David Brainerd (1718–1747),William Carey (1761–1834), Adoniram Judson(1788–1850), and John G. Paton (1824–1907). This mission effort was small and struggling until it exploded into the modern missionary movement begun by Carey at the end of the eighteenth century. Persecution from Roman Catholic authorities in Europe, numerous wars, the need to first evangelize homelands in Europe and North America, the deaths of missionaries by disease and martyrdom, and the slowness of the church to respond to the Great Commission all hindered the development of Reformed missions. However, from the start, Reformed and Puritan Christians fervently prayed for worldwide evangelization and revival. In some respects, the Great Awakening and today’s missionary movement may be regarded as an answer to centuries of persevering prayer. What motivated the Reformed and the Puritans to pray for the world? What guided their prayers for missions? This series seeks to provide answers to these questions.

The Method of Missionary Prayer


In all their ways, the Puritans were orderly, that is, they governed their lives by principles. This was so even in their prayers for the spread of the gospel in the world. While the Puritans resisted prescribed forms and relied on the Holy Spirit’s help for prayer, they also embraced methods of promoting and guiding such prayer. 


A Passionate Missionary Tradition: The Westminster Standards

The first Puritan method was to build missionary prayer into the public worship of the local church. The Westminster Assembly, famous for its Confession of Faith and two catechisms, also produced the Directory for the Public Worshipof God(1644). The Directoryinstructed that the minister, prior to delivering his sermon, was to lead the people in prayer to confess sins and to pray for grace through Christ Jesus. He was also instructed

to pray for the propagation of the gospel and kingdom of Christ to all nations, for the conversion of the Jews, the fullness of the Gentiles, the fall of Antichrist [the Roman Catholic papacy], and the hastening of the coming of our Lord; for the deliverance of the distressed churches abroad, from the tyranny of the Antichristian faction, and from the cruel oppositions and blasphemies of the Turk [the Muslim power]; for the blessing of God upon all the Reformed churches, especially upon the Churches and Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland…and for our plantations [colonies] in the remote parts of the world.[1]

The Puritans were thus concerned that public worship regularly include prayer for the cause of Christ throughout the world, including world missions and the relief of the persecuted church suffering in Europe under Roman Catholicism and in the Middle East under Islam. Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) in its exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (Q. 191), said, “In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan; we pray, that the kingdom of sin, and Satan, may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in.[2]The Westminster Standards shaped the piety of generations of British, North American, and Australian Reformed Christians, leading many into intercession for the world.

Thomas Boston (1676–1732) preached a series of sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In his sermon on “Thy kingdom come,” Boston echoed the language of the Directoryand the Larger Catechism. He said this petition in the Lord’s Prayer teaches us that the duty and disposition of God’s children is to desire His kingdom to come in, destroying the power of sin and Satan over men’s hearts. “Every saint prays it down,” he wrote. He said we are to pray for “the conversion of sinners to God, 2 Thess. 3:1, ‘Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified.’ Converts are the church’s children, for which she travails in birth, in her ministers and members, as naturally longing for the conversion of souls, as a travailing woman to see the fruit of her womb.” This petition also requires us to pray for God to overcome Satan’s opposition to the preaching and power of the gospel “and make the gospel triumph over them all.” Likewise, Boston said, God’s children must desire and pray for “the propagation of the gospel through the world, that it may be carried through all nations…that Christ may be King in all the earth.[3]

This pattern of praying was not merely a public formality, for it engraved itself upon the hearts of the people. The last words of English housewife Elizabeth Heywood (d. 1661) were a prayer “for the church of God, that the Jews might be converted, and that the gospel might be preached to the remainder of the Gentile nations.[4]May God make prayer for the nations so integral to our church’s worship that it will even be included among our own last wishes.


A Divine Missionary Book: The Holy Scriptures

The second Puritan method for praying for world missions was teaching people to pray the Scriptures. Matthew Henry wrote Method for Prayer(1710),[5]which followed the Westminster Standards in providing prayers for “the lost world,” specifically for the spread of the gospel to foreign nations, the growth of the church by many conversions, the salvation of the Jews, the relief of the Eastern churches from Islamic oppression, and the blessing of the churches in English colonies such as America.[6]

The key to Henry’s method was putting the words of Scriptures into the mouths of God’s people. Henry wove together the words of the Bible to impress upon the hearts of Christians in prayers such as these:

Let the people praise thee, O God, yea, let all the people praise thee.

O let thy salvation and thy righteousness be openly showed in the sight of the heathen, and let all the ends of the earth see the salvation of our God.

O give thy Son the heathen for his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession; for thou hast said, It is a light thing for him to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel, but thou wilt give him for a light to the Gentiles. 

Let all the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of his Christ.

O let the gospel be preached unto every creature; for how shall men believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without preachers? And how shall they preach except they be sent? And who shall send forth labourers, but the Lord of the harvest?

O let the earth be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.[7]

As these selections indicate, the Psalms contain many expressions of God’s dominion over all the earth and the future reign of the anointed King over the nations. According to the design of the Holy Spirit, the Psalter is a missionary hymnal and prayer book. Calvin and the Puritans loved the Psalms and sang from the Psalter every day. 

The call of the gospel sounds forth in the version of Psalm 2 that appeared in the Psalter of Sternhold and Hopkins (1560), used in Britain and North America for many generations:

Now ye O Kings and Rulers all,

    be Wise therefore and Learn’d:

By whom the matters of the World

    be Iudged and discern’d.

See that ye serve the Lord above,

    in trembling and in feare:

See that with reuerence ye reioyce,

    to him in like manner.


See that ye kisse and eke [also] embrace,

    his blessed Sonne, i say:

Lest in his wrath ye suddenly,

    perish in the mid way.

If once his wrath neuer so small,

    shall kindle in his brest:

Oh then all they that trust in Christ,

    shall happy be and blest.[8]

New England’s Bay Psalm Book(1640) celebrates the triumph of the gospel over all the earth in this version of Psalm 98:

Sing to the Lord a new song: sing

    all the earth the Lord unto:

Sing to Jehovah, bless his name,

    still his salvation show.

To the heathen his glory, to all

    people his wonders spread.

For great is the Lord, much to be praised,

    above all gods in dread….

Ye kindreds of the people all

    unto the Lord afford

Glory and mightiness also

    give ye unto the Lord. [Ps. 96:14, 7][9]

Likewise, the Scottish Psalter of 1650 foresees a world redeemed by Christ, renewed by the preaching of the gospel, and rejoicing in God, in its famous version of Psalm 100:

All people that on earth do dwell, 

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;

Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell, 

Come ye before Him and rejoice.[10]

The greatest means the Lord uses to teach His people to pray for the world is the Word of God. If we want people to be faithful in praying for the spread of the gospel throughout the world, we should fill our worship services with the words of the missionary book. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” The practice of singing the Psalms in public and family worship would help turn the church’s inward focus outward to a world that desperately needs to worship the true God.[11]


Conclusion: “Walk over the vast ocean”

William Gurnall (1616–1679) asked, “Is there none, O man, that needs the mercy of God besides thyself?” In contemporary language, is there no one else that you want to be saved besides yourself? God gives us permission for our love to begin at home. So pray for your family. After that, consider what is happening in your neighborhood. Then pray for your community. Go on to pray for your nation, but do not stop there. As Gurnall said,

Let thy prayers walk over the vast ocean…. Visit the churches of Christ abroad; yea, the poor Indians and other ruins of mankind that lie where Adam’s sin threw them with us, without any attempt made as yet upon them by the gospel for their recovery, and carry their deplored condition before the Lord. Our Drake is famous for compassing the earth with his ship in a few years; thou mayst by thy prayers every day, and make a more gainful voyage of it too than he did.[12]

[1]. “A Directory for Publique Prayer, Reading the Holy Scriptures, Singing of Psalmes, Preaching of the Word, Administration of the Sacraments, and other parts of the Publique Worship of God, Ordinary and Extraordinary,” in The Westminster Standards: An Original Facsimile(1648; reprint, Audubon, N.J.: Old Paths Publications, 1997), 10.


[2]. “The humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines…Concerning a Larger Catechism,” 62, in ibid. 


[3].The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston(1853; reprint, Stoke-on-Trent, England: Tentmaker Publications, 2002), 2:57880.


[4]. Murray, The Puritan Hope, 99.


[5]. See chapter 8 of this book.


[6].The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry(1855; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 2:48–49.


[7]. Ibid.


[8].The Booke of Psalms, collected into English Meeter, by Thomas Sternhold, Iohn Hopkins, and others: conferred with the Hebrew, with apt Notes to sing them withal(London: for the Company of Stationers, 1628; reprint, Columbus, Ohio: Lazarus Ministry Press, 1998).


[9].The Bay Psalm Book(1640; reprint, Bedford: Applewood Books, 2002), 185–86.


[10].The Psalms of David in Metre, according to the Version Approved by the Church of Scotland, and Appointed to be Used in Worship (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, n.d.).


[11]. For a modern edition of the Psalms for church worship, see The Psalter(Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999). On the historic practice of Psalm singing, which has largely fallen out of favor in the contemporary church, see Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio, Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century(Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).


[12]. William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour(1662–1665; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 2:524–25. Francis Drake (1540–1596) was an English sea captain who circled the earth 1577–1580.



Joel Beeke


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