Prof. Donald Westblade
26 November 2013
Jonathan Edwards on Prayer
On a calm day along the New England coast, the subtle swell and crest of each small wave creates an unceasing rhythm that reflects the way of nature throughout the vast variety of God’s creation. Jonathan Edwards, preacher, writer and avid observer of nature, knew these cycles of nature all too well. His own Christian life was marked by the predictable swells and peaks of religious fervor followed by valleys of complacency. Edwards believed that sincere prayer, a duty performed in secret, was the natural manifestation of an in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. This privilege is for the good of man, who through prayer, is made more attentive to the predestined visible work of God. During his lifetime, a current of religious enthusiasm swept through the colonies known as the Great Awakenings. This large influx of converts necessitated oversight of preachers across the continent as they attempted to sift the faithful from the rest. The unique difficulty this situation presented in Edward’s life as a New England preacher of the 1740s brought to light his doctrine concerning prayer and its role in the Christian life.
The realization that the Christian life was not immune to periods of spiritual melancholy, and even doubt, came as a shock to one so steeped in Puritan culture but truly shaped his emphasis on the importance of consistent, secret prayer. The religious landscape of Puritan America was one of rigid rules which sought to instill a keen sense of religious duty into every Puritan child. Young Jonathan Edwards was no exception. As one in a long line of Puritan preachers, he learned the duty of prayer early on. Evening family prayer routines reflected how serious this undertaking was among Puritan families. They reminded the children nightly of the importance of consistent prayer considering the reality of sudden death from sickness or Indians attacks and even included these reminders as written penmanship or stitching assignments. It is no surprise then, that at the age of nine, Edwards records praying in secret five times a day and organizing prayer meetings among his peers. Often in Edwards growing up years, he would experience times of remarkable renewal in his own faith that excited his emotions only to be dashed by a subsequent time of melancholy which assuredly preceded another renewal of commitment to God in the face of trial or crisis. Pastor, writer, and doctoral candidate Brian Golez Najapfour, provides a very helpful look into the ebb and flow of Edwards’ personal prayer routines throughout his life. The sometimes demoralizing waxing and waning of religious fervor described by Najapfour would later evoke Edwards’ sympathy as well as justness in granting communicate membership to converts of the Awakening. As such, Edwards recognized the importance of fulfilling his Christian duty in continual prayer while also admitting that this fulfillment did not in and of itself indicate true faith. George Marsden, author of the leading biography on Edwards writes, “the introspective and keenly observant young man remained deeply suspicious of his own affections, having been twice fooled by what had seemed like the strongest spiritual emotions that disappeared when the crisis was past.” While religious consistency was often not a reliable indicator of true faith, mere passionate emotions were just as deceptive. Thus Najapfour says, “Hence, it can be learned that first, even an unbeliever can have zeal in prayer, but without genuine conversion, this zeal will eventually expire; and second, it is only when one experiences authentic conversion that he can really come with delight and passion to God‘s presence.” These experiences early in life became fundamental to Edwards’ doctrine which recognized excitable religious passions were not indicative of the in-dwelling of the Spirit.
While Edwards’ early opinions were shaped by Puritan culture and personal struggles in his private prayer, those ideas would be tested by the new culture influenced by Colonial Awakenings. Later in Edwards’ life, amidst the frenzy of spiritual awakenings throughout the colonies, public prayer meetings grew like wild-fire causing an undeniable rekindling of both private and public prayer. Marsden agrees that the wider body of Christ was renewed and united in an “extraordinary spirit of prayer” during these times. Despite the new trend in a culture of prayer, these “Concerted Prayer Meetings” were not a new revival trend but rather part of a long Puritan tradition somewhat forgotten since the time of Elizabethan England. It is well known that Edwards’ himself was an avid supporter and proponent of these prayer meetings at the height of the American Great Awakenings. Nevertheless, in the same fashion as the challenges presented by private prayer, so too, revival prayer meetings were fraught with much suspicion doubting the genuineness of those prayers. This appearance of pure emotionalism and an understandable potential for hypocrisy undoubtedly provided fader for the Old Light, New Light controversy. This proliferation and popularization of prayer undoubtedly contributed to genuine conversions that grew Edwards’ congregation while simultaneously creating a culture in which it was merely culturally relevant to be seen publically praying. This new culture, which potentially diluted and devalued genuine prayer, created the necessity for Edwards to cement his doctrine concerning prayer.
The fundamental building blocks of Edwards’ doctrine, upon which everything else rests, can be boiled down to his belief that God, first and foremost, mercifully inclines his ears towards the prayers of sinners while it is man’s duty and privilege to approach His throne which accomplishes God’s predestined will. The first premise of Edwards’ thought is found in his sermon The Most High, A Prayer-Hearing God. This sermon, presupposes man’s sub-ordinance to God in recognizing God’s graciousness in accepting our humble pleas and man’s duty to come before him in the posture of prayer. The title itself reflects the priorities of Edwards’ doctrine by first setting God apart as “The Most High,” which identifies God as sovereign and beyond human control or manipulation. Only after God’s supremacy is established does Edwards address God’s relationship with man by naming him “A Prayer-Hearing God”. He captures this eloquently in saying, “Though he is infinitely above all, and stands in no need of creatures; yet he is graciously pleased to take a merciful notice of poor worms of the dust. He manifests and presents himself as the object of prayer, appears as sitting on a mercy-seat that men may come to him by prayer.” As evident in this snippet of his sermon, Edwards depicts God as a merciful, benevolent deity who promises in His Word that He is waiting and willing to answer the prayers of his children in need.
The second basic premise on which Edwards’ bases his doctrine is the idea that prayer is most fundamentally for the good of mankind. The good he speaks of here manifests itself in several ways throughout Edwards’ thought. Most fundamentally, man’s prayers of adoration or petition do not enlighten the mind of God to man’s situation or reveal anything new about His own character. We must conclude that man is the only one benefiting from new knowledge or some kind of change as a result of the act of prayer. As Edwards says,
“To instance in the duty of prayer: it is manifest, we are not appointed in this duty, to declare God's perfections, his majesty, holiness, goodness, and all-sufficiency, and our own meanness, emptiness, dependence, and unworthiness, and our wants and desires, to inform God of these things, or to incline his heart, and prevail with him to be willing to show us mercy; but suitably to affect our own hearts with the things we express, and so to prepare us to receive the blessings we ask. And such gestures and manner of external behavior in the worship of God, which custom has made to be significations of humility and reverence, can be of no further use than as they have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others.”
Edwards argues here that on the basis that God is unchanging we must assume that any change taking place is happening in the heart of the man. One example Edwards offers which illustrates the benefit man receives from the act of prayer asserts that consistent time in prayer will decrease the appeal and opportunity for temptation to sin. Edwards says, “If a man be constant in the duty of secret prayer, it will tend to restrain him from willful sinning.” He finds the basis for this argument in scripture where Jesus’ commands his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Moreover, while prayer provides the armor to withstand temptation, Edwards also believes that sin, particularly unconfessed or habitual sin, builds a wall between prayers of men and God’s inclining his ear towards them. Consequently, Edwards asserts that confession in prayer is vital to redeeming the heart of the sinner and ultimately for his benefit. In this way, Edwards preaches that God’s will is glorified and made known, not altered, by human prayers. Edwards’ belief is logically flows from the idea that God’s sovereign and pre-willed purpose does not change with every petition that reaches the heavenly throne but rather the human heart is aligned with His will in the act of prayer.
What then does Edwards say concerning the purpose of petitionary prayer? To build upon the previous argument, Edwards argues that any need that elicits man’s petition is simply a way to arrest the attention of man so as to be aware of God’s work in the lives of man. As previously stated, Edwards’ full belief in God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge predicates the belief that God’s will is not subject to change depending on the prayers of sinners. Though the experience of “answered prayer” may distort the perception that God has somehow changed his will to accommodate our requests, Edwards firmly believes that even our petitionary prayers are predetermined as a response to man’s realization of his need for God. In petitioning God for relief or provision, man’s heart is made sensitive to seeing the work He is about to accomplish. Edwards says it this way, “When [God] is about to bestow some great blessing on his church, it is often his manner, in the first place, so to order things in his providence, as to show his church their great need of it, and to bring them into distress for want of it, and so put them upon crying earnestly to him for it.” That being said, Edwards admits to some level upon which it may seem that God is “at the command of the prayer of faith.” This happens when man realizes God’s ultimate supremacy and submits his will in the humble state of prayer, then becomes part of a grand work – greater than humanly possible.
The second reason Edwards encourages the practice of petitionary prayer is that by doing so, man participates in the larger work of God thereby rendering his earthly effect greater than that which his own hands could accomplish. As such, “… if they have much of the spirit of grace and supplication, in this way they may have power with him who is infinite in power, and has the government of the whole world.” He explains that even a poor man devoid of resources to offer, can, through prayer, make a real difference even across oceans and continents. He argues that there is a way in which an earthly perspective can portray God as under the command of the prayer of the faithful. “Though they may be private persons, their prayers are put up in the name of a Mediator who is a public person, being the Head of the whole church, and the Lord of the universe.” Therefore, while God is completely sovereign and unchanging, there is a real sense in which man’s duty in prayer benefits his soul while also having the privilege of accomplishing God’s work on earth. This is an honor above any other.
The challenges presented by the responsibility of sifting new converts caused Edwards’ to refine his doctrine of prayer, bringing out the unique aspects of his thought. As new converts flooded through the doors of the Church, preachers like Edwards were responsible to approve each new communicate member. Because these converts were birthed in a culture that emphasized public prayer, Edwards focused on the importance of the duty of private prayer as indicative of deeper faith. Edwards, no doubt, recalled the lessons he learned in his own walk of faith throughout his early years. Because of his experiences, he acknowledged that in discerning the authenticity of conversion, one cannot look at the outward performance or attendance at public prayer because, unlike private prayer, it allows the mere appearance of religion. In his sermon Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer, he makes the point that people may attend and participate in public and family prayer for the selfish appearance of commitment to religion and yet harbor no indwelling of the Spirit. “Many vicious persons, who make no pretense to serious religion, commonly attend public prayers in the congregation; and also more private prayers, in the families in which they live, ... they may continue to attend upon prayer as long as they live, and yet may truly be said not to call upon God. For such prayer, in the manner of it, is not their own. They are present only for the sake of their credit, or in compliance with others.” For this reason, Edwards finds it necessary to look beyond the visible appearance of prayer. Christoph Ehrat, pastor and Master in Theological Studies, uses Edwards’ example of time spent in prayer to illustrate the uselessness of evaluating mere accidental qualities of an inner expression, “Edwards refutes the amount of time spent in reading, praying, singing, or a strong sense of confidence and assurance as not being conclusive evidence for the presence or absence of holy affections.” Edwards points out that one may “omit this duty [of secret prayer], and still have the credit of being converted persons.” In addition, Edwards felt it necessary to admonish his flock against the Pharisaical inauthenticity of loud, showy prayer bred by a culture steeped in concerted prayer meetings throughout New England revivals. The innate desire to be culturally accepted must have perpetrated this trend in new converts because in Edward’s Treatise on Religious Affections, he warns his readers of the falsity of showy prayers for the purpose of public appreciation when he writes, “False religion may cause persons to be loud and earnest in prayer: ‘Ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to cause your voice to be heard on high.’ That religion which is not spiritual and saving, may cause men to delight in religious duties and ordinances…” Therefore, Edwards argues that it is the delight of a true Christian to seek out time in private, away from the pleasure of communing with fellow man, to commune with God in solitude. Secret prayer is consequently the evidence of rightly-ordered affections and indicative of a deeper commitment to “true religion.” The Bible warns of such sinful actions that appear as religious fervor but are merely devised solely to please other men. “Some are greatly affected when in company; but have nothing that bears any manner of proportion to it in secret, in close meditation, prayer and conversing with God when alone, and separated from all the world.” Therefore, attendance at public prayer meetings held little sway in Edwards’ mind in determining the faith of a new member.
As a counterbalance to the “false religion” described above, Edwards describes the signs of a true in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Ehrat’s succinct work on Edwards’ doctrine of prayer points out that “In his Treatise on Grace, Edwards affirms that ‘our communication with God the Father and God the Son consists in our possessing of the Holy Ghost, which is their Spirit.’ It is this divine Spirit dwelling in our hearts who takes us into the blessed, unsearchable fellowship of the Trinity.” Therefore, true prayer is the natural expression of an inner communion with God. For Edwards, prayer that is inspired merely by a momentary fear of damnation is most definitely not an expression of this indwelling of the Spirit. Only consistent commitment to personal prayer time in secret is reflective of the presence or absence of the true spirit of prayer. Edwards denounces the hypocrisy of prayer that is only inspired by heightened emotions or a fleeting fear of hell.
“While they are under awakenings, they may, through fear of hell, call upon God, and attend very constantly upon the duty of secret prayer. And after they have had some melting affections, having their hearts much moved with the goodness of God, or with some affecting encouragements, and false joy and comfort; while these impressions last they continue to call upon God in the duty of secret prayer.”
Put simply, it is the essence of hypocrisy to remain in the habit of secret, personal prayer only while awakened emotions make it seem like pleasure but forsake the duty when it requires effort. “Hypocrites never had the spirit of prayer given them. They may have been stirred up to the external performance of this duty, and that with a great deal of earnestness and affection, and yet always have been destitute of the true spirit of prayer.” Instead, an in-dwelling of the Spirit recognizes the continued duty of secret prayer and the pleasure it brings to those in sweet communion with God, hidden from the eyes of fellow men.
While Edwards’ doctrine of prayer seems to offer a solution to his difficulty regarding communicate membership, this may not be possible. Given the fact that outward signs are most likely false reflections of the inner man, even the disclosure of secret prayer habits were are fraught with the potential for hypocrisy and false humility. Put another way, it is almost impossible to discern an indwelling of the Spirit because of the nature of inward motivation. In his own life, Edwards kept his prayer habits secret to the extent that he did not even record when or how often he prayed for fear that would violate the objective of the secrecy. Therefore, while Edwards’ doctrine of sincere prayer was fundamentally influenced and necessitated by the enormous responsibility of determining the recipients of communicate membership, this method of discerning worthy converts was not sufficient due to the private nature of authentic prayer. While Edwards’ thoughts on prayer were far more extensive than those points addressed here, these aspects were relevant to struggles that consumed much of his career, and in some fashion, determined the course of his life as a Colonial preacher.
Beck, Peter. The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards’s Theology of Prayer. Joshua Press (2010). Previously: Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007.
Ehrat, Christoph. “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Its Application to Prayer.” Crux 24 (1988): 11-16.
Edwards, Jonathan. “An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume Two. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Pgs 797-847.
________. “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer.” Select Sermons. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.hypocrites.html. Pgs 195-209.
________. “The Most High, A Prayer-Hearing God.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, ed. Edward Hickman. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust (1834, reprint -1974): 113-18.
________. “Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, XI: Sect 3. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.ix.vi.iii.html
________. “Narrative of Surprising Conversions: This Work Further Illustrated in Particular Instances.” The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Volume One. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Pgs 1541-1555.
________. A Treatise on Religious Affections. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/affections.html.
Kreider, Glenn R. “Jonathan Edwards‘s Theology of Prayer,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160, no. 640 (2003): 434-56.
Najapfour, Brian G. Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer. Caledonia, MI: Biblical Spirituality Press (2013).
Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. London: Yale University Press (2003).
 Marsden, George, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 27.
 Marsden, 42.
 Najapfour, Brian G., Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer, 5. This source was originally a Doctoral dissertation that was then published. This quote was taken from page five of his unpublished dissertation.
 Marsden, 312.
 Marsden, 156.
 Edwards, “The Most High, A Prayer Hearing God.” Section I.
 Edwards, Religious Affections, Part 1 Sec II, Subsection 9.
 Edwards, “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer,” Select Sermons 199.
 Matthew 26:41.
 Marsden, 312.
 Edwards, “Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England,” Works of Jonathan Edwards Chap X: Part V, Sect 3.
 Ibid., Chap X: Part V, Sect 3.
 Edwards, “Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England,” Works of Jonathan Edwards Chap X: Part V, Sect 3.
 Edwards, “Hypocrites.” Section II, 1.
 Ehrat, 12.
 Edwards, “Hypocrites.” Section II, Intro.
 Here he quotes Isaiah 58:4.
 Edwards, On Religious Affections, Part II, Section IX.
 Edwards, On Religious Affections, Part III, Section X.
 Ehrat, Christoph, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Its Application to Prayer.” Crux 24 (1988): 15.
 Edwards, “Hypocrites” I, 1.
 Edwards, “Hypocrites” III, 1.