What does it take to pray like a Puritan? And why would we want to?
Answer the first question, and the second falls into place. But an underlying question remains, akin to wondering what the actual tunes of the psalms might’ve been. Few of us can claim to have attended an actual Puritan prayer meeting to record a prayer or two. Fortunately, there’s a good workaround. It takes a bit of digging, but by scouring the forgotten reams of written sermon collections and other obscure writings, we discover that powerful prayers were occasionally recorded and then, for the most part, forgotten for centuries.
In rediscovering these prayers, we discover we have much more in common with our Puritan ancestors in the faith than we could have imagined. As we read what they prayed, we become a living answer to the prayer of one Puritan pastor, Philip Doddridge, who asked God that his writings “may reach to those who are yet unborn, and teach them your name and praise, when this author has long dwelled in the dust.”
Here are five prayer lessons from the Puritans.
1. Pray in light of eternity.
Doddridge wrote, “And though I might never know it while I live, yet I beg you, Lord God, let it be found at the last day, that some souls are converted by these labors. And let some be able to stand forth and say that by these they were won to you.”
Imagine having that long-term view of things, and praying that God might bring people into the kingdom as a result of what I may say, do, or write—even after I’m long gone.
In rediscovering these prayers, we discover we have much more in common with our Puritan ancestors in the faith than we could have imagined.
Puritans valued the long game in prayer. And while the Lord may choose to return tomorrow, legacy still matters—as our Puritan brothers and sisters would remind us. After all, they knew their lives were short. (The average English lifespan in 1600, for example, was less than 40 years.)
With that limitation in mind, the reality of eternity looms more closely. So Puritans begged the Lord for his mercy in the lives of those around them, knowing the days were short. Even if we expect to live 78.9 years, we do well to abandon the pretense of a longer life and adopt a similar perspective in our prayers.
2. Appreciate the reality of a God who is close yet far.
Puritan writings are chock-full of lofty praise to a lofty God. Matthew Henry wrote, “You are the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who only has immortality, dwelling in the light which no one can approach, whom no one has seen or can see.”
His words are echoed, over and over, throughout Puritan preaching and thought. But the Puritans also believed in a God who is as “transcendent” as he is “immanent.” In other words, who is both impossibly far and incredibly near.
Here’s the point: many Puritan prayers embody this enigma. Though often lost in translation, this combination of awe before God’s holy presence and a deep, passionate love for the Christ who said “I am with you always” clearly marks the Puritans—and their approach to prayer.
This combination of awe before God’s holy presence and a deep, passionate love for the Christ who said ‘I am with you always’ clearly marks the Puritans—and their approach to prayer.
Close, yet far. So when they prayed, they were at once aware of God’s holiness and joyful closeness. They fell on their faces and called to their Father. They didn’t pray with a jocular familiarity, but as people who cling to the feet of the One who created the universe—a God who yet stooped down to gently touch every aspect of our lives.
3. Keep in mind that prayer can get you in trouble.
The roster of notable Puritans includes Joseph Alleine, a British pastor who traveled around England with the grandfather of John and Charles Wesley, but who was persecuted for not adhering to the Conformity Act of 1662 (a law designed to standardize church ritual). You do this prayer in this order, you follow this script, no deviation. In fact, some 2,000 pastors lost their jobs at the time for not lining up with the Act.
Richard Baxter, another pastor in the mid-1600s, got himself in trouble with the law, but he wrote spiritual classics still available today. Imagine a 400-year shelf life for your next book.
Lewis Bayley, an earlier Puritan, born in 1575, rector of St. Matthew’s Church in London, persecuted and imprisoned for his Puritan views. He wrote a book that deeply influenced John Bunyan.
John Bunyan himself, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, spent 12 years in prison for his stand on biblical truth.
One of my favorites is Robert Hawker, known for his passionate preaching and heart for the poor. In fact, he wrote what was called “the Poor Man’s devotionals and commentaries,” which was one of Spurgeon’s favorites.
Most of these people wanted to keep the church pure from within, and they paid a price. Some edged more to the separatist movement. A few were able to bridge the gap. But they all prayed with a passion. Look where it got them.
4. Pray as if to invite God into every aspect of life.
A natural tendency is to say that we’re a long way from these people, and thus write them off. Many years have passed. Culture has changed. People have changed.
Have they really?
As we read, study, and pray Puritan prayers, we realize how alike we are. We still have the same kinds of needs, even if we dress them up differently and believe we’re quite sophisticated. At our core, maybe we’re not.
The Puritans sometimes had trouble paying the rent, and they struggled with family issues. They had to deal with devastating illness, plagues, loneliness, and standing for Christ in an often hostile culture. Even in their churches they sometimes faced opposition for being “too” dedicated.
The Puritans sometimes had trouble paying the rent, and they struggled with family issues. They had to deal with devastating illness, plagues, loneliness, and standing for Christ in an often hostile culture.
So they prayed for help to endure temptation. To rest in God’s love. For help to share the gospel with others, to begin the day, or live the day, or close the day.
In all this, they took God at his Word, and they valued the truth of Scripture. They counted the cost, and they prayed about everything in their lives with a fiery passion.
So what if we were to strip away everything else and ask ourselves, Should we not do the same?
5. Copy God. He doesn’t mind.
Finally, the Puritans also shared a great open secret about prayer: the value of praying God’s words back to him. Over and over throughout their prayers, the Puritans allude to Scripture. It flavors their language and phrasing to the point where it’s often impossible to tell where their words begin and a Scripture quote ends.
At the same time, we get the impression that their own heart and thoughts are centered around biblical passages. The line blurs between the two, and it makes the Puritans accessible to today’s Christians.
Praying Like a Puritan
Puritan prayers are energetic, often emotional, heart-shaking pleas for mercy. Neither casual nor perfunctory, they often offer praises from a position of deep humility, taking captive every aspect of life.
They’re often others-centered, perhaps more so than a typical modern prayer, though they could also be deeply introspective. And they weren’t just warmhearted but ardent, not just carefully theological but truly biblical.
Ultimately the people who prayed these prayers were serious disciples, dedicated to their faith, their families, and their work. Their prayers reflected their all-in commitment. The Puritans were a people on their knees.
So their prayers are a treasure for us today. And even all these centuries later, we can pray along.