Charles Spurgeon on the Preacher’s Public Prayer

Last year I read Richard Ellsworth Day’s biography about Charles Spurgeon titled The Shadow of the Broad Brim. Day wrote the book in the early 20th century and therefore was able to interview people who had been church members of the Metropolitan Tabernacle under the pulpit ministry of Charles Spurgeon.

Day records that those that called Spurgeon their pastor made a startling statement about him: they said that what they remembered most about Pastor Spurgeon was his praying. When we think of Spurgeon, we think of his sermons, but his church members cherished the memory of his public praying above all. Amazing!

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the minister’s public prayer. Spurgeon addressed this important issue in the chapter titled “Our Public Prayer” in his book Lectures to My Students. The chapter itself is filled with many lessons and observations, but I want to share with you the three lessons that helped me the most.

The first is the method of public prayer. There are two camps in this regard: one is the camp of ministers who read their prayers, and the other is the camp of ministers who pray freely (or extemporaneously). Spurgeon was decidedly in the latter camp, saying “free prayer is the most scriptural.

He goes on to say: “where in the writing of the apostles meet we with the bare idea of a liturgy? …It would be difficult to discover when and where liturgies began; their introduction was gradual, and as we believe, co-extensive with the gradual decline of purity in the church; the introduction of them among Nonconformists would mark the era of our decline and fall.”

The second lesson is the length of public prayer. Now what’s interesting about this is I’ve applied the exact opposite of what Spurgeon was advocating. Here’s why: In Spurgeon’s day, there seemed to be a problem of preachers praying too long in public, so to combat that issue, Spurgeon suggested keeping one’s public prayer to no more than 10 minutes. When I read that, I was shocked! As a Baptist in modern-day America, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a preacher pray anywhere near 10 minutes. Most public prayers I heard were a sentence or two. So my takeaway was that maybe I should pray a little longer than what I’m used to. There is a need for the pastor to lead his people in a time of prayer that goes beyond a trite phrase or two – as a church, there is a multitude of needs that must be brought before God beyond just asking for a blessing on the offering of the sermon.

To put things in perspective, Spurgeon references a Dr. Charles Brown, of Edinburgh, who “lays it down, as a result of his deliberate judgment, that ten minutes is the limit to which prayer ought to be prolonged. Our Puritanic forefathers used to pray for three-quarters of an hour, or more, but then you must recollect that they did not know that they would ever have the opportunity of praying again before an assembly, and therefore took their fill of it…

The third and final lesson that caught my attention was the content of public prayers. This lesson consists of several negatives and one positive:

Do NOT use “CANT PHRASES” which refers to the “insincere use of pious words.” Some preachers recycle and reuse the same formulaic statements over and over in the public prayers. This is to be avoided at all costs. It makes your prayers sound robotic and insincere.

Do NOT preach when you pray. Spurgeon says, “Let the Lord alone be the object of your prayers. Beware of having an eye to the auditors; beware of becoming rhetorical to please the listeners. Prayer must not be transformed into an “oblique sermon.” It is short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display.”

Do NOT pretend to be fervent in prayer when you aren’t in your heart. Spurgeon put it this way: “As you would avoid a viper, keep from all attempts to work up spurious fervor in public devotion. Do not labor to seem earnest…simulated ardour is a shameful form of lying.” Spurgeon is advocating lifeless prayers or coldness in our intercessions because he later says “let your prayers be earnest, full of fire, vehemence, prevalence.” 

His point is to not “fake the fire.” Don’t put on a show, don’t pretend to be something you’re not for the sake of those listening.

And here’s the positive lesson regarding the content of our prayers: by all means, DO use Scripture quotations in your prayers. The Bible is replete with passages that should be used as part of our prayers. Spurgeon noted: “As David used the sword of Goliath for after victories, so we may at times employ a petition already answered, and find our selves able to say with the son of Jesse, “there is none like it,” as God shall yet again fulfil it in our experience.”

There’s much more that we could discuss, but I’ll leave that to you and Spurgeon when you read his book. 

I close with two suggestions: 

1) Read the collection of Spurgeon’s public prayers in the book titled The Pastor in Prayer and 

2) Prepare your public prayers by devoting yourself to private prayer. The best method for improving your public prayers is to cultivate them in your own private prayer time.

We will talk about the preacher’s private prayer next time.

The video version of this article can be found here:

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