Brooks on prayer

I’m moving through my copy of Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s 1874 Our New Departure: or, The Methods and Work of the Universalist Church of America — his manifesto for the Universalist church — to his chapter on prayer. It’s a goldmine of Universalist attitudes, so I’m lifting out quotations; this is the first of two parts.

He starts on prayer in his overview (p. 43)

How many [Universalists] there are who pray in the voiceless secrecy of their communion with God, it is for no human pen to assume to say. But the custom of family, social, or stated private prayer does not, to any considerable extent, prevail among us, because there is no prevailing sense of duty in these directions; and how rare it is to find those in our congregations who can be called to lead in public prayer, we all know. We have opinion rather than faith; more nominal assent than spiritual impulse or purpose.

from page 176

Since I entered the ministry, it was not usual to find family prayer even in the homes of our ministers, while a family altar in a Universalist layman’s home was a thing almost unheard of. The home in which I was reared — reared most tenderly and carefully — was a fair type of the best Universalist homes in this respect, my mother being a church-member, of devout mind and heart, and my father, though not a church-member, a most upright and scrupulously conscientious man, whom, to the last, nothing but serious illness could keep from his place at church, so long as he could get there. The children were trained to revere and read the Bible, to honor the Sabbath, to love and practise goodness, and to ‘go to meeting’ with punctilious regularity. But — saving that we children, in our earliest days, were taught to ‘say our prayers’ every night on going to our pillows — the voice of prayer was never heard in our home, except when the minister was with us to ‘say grace’ at table. And this, so far as my knowledge extended, was the universal rule among us as a people.

from pages 176-177

The propriety of prayer — at least to some extent — is not open to debate. They would not see it dispensed with in our Sabbath services, at the marriage altar, in the chamber of the sick, or at the burial of the dead. They not only recognize, but, if need be, would insist upon, its fitness on these and various special occasions.… For if we should pray at all, it can only be because there is, for some reason, use and power in prayer. What mummery all praying is if so much as this be not true? And if there be use or power in praying at all, then the more we have of prayer of the right sort, under suitable circumstances, the larger the measure of use it will serve, — the greater the degree of power it will impart. Public prayer being well, then why not private prayer? If prayer in the church, why not in the home? if prayer in the pulpit, why not in the closet? if prayer on special occasions, why not as the habit of life?

There is a view of the subject which seeks to avoid the difficulty of this question, How? presents, by affecting to affirm the use of prayer, and at the same time alleging that it avails nothing with God, — only does us good on the same principle that religious meditation serves to strengthen, soothe and uplift us. This theory has found some advocates among us. But it seems to me — and I think I may say, to nearly all of us — a theory most unsatisfactory, and every way open to objection. No really devout mind can fail instinctively to shrink from it, and protest against it. Not only does it deny the Psalmist’s statement that God heareth prayer, — i.e. hears in some sympathizing and responsive sense, — and equally deny Christ’s repeated assurances to the same effect, but it makes prayer a travesty of devotion as actually as though there were no God.

From page 179, a bit of humor

Or, still more like perhaps, it is as if one, desiring to scale a mountain, should stand in a basket, trying to lift himself by going through the motions of pulling at a rope which he knows does not exist, but which he plays is dangling from the sky and fastened to the basket, all the while invoking the aid of some deaf or helpless friend!

From page 180

It is important that we should duly keep in mind the fact of man’s freedom; but it is even more important that we should take care not to overlook or compromise the grander fact of God’s freedom. Because this fact fails to be properly taken into account, there is, in the habits of thinking quite too widely prevalent touching this whole matter of God’s connection with us, not a little virtual Atheism. We hear a great deal about the laws of nature, and the established chain of causation, and the inviolable order of things; and there are those who never weary in insisting that it is not at all probable that this machine-like fixity and succession of events ever has been, or ever will be, intermitted in answer to anybody’s prayers.

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Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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