By John Angell James, 1846


"Apostasy from God begins at the closet door." So said the excellent Matthew Henry; and the experience of multitudes has proved the truth of the remark. A prayerless profession of religion will soon be thrown aside as an encumbrance. To guard you against this fearful state, and to lead you on to higher degrees of a devotional enjoyment, is the design of the present number, as well as of the preceding one. The last was on the spirit of prayer, without which no religious exercises are either profitable to us, or acceptable to God; and the subject of this admonition is that particular kind of supplication which we denominate private prayer, because it is performed by each individual in retirement. This species of devotion is inseparable from a state of grace; it is one of the first, one of the plainest, and strongest evidence of spiritual life.

A Christian sustains a personal relation to God, has personal needs, sins, and obligations, and feels it therefore both his duty and his privilege to go and speak to God alone. To this he is enjoined by the highest authority, "But you when you pray," said Christ, "enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret, shall reward you openly." Matt. 6:6. The word "closet" in the original, signifies chamber or cellar; in short any secret place—and some suppose our Lord designedly employed a word of such latitude, that none might omit prayer under a pretense that they had not a proper place to which to retire. Place is nothing, disposition in prayer is everything. "I will," said the apostle, "that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands." Blessed privilege! There is no place in which it is suitable for a Christian to be found, in which it is unsuitable for him to pray.

Nothing is said in Scriptures either as to the time, the frequency, or the length of our prayers. Nature seems to point out, as suitable, the morning, when we are going forth to meet the duties and dangers, trials and difficulties of the world; and the evening, when we have to review the conduct of the day, and need protection for the night. And how beneficial have many found five or ten minutes at noon given to this sacred exercise. A solemn, though it be a short pause at midday to send up a look to God, a cry to heaven, would prove a sweet refreshment, and a powerful protection. No general rule can be laid down as to the length of our private devotions. This, like many other of our duties under the Christian dispensation, is entrusted to our sense of duty, and to our feelings of love and gratitude. It depends in measure on the nature and number of other duties; the peculiarity of our situation; the specific objects for which we pray; the engagedness of our attention; and the intensity of our feelings. Colonel Gardiner, whose engagements were such that he could often command only one season of retirement in a day, used to spend two hours in devotion before he went out in a morning; to command which he always rose early, and if it were necessary, as was sometimes the case, when his regiment was on the march, for him to leave home before the time allotted to his closet, he would rise at an earlier hour to secure his usual term of communion with God. Luther thought three hours a day little enough to spend in prayer. Few Christians can imitate these men. Perhaps there are few, who if they had much of the spirit of prayer, could not and would not command half an hour once a day, and most, by a proper economy of time, and an abridgment of unnecessary slumber, could secure double this portion. There is very little danger in these days of feeble devotion, engrossing secularity, and active zeal—of spending too much time in the closet; the danger lies on the other side. Everything connected with religion, except public meetings, which often have very little of religion in them, must be short—short sermons—short prayers—short meditations—short devotions—short books—short religion.

It does not much matter what part of the day is devoted to prayer. No hour is canonical. Most people find it convenient to give the morning before the business on the world commences, and the evening, after it is finished; but some, for instance, servants and laboring men, and the mothers of young families, cannot so exactly and independently command and arrange their time, and they must get what they can, and select the time most convenient to their peculiar circumstances. Deeply do I feel for these classes of my members, and most anxious am I, lest in the urgency of their pursuits, the constant recurrence of their duties, and the wearisome nature of their labors—they should lose the spirit and love of prayer, by being deprived of much of the opportunity for its periodical and regular performance; and sink into a state of lukewarmness and neglect.

Endeavor, my dear friends, to keep up habitual devotion in your souls; and as intervals of leisure can be found through the day, steal away to your chamber at any hour to commune with God in secret. In this respect "watch unto prayer," by looking after those opportunities which you may be able to embrace without neglecting other incumbent duties.

Perhaps a few DIRECTIONS for the right performance of prayer, may be of importance.

Do not be satisfied with mere formality. Do not forget you have to do with one who searches the heart, and tries the thoughts. How indignantly did God complain of the Jews when he said, "This people draws near unto me with their mouth, and honors me with their lips—but their heart is far from me." Matt. 15:8. Nothing is more insulting to God—or more injurious to ourselves—than cold, heartless, formal prayers. Our devotions do us either great good or harm. Insincere and spiritless prayers are a most profane trifling with God—they are like offering maimed sacrifices upon God's altar which are not only unacceptable to him, but harden the hearts of those by whom they are presented. Some people are made worse by their very devotions. Nothing tends more to abate our reverence for God, or our fear of offending him, than a careless method of addressing him. The servant that can habitually speak to his master in a disrespectful manner, acquires a familiarity, which saps the very principle of obedience. Be solemn then, and devout, in all your addresses to God, for he is a jealous God.

Let your prayers be strictly private. "Enter into your closet, and shut your door; pray to your Father who is in secret." There should not be a single human being with you—the presence even of a child, capable of noticing what is going on, should be felt as a hindrance, a restraint, and an embarrassment. It is not enough, that only your husband, or your wife, is with you; even this near and dear friend must be away. You must be alone with God. If prayer were a mere form, this entire privacy would not be necessary. But it is a spiritual exercise. Prayer is the breathing out of the heart to God. Prayer is the mind disburdening herself to God. Prayer is the soul in the confessional with God, where there are sins to be confessed, sorrows to be uttered, petitions to be presented, and thanksgivings to be offered which no ear but his must hear, or ought to hear.

It is true, there may be cases in which this absolute privacy, at least for a constancy, is difficult, if not impossible; and in this case, a very rare one, I admit, it is better to pray before others, than not at all. But who cannot be sometimes alone? Even where two or more sleep in the same room, that same room is not always engaged, and may be occupied some part of the day by the lover of prayer. Those who content themselves with merely dropping upon their knees and repeating a few words, on retiring to rest, or rising in the morning, before others, but who never seek to be alone; who have no desire for devotion, strictly secret; who have nothing to say to God, which he alone must listen to, and feel no impulse to speak to him, when no one is nearby—know nothing of prayer. They may maintain the form, but they know nothing of the power of godliness. The saints of Scripture are represented as going to pray alone. Isaac went by himself to the fields to meditate, and doubtless to pray. Jacob wrestled alone with the angel at Peniel. Moses worshiped alone at the burning bush. David's Psalms were most of them prayers, uttered in absolute retirement. Daniel prayed in his chamber alone. Philip lifted up his heart under the fig-tree. Peter went up to the housetop to pray. Yes, our divine Lord went often by himself alone, into a mountain to pray.

Our prayers ought to be specific, varied, and definite. We should not go to the throne of the heavenly majesty without an errand and an object. Many people go away into their closets because they must say their prayers. The time has come when they are in the habit of going by themselves for prayer in the morning, at noon, or whatever time of the day it may be; and instead of having anything to say, any definite object before the mind, they fall down on their knees, and pray for just what comes into their minds, for everything that floats in their imaginations at the time. And when they are done, they could hardly tell a word of what they had been praying for. This is not effectual prayer. What should we think of anybody who should try to move a legislature so, and should say, "Now it is winter, and the parliament is gathered, and it is time to send up petitions;" and should go up to the legislature and petition at random, without any definite object? Do you think such petitions would move the legislature? Many people's prayers are nothing else but this going into their room, and saying just what comes into their heads at the time, and hence if they do not use a form, as few do or need, their prayers are mere incoherent words, or ramblings of thought, which have scarcely the character of prayer about them; and which, if they were penned down, and shown to them afterward, would cause them to blush that they had ever thus addressed the great and holy God.

To guard against this, it would be well to have a list of subjects of prayer, either in the mind, or drawn up on paper, and one appropriated to each day. The orderly returns of days and nights invite us to this—there seem to be subjects which belong to particular seasons; Saturday evening calls us to confession of sin, and thanksgiving for mercies—Sunday morning to prayer for ministerial holiness, and success in preaching the word—Monday morning to ask for help in duty, and grace to adorn our profession in all the various obligations of social and civil life. Thus each day might have its appropriated subject of prayer, and object of specific errand to the throne of God. One day may be specially appointed for thanksgiving, another for adoration, another for petition. One may be set apart for our relatives, another for those who desire an interest in our supplications. All the great Christian institutions of the age; our own religious denomination; the Christian church; our country; may all, and should all, be introduced, not for mere form's sake, or cursorily and as by accident—but specifically, successively, with a deep interest in their welfare and a devout recollection that God alone can bless them.

As your teacher and pastor, I say to you, "Brethren, pray for me." I need your prayers. I ask them. I am entitled to them. I value them. Remember me in your holiest moments, and nearest approaches to God. And do not forget your fellow members. Let your church have a large share of your private prayers.

There are many advantages in this. Such a method would lead us actually to pray, whereas a great deal of what goes by that name does not deserve to be so called; it would keep our thoughts from wandering, a subject of incessant complaint with most Christians; it would render the exercise more interesting, by giving us an object, and keeping up variety; and it would engage our hearts in a more solemn and sacred manner in the various matters which are thus successively carried by us, to the footstool of heaven. This plan of select subjects for prayer has been tried by many people with vast advantage to the devotional state of their souls. It is not necessary the list of subjects should be fixed and invariable, but be sometimes changed; yet still, ever presenting something definite to the mind in its approaches to God. Some new object will be ever supplying itself to the Christian in the course of his reading, observation, or experience, which, while it constantly becomes the subject of a momentary ejaculation to God at the time, may be treasured up in his mind, for more specific and lengthened supplication at a convenient season.

Such a prayer—the feeling of a strong desire after some definite object, relating either to ourselves or others, which we know God alone can grant, and which, therefore, we carry to him in the way of fervent and believing supplication. It is the expression to him of something we really feel at the time—either of gratitude, adoration, humiliation, or petition—and to express which we enter our closet, and shut the door to commune about this very matter with our Father, who sees in secret.

But if you should not deem it best, or necessary, to keep a list of subjects, and to appropriate them to particular days, still, in every approach to God in prayer, let there be a solemn pause, while the inquiry is asked, "What should I now make the subject of my petition at the throne of grace?" The mind would then have some object on which to concentrate its thoughts and feelings. There is a danger, as I have, I believe, expressed before in a former number, lest the frequency and constant recurrence of the seasons of devotion, should abate in our minds that seriousness and deliberation with which we ought ever to call upon the Lord; and thus the whole business of prayer would sink into a mere form.

Connect with private prayer, the perusal of the Word of God, meditation, self-examination; and, where there is time for it, the reading of devotional books. But as there is with many Christians but a limited opportunity for reading, and no book should be allowed to supplant the Bible, it is best to allot the few minutes that can be spared for this exercise, to the Word of God. Read this, not promiscuously, but in regular course. Do not waste your time in inquiring what portion you should read, "much less adopt the heathenish practice of dipping into the Bible, as a lottery book, to try your luck in finding suitable passages."

It is obvious that if a Christian would keep up the exercise of the closet with edification and enjoyment, he must make a solemn business of it. The whole matter must be one of conscience, and of vast importance. He must find time for it, and if his heart be right with God, he will. He will watch unto prayer. It will be matter of importance with him to guard against whatever would prevent, or shorten his exercises; it will be a grief to him to be interrupted; and in order to have time at command for the exercise, he will rise early for this purpose. Perhaps there is not a more common or successful hindrance to private prayer than late rising from bed. How many slumber away, I repeat it, that time in bed—which should be spent in supplication to God. Tell me not you have no time to pray, if you have made up your mind to lie sleeping until eight o'clock in the morning. If you cannot sacrifice half an hour's ease to commune with God, to attend to your soul's concerns, to prepare by devotion for the trials and duties of the day—what is your religion worth? How can you be in earnest? How can you expect your soul to prosper?

But there is another direction I would give, and that is, in addition to the usual and regular seasons of prayer, set apart occasional and extraordinary seasons for prayer, when, with more than ordinary solemnity and length, you enter into the concerns of your soul; and it would be well also to unite fasting with prayer. Such seasons, devoutly observed, have wonderful power to check the growth of worldly-mindedness, to rouse the flagging spirit of devotion, to increase spirituality, subdue irregularities, and to cast out every unclean spirit from the mind. They invigorate every Christian purpose, move the deep fountains of spiritual feeling, launch our spirits on the ocean of eternity, and lead us to commune with its transforming realities. Martin Luther devoted one day every week in this way, and far from finding it tedious, he hailed it as the best of the six. I do not say that many can imitate him in the extent of his practice, but all may in the principle of it. Set apart such seasons, as your birthday, your new-birth day, if it can be ascertained, the last day of the year, or the anniversary of some signal deliverance, or an occasional sabbath evening after the Lord's Supper, as a season of special prayer.

I will now correct a few MISTAKES into which some have fallen on the subject of private prayer.

The closet ought not to be considered, as it is by many, exclusively devoted to our own personal religion. Private prayer is not to be made selfish prayer. Our own wants, woes, sins, and duties, are one object, and indeed the primary one—but not the only one. We should be happier and holier than we are, if we had more love to others, more feeling for the church and the world—and less of personal concern. Charity and brotherly kindness, did they exist as they ought, would overflow from the heart in intercession for their proper objects, at those seasons when we were praying for ourselves.

Christians oftentimes do not pray in faith—and yet this is prescribed, and prescribed too, as the condition of success. James 1:6. To pray in faith means a firm persuasion that through the mediation of Christ, we are authorized to pray; that our prayers are really heard; and that in spiritual blessings, we shall have the very things we ask; and in temporal ones, those or better. Many people do not care about success through carelessness; others do not expect it, through despondency—but faith after looking up for the blessing, actually looks out for it. Effectual prayer is not mere clamorous importunity, but believing expectation. We must not knock at the door of mercy, and then walk away in despair—but wait in hope.

We must not allow family prayer to supersede that which is private and personal; any more than we should allow public worship to supersede the sacrifice at the family altar. It is an ill sign for anyone who feels a disposition to make attention to one duty an excuse for neglecting another.

Many think they ought not to pray, except they are in a good frame, and feel a strong impulse to the exercise. Our feelings cannot be the standard of our duty. If we adopt the rule of never praying except when we feel strongly inclined to it, Satan and a deceitful heart will allow us but few opportunities. We might as well neglect public, social, or domestic worship, because we are not in a good frame, or do not feel the Spirit moving us—as omit private prayer. No, we might, for the same reason, as well give up reading the Scriptures, and every duty we owe to God or man, until we are inclined to them. The very lack of holy disposition is a sin, which we should go and confess to God, and beg for his grace to warm our cold hearts. The spirit of prayer, comes to us in the act of prayer—and not in the neglect of it. I have read of a Christian female who was induced to act on this unscriptural rule, of praying only when the Spirit moved her to it, and she became the prey and sport of temptation, and was for a long time in a state of the most distressing gloom and doubts of her piety.

Some I am afraid are putting the regular performance of private prayer in the place of other duties, and making it a substitute for other and more self-denying parts of religion. There are not a few, who as regularly go into their closet to pray as the time comes round, and who would not be happy to neglect a single opportunity—but whose predominant love of the world, covetousness, bad disposition, or other inconsistencies of conduct, plainly indicate a total lack of true faith.

Do you need MOTIVES to induce a more earnest attention to the exercise? How many are at hand?

It is not only your incumbent duty, but the test of the sincerity of your profession. If you do not practice, and love the exercises of the closet, and make provision for attending to them, you cannot be a Christian. There never yet was a child of God, that did not love to be alone with his Father, and pray to him in secret.

What an honor is it to be admitted to a private audience with God—to be closeted with the King of kings! A subject feels it to be an honor to be allowed at king's court, though at such a time, and amid the multitude, he can expect no special attention. But how much richer is the privilege to have an interview and conference with the king alone, and there present his petitions, when he has the royal ear to himself!

What a rich reward does the duty yield when rightly performed. How precious is the privilege. To have all restraint removed, and feel that we are at freedom to pour out the utmost secrets of our hearts, whether of sin, sorrow, or anxiety. You must know this by experience, and how often you have relieved your burdened spirit of its load in that retreat, where neither eye nor ear of man could follow you. Read the biographies of eminent Christians, and there learn the value and the sweetness of private prayer. "I would not," says a lady in her diary, "be hired out of my closet for a thousand worlds. I never enjoy such hours of pleasure, and such free and entire communion with God as I have here; and I wonder that any can live prayerless, and deprive themselves of the greatest privilege allowed them"

"In prayer," says Henry Martyn, "I had a most precious view of Christ, as a friend who sticks closer than a brother! I hardly know how to contemplate with praise enough, his adorable excellences. Who can show forth all his praise? I can conceive it to be a theme long enough for eternity. I want no other happiness, no other sort of heaven." Brainerd in his journal records, "I spent an hour in prayer with great intenseness and freedom, and with the most soft and tender affection toward mankind. O it is an emblem of heaven to love all the world, with a love of kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence. My soul was sweetly resigned to God's disposal of me—I confided in him that he would never leave me, though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death." How often did Payson write in his journal, "Had a sweet season of prayer this morning, and felt fervent love to my Savior, and desires that he might be glorified."

But why should I multiply examples, or refer you to others. If you are Christians as well as professors, your own experience, I repeat, confirms the privilege of prayer. Some of your happiest, holiest seasons on earth have been spent in your closets. There you have communed with God; there your cares have been lightened, your sorrows alleviated, your fears dissipated, and your souls invigorated. There you have conquered the world, subdued your foes, mortified your corruptions. O what hours you have spent, what discoveries you have made, what joys you have experienced!

Think what an influence secret prayer has upon your whole spirit, and disposition, and conduct. "God's morning smiles bless all the day." Account for it as you may, I believe the fact is unquestionable—that private prayer so regulates and tranquilizes the mind, gives it such a balance, self-possession, and reliance on divine aid, that it happily fits a person for the performance of his most common duties, and enables him to accomplish more, and do it better than he otherwise could. What but prayer gave Nehemiah such firmness in building the walls of Jerusalem amid insults and opposition? What else enabled Daniel to brave the lion's den? Sir Matthew Hale, that upright judge, in his letters to his children, says, "If I omit praying and reading a portion of God's blessed word in the morning, nothing goes well with me all the day." Boerhave, the celebrated Dutch physician, said, that "his daily practice of retiring for an hour in the morning, and spending it in devotion and meditation, gave him firmness and vigor for the whole day." Doddridge used frequently to observe, that "he never advanced well in human learning without prayer; and that he always made the most proficiency in his studies when he prayed with the greatest fervency." Luther had written on his study door, "To have prayed well, is to have studied well." And is not all this accordant, my dear friends, with your own experience?

What examples, then, recommend this practice! But what are these to the example of Christ? He also was not only a man of sorrows, but a man of prayers–

"Cold mountains and the midnight air
Witnessed the fervor of his prayer."

And can you have the mind of Christ, and be partakers of his spirit, if there be no love to prayer?

Permit me, then, in conclusion, to ask you, my dear friends, with all the fidelity and affection that belong to my office as your pastor—are you in the habit and love of private prayer? Have you stated and regular times for this duty, and do you keep them? Are you allowing the cares of a family, the engagements of business, or the pursuits of labor, to interfere with this exercise? Have you special seasons for prayer? Do you enjoy the devotions of the closet? Have you the spirit of prayer? Have you ceased to pray? If so. Why? Is it the indulgence of sin, the pleasures of the world, or some mistaken view of duty? Oh! do examine.

The soul that is neglecting private prayer is in a dreadful state of backsliding from God. Are you, in such a state, happy? Are you ready for death, fit for heaven? Can you be willing to have it recorded against you in the book of God's remembrance, "This is the man that once bowed unto me in his closet; asked for pardoning mercy; that once sued for an interest in his Savior's love—but afterward shut, no more to open, his closet door; broke his most solemn vows; committed again the sins for the pardon of which he prayed, and turned away from the Savior." Oh! my dear friends, return, return speedily to prayer!