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forms of human composition; excepting that of Scotland, which had one immediately upon the reformation, though it afterwards fell into disuse; and the dissenters from our own, who, notwithstanding, many of them sing in their assemblies hymns that are forms of human composition, without scruple. Yet if extempore prayers be required, extempore praises are too. For it is equally said, I will pray with the spirit, and I will sing with the spirit.
It may be replied indeed, that supposing forms of prayer lawful, they are not however expedient. But if that be all, so long as the vastly greater, and the ruling part think otherwise, ought not the rest to acquiesce? Is it not much less expedient to make a separation and division in the church, when Christ and his Apostles have so strongly prescribed unity and submission?
But why are forms of prayer inexpedient? It is argued, that they cannot be altered according to circumstances, which extempore prayers may. And, with respect to private devotion, the argument is so far of weight, that though even in this, forms well chosen are excellent directions, yet no one should confine himself closely to them, when his condition, spiritual or temporal, requires him to depart from them but should omit, or add, or vary, as he perceives occasion; in which he may well hope, that God's Holy Spirit will guide him, so far as is needful. But the circumstances of whole congregations, taken together, are in the main almost always the same: and therefore may be expressed in the same words. Besides, public offices make a stated provision for the more usual accidents that happen: and public authority provides for the rest occasionally, from time to time. Indeed an established liturgy doth not allow
the cases of private persons or families, or the situa tion, real or supposed, of national affairs, to be enlarged on to God, at the discretion of the minister: a thing never necessary, and seldom proper. It is very sufficient, that they who desire the rest of the assembly to join with them in petitions or thanksgivings on fit subjects, relating to themselves, have opportunity afforded them of signifying their desire: and that general expressions in the service may be applied more especially to particular purposes by each member in his own mind, as he conceives there is need. If these things be carefully done, forms of prayer will be found not so often defective perhaps in the matter of uncommon and extraordinary wants or mercies, as extempore prayers in what is far more necessary, expressing common and ordinary ones.
But some insist, that whatever may be said, they experience, that forms do not edify, and excite devotion. And this may be true, while they are unaccustomed to them, and come with prejudice against them. But would they make trial of them for some time, with a serious endeavour of receiving benefit from them, they would not fail to find that true spirit of piety raised by them in their own hearts, of which we hope they would see many instances in their fellow-worshippers. It is true, a form doth not afford the entertainment of novelty. But that hath nothing to do with devotion. The hearer may be highly delighted, the speaker highly admired: and all this may be mere amusement of the fancy, and no prayer in reality, offered up by him, who is best pleased with it. What alone deserves that name, is a reverent application to God, from a deep sense of our necessities and blessings, and his power and goodness: which a form deliberately precomposed by the joint counsels
of a number of persons, whom the public wisdom hath chosen for that end, is surely more likely both to excite, and to express fitly, than the hasty produce of each private minister's invention: especially as he is expected by his people to vary even this continually, though it be for the worse.
One man will doubtless excel another in this way: and some perhaps may, really or seemingly, surpass at some times the public forms. But what multitudes would there be, who through inability, carelessness, want of memory, diffidence, or imprudence, would fall vastly short of them, were every minister in the nation, to use, every time he officiates, a new prayer of his own devising upon the spot? How often doth it happen, were we to know the truth, amongst the small number of our dissenters, that the person praying hesitates and is at a loss, omits things necessary or useful, expresses himself obscurely, improperly, irreverently, works himself into gestures and accents by no means edifying, not to say worse? All which must grievously hurt the devotion of those, who desire to pay God a reasonable service*; and bring thoughts into their minds, extremely unsuitable to the work in which they are engaged. Then what danger is there in this way, that men may fill their public addresses to Heaven, with their own private, it may be absurd and pernicious, notions and opinions: that national prayers may change, like fashions and fancies, and the faith of Christians change along with them, which the weight and authority of an established liturgy greatly contributes to keep stedfast, and preserve from noxious errors? What danger is there also, that persons, either by ill design, or ill judging zeal, may mix their interests, their passions, their
* Rom. xii. 1.
party-attachments of various kinds, with the requests and thanksgivings, which they utter in the name of the congregation; may inflame one part of the neighbourhoood, one part of their fellow-subjects, against another; stir up some to mischief, under colour of its being the cause of God; and by so doing, make his worship abhorred by the rest? I am far from charging the body of those amongst us, who use extempore prayer, with being guilty of these things now. I am only representing, what evils a more general use of it would be likely to produce, especially in times of public discord. Indeed most of them, if not all, it formerly hath produced: and preventing them is much easier and every way better, than punishing them.
But supposing these inconveniences avoided, another, very considerable, would remain. Let their dislike of forms be ever so great, the words of their minister in praying are as absolutely a form to them for the time, as the words of a national liturgy: but with this unhappy difference, that his expressions being continually varied, possibly the most judicious, at least the slower and more ignorant, may often doubt of their meaning; and the scrupulous, of their fitness: and though upon consideration they should be satisfied, yet he in the mean while is gone on to something else. And thus they may follow after him through the whole of a prayer, and be able to overtake and really join with him in but a small part of it: whereas a form may always be examined beforehand; and when it is once understood and found to be right, our judgment and affections will go together in the use of it, without let or hindrance; and we shall be edified, not in imagination, but reality.
Upon the whole, the reasons for a public liturgy are so strong, that Calvin, the most universally esteemed
by our dissenting brethren of all the reformers, in a letter to the protector of England, under Edw. VI. hath these words. "As to a form of prayer and of ecclesiastical rites, I highly approve that it should be certain, from which it may not be lawful for any minister to depart: as well in consideration of the weakness and ignorance of some, as that it may more plainly appear, how our churches agree amongst themselves; and lastly, that a stop may be put to the gid diness of those, who affect novelties."
Still I am sensible, that some of the arguments, which I have urged against devotions composed by the minister, may seem to lie equally against sermons composed by him; and to require, that instruction be in a constant form, as well as prayer. But besides that one hath been the custom of the churches of God*, the other not; prayer is the voice of the people to their Heavenly Father; and should therefore be preserved, with singular caution, from every thing, which they ought not to say, or may not im mediately comprehend or approve; else, in such parts of the service, either they do not pray at all, or they pray amiss. But preaching is the voice of the minister to the people, which they may weigh and judge of at their leisure: and even should they fail of learning their duty from thence, they may learn it from a much higher authority, the lessons of Scripture read to them. Further, where a fixed form of worship is appointed, instruction may be left at liberty more safely; because it will be observed, if the latter contradicts the former: and also very usefully, because a much greater variety of things is requisite to be said to the people in sermons, than is needful for them to say to Heaven in their prayers. But
1 Cor. xi. 16.