John Bunyan: A Source for a Baptist Spirituality of Prayer

My Baptist heritage has generally affirmed that when it comes to praying, written prayers are really not acceptable. Prayer has to be extemporaneous. One key source for this conviction is John Bunyan (1628-1688) and his influential treatise I will pray with the Spirit (1662). Rejecting written prayers

Bunyan had been arrested in 1660 for illegal preaching and at his trial in January, 1661, John Bunyan was asked by Sir John Kelynge, one of the judges, to justify his absence from worship in the local parish church. Bunyan, true to his Puritan heritage, stated that “he did not find it commanded in the word of God.” [A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr. John Bunyan in W. R. Owens, ed. John Bunyan: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1987), 95].

Kelynge pointed out that prayer was a duty. Bunyan agreed, but he insisted that it was a duty to be performed with the Spirit’s aid, not by means of the Book of Common Prayer, which set out the structure for the worship services of the Church of England. Bunyan proceeded to argue:

“Those prayers in the Common Prayer-book, was such as was made by other men, and not by the motions of the Holy Ghost, within our hearts. … The scripture saith, that it is the Spirit as helpeth our infirmities; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us, with sighs and groanings which cannot be uttered. Mark, … it doth not say the Common prayer-book teacheth us how to pray, but the Spirit.” [A Relation of the Imprisonment of Mr. John Bunyan in Owens, ed. John Bunyan: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 95, 96].

The background to Bunyan’s convictions

Bunyan’s outright rejection of the use of written prayers cannot be understood apart from the view of his Puritan contemporaries and forebears. John Calvin (1509-1563), the spiritual father of Anglophone Puritanism, had defined prayer as essentially an “emotion of the heart …, which is poured out and laid open before God.” At the same time Calvin was tolerant of written prayers. Some of his spiritual children among the English Puritans, like Richard Baxter (1615-1691), preserved both of these emphases.

Many of the Puritans, however, took Calvin’s view of prayer to its logical conclusion and saw little need for written prayers. Walter Cradock (c.1610-1659), a Welsh Congregationalist preacher and author, stated forthrightly: “When it may be the (poor Minister) … would have rejoyced to have poured out his soule to the Lord, he was tied to an old Service Booke, and must read that till he grieved the Spirit of God, and dried up his own spirit as a chip, that he could not pray.”

John Owen (1616-1683), Bunyan’s friend and admirer, similarly maintained that “constant and unvaried use of set forms of prayer may become a great occasion of quenching the Spirit.” Owen conceded that the use of written prayers is not intrinsically evil. But since the Spirit whom God had given to the believer is “the Spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10), the believer has all the resources that he needs for prayer. Moreover, Owen affirmed that the “Holy Ghost, as a Spirit of grace and supplication, is nowhere, that I know of, promised unto any to help or assist them in composing prayers for others; and therefore we have no ground to pray for him or his assistance unto that end in particular.”

These criticisms of the Book of Common Prayer accurately reflect Puritan dissatisfaction with both the type and content of the prayers in this book. Moreover, undergirding the approach of both Cradock and Owen to prayer was an intense interest in the work of the Spirit in general and the accompanying recognition that only with his empowering could God be rightly served and worshipped. Bunyan shares these perspectives on prayer and the Spirit, but states them in his own expressive way.

The impact of Bunyan’s view detailed

Bunyan’s interest in extemporaneous prayer, quickened by his debate with Kelynge, found written form not long after his trial in I will pray with the Spirit. There are no surviving copies of the first edition. The second edition, dated 1663, appears without a bookseller’s or publisher’s name on the title page. The title page simply states “Printed for the author”. The book was probably too hot for any publisher to handle! And no wonder when Bunyan declared near the end of the book: “Look into the Gaols in England, and into the Alehouses of the same: and I believe, you will find those that plead for the Spirit of Prayer in the Gaol, and them that look after the Form of men’s Inventions only, in the Alehouse.” [Richard L. Greaves, ed., John Bunyan: The Doctrine of the Law and Grace unfolded and I will pray with the Spirit (Clarendon Press, 1976), 294].

Bunyan’s treatise on prayer helped to secure what has become a leading attitude to written and read prayers: an attitude of extreme wariness.

Bunyan’s treatise can also be seen as a declaration that without the Spirit not only our prayer-life, but also our entire Christian walk is hollow, stale and lifeless. It is often forgotten that Bunyan and his fellow English Baptists were vital participants in what Ronald Reeve has described as the Puritan “rediscovery of the Holy Spirit as the mainspring of all Christian activity.” [“John Wesley, Charles Simeon, and the Evangelical Revival”, Canadian Journal of Theology, 2 (1956), 205]. The claim by some contemporary authors and theologians that no post-Reformation movement until this past century has really given the Spirit his due is shown to be quite false by the interest that the Puritans had in the person and work of the Spirit.

Bunyan, like most of his fellow Puritans, had an intense desire for the experience of the Spirit, for he knew that the Spirit of Christ alone could lead him to God. Thus, at the conclusion of the treatise, Bunyan expresses the hope that: “Christians…pray for the Spirit, that is, for more of it, though God hath endued them with it already …The Lord in mercy turn the hearts of the people to seek more after the Spirit of Prayer, and in the strength of that, pour out their souls before the Lord.” [Greaves, ed., John Bunyan: The Doctrine of the Law and Grace unfolded and I will pray with the Spirit, 271, 285].