“I Wish I Had Prayed More”: John Sutcliff and Prayer

In 1842, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society, the Baptist pastor and writer, F.A. Cox, reflecting on the origins of the Society, stated: “The primary cause of the missionary excitement in [William] Carey’s mind, and its diffusion among the Northamptonshire ministers [was] ... the meeting of the Association in 1784, at Nottingham, [when] it was resolved to set apart an hour on the first Monday evening of every month, “for extraordinary prayer for revival of religion, and for the extending of Christ’s kingdom in the world.” This suggestion proceeded from the venerable [John] Sutcliff. Its simplicity and appropriateness have since recommended it to universal adoption; and copious showers of blessing from on high have been poured forth upon the churches.” [History of the Baptist Missionary Society, From 1792 to 1842 (London: T. Ward & Co./G. & J. Dyer, 1842), 1:10-11].

From the vantage point of the early 1840s, Cox saw the Prayer Call of 1784—proposed by John Sutcliff for adoption by the Northamptonshire Baptist Association and centred on the need to seek revival through prayer—as pivotal in that it focused the prayers of Calvinistic Baptist churches in the Association on the nations of the world. It thus prepared the way for the emergence of the Baptist Missionary Society and the sending of Carey to India.

Yet he also notes that the “universal adoption” of the concert of prayer by churches beyond the ranks of the Calvinistic Baptist denomination had led to rich times of revival, when God poured forth upon these churches “copious showers of blessing.” Later historians would describe this period of blessing as the Second Evangelical Awakening (1790-1830).

Some of them, like J. Edwin Orr and Paul E.G. Cook, would concur with Cox and rightly trace the human origins of this time of revival and spiritual awakening to the adoption of the concert of prayer by the Calvinistic Baptists in 1784 [J. Edwin Orr, The Eager Feet: Evangelical Awakenings 1790-1830 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 95, 191-92, 199; Paul E. G. Cook, “The Forgotten Revival” in Preaching and Revival (London: The Westminster Conference, 1984), 92].

However, in one area Cox’s statement in somewhat misleading. In describing John Sutcliff as “the venerable Sutcliff” he leaves the reader with an idyllic impression of the Baptist pastor. How sobering to find that this man, who was at the heart of a prayer movement that God used to bring so much spiritual blessing to His church, also struggled when it came to prayer.

When Sutcliff lay dying in 1814 he said to Fuller: “I wish I had prayed more.” For some time Fuller ruminated on this statement by his dying friend. Eventually he came to the conviction that Sutcliff did not mean that he “wished he had prayed more frequently, but more spiritually.”

Then Fuller elaborated on this interpretation by applying Sutcliff’s statement to his own life:

“I wish I had prayer more for the influence of the Holy Spirit; I might have enjoyed more of the power of vital godliness. I wish I had prayed more for the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in studying and preaching my sermons; I might have seen more of the blessing of God attending my ministry. I wish I had prayed more for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to attend the labours of our friends in India; I might have witnessed more of the effects of their efforts in the conversion of the heathen. [cited J. W. Morris, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Andrew Fuller (London, 1816), 443].