B.M. Palmer


THIS topic has been slightly anticipated, in considering the nature and parts of prayer. The grounds of this obligation require to be more fully stated, because of their own importance, and because they lead right up to the objections which, are by some rashly urged against the duty.

1. Before and beyond all reasons, we have the express command of Jehovah himself. This is given in declarations such as these: “When thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret”; “After this manner therefore pray ye.” (Matt. vi. 6, 9.) “Ask, and it shall be given you.” (Matt. vii. 7.) “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” (Luke xviii. 1.) “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.” (Matt. xxvi. 41.) “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” (Eph. vi. 18.) “In every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” (Phil. iv. 6.) “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” (1 Tim. ii. 8.) It would not strengthen the argument to cite other testimonies, which the reader’s memory will easily supply, enjoining this duty in terms equally explicit and imperative. This body of evidence would be swollen out of all proportion if the indirect testimony of Scripture be adduced, in which the duty is inferred rather than enjoined; as in the countless promises made to the prayer of faith, the declarations of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, the recorded prayers of the pious in the Old Testament and in the New, with the divine approval and the wonderful answers vouchsafed often to the same. In addition to all this, we have minute directions as to the manner in which prayer is to be made, the spirit and temper with which it should be accompanied, the obstructions which must be surmounted, and the pleas under which it shall surely prevail. In short, when we have collated all that the Scriptures say upon this one duty, we have transcribed a large portion of its statements respecting practical and personal religion. The case then stands thus: on every page of the Bible, and in every form of utterance, the obligation is laid upon “men that they pray everywhere.”

It does not unsettle this authority a particle, should we fail to unfold the philosophy of prayer, and to determine the place it should occupy in the scheme of providence or of grace. The obligation will not be cancelled, even though we should not be able to penetrate the secret of its efficiency: whether in itself a cause producing the results we recognize, as the natural effects of its own power; or whether it be simply the condition upon which the Supreme Ruler suspends the benefits which he confers. Before these questions are even proposed for consideration, this duty rests sufficiently upon the plain command of God. Whatever difficulties surround the doctrine of prayer, we have the right to remand them all to him whose authority binds the duty upon the conscience. It is for him to decide whether prayer be compatible with the eternal counsel of his own will, and with those material and intellectual laws by which he controls the universe. All these fall within his sphere, as ho from the beginning framed the policy of his own administration. The simple fact that he has ordained prayer as the privilege and duty of all his intelligent subjects, announces beforehand the reconciliation of these difficulties, and takes them out of the field of discussion, so far as they constitute the ground of the creature’s obligation to pray.

It would indeed be very satisfactory to understand all this; and thus to vindicate at the bar of human reason a duty which would then rest upon necessary principles perfectly comprehended by ourselves. These principles do unquestionably exist, and they are partly susceptible of exposition, as the basis upon which rests the whole structure of natural religion. It is only affirmed here that in the creature’s relation to the Deity, the question is simply one of supreme authority; and that whether we can or cannot expound these principles, or solve the problems which lie on the boundary line between the Divine and human agencies, and at which they so sweetly, yet mysteriously blend. To those who defer to the authority of Holy Scripture, no other foundation of any duty is required than a “thus saith the Lord.” Those who do not recognize the dogmatic authority of the inspired word must be met with other arguments, which we proceed to indicate.

2. This duty is laid upon man under each of the three aspects of prayer which have been already presented. For example, man is dependent upon God for everything he possesses. Life, health, reason, all were in the first instance bestowed, and are at every moment preserved and continued to us. Our wants are constantly recurring, and in whatever way, or by whatever agency they may be supplied, it must all be traced up to one original source. “Do not err, my beloved brethren,” says the Apostle James, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” The proper recognition of this dependence is itself the posture of prayer. Hence we have ventured to represent the angels and “the spirits of just men made perfect” as engaged in tho essential duty, though not in the formal act of prayer. With beings in a state of perfect blessedness, the outward petition is suppressed by the instant supply of every want as it arises. So long, however, as man is held under conditions of discipline and trial, his recognition of dependence must express itself in the language of petition and thanksgiving. To live in dependence upon a superior power, which is never humbly and gratefully acknowledged, is simply to attempt a fraud, the more remarkable as it is a fraud attempted alike upon the omniscience of the Deity and upon the consciousness of the creature himself. It turns the whole life of such a being into a falsehood and a cheat.

Again, man endowed with moral attributes, is placed under a perfect and holy law, given to him both as a rule of conduct and as the standard of character. This law he has broken, and he is now justly hold under its penalty. He is, therefore, as much bound to repent as he was in the first instance bound to obey. The one obligation is co-extensive with the other. He ought not to have sinned; but having sinned, he ought to be sorry for it and to bewail it before God. But this brings us right up to the duty of prayer, as the confession of guilt. As “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and as “there is not a just man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not,” this duty of confession is obligatory upon every soul that bows to the acknowledgment of guilt. Let this statement be repeated with all emphasis. If there was no ground upon which to hope for pardon, still the sinner is under a supreme obligation to confess his fault. Pardoned or unpardoned, he is equally bound by the law of his being to acknowledge and to abandon sin. If through the corruption of his nature he is under the bondage of sin to renew it every day, this does not exempt him from the original obligation of obedience, which remains forever uncancelled. He should never have sinned at all; he should stop sinning at once; the one obligation is the precise measure of the other. Even under the supposition that prayer does not open the prospect of relief, the duty of confession, repentance, and abandonment of sin remains undiminished. How much more, if overtures of pardon and reconciliation are made to the sinner, is he bound to supplicate the divine mercy and be restored to the divine favor? Under every view, confession and supplication, as parts of prayer, are made the duty of every soul of man upon the earth.

Still further: Prayer is not only universally binding as the language of the creature and the sinner, but also as that of the worshipper. Stamped with the divine image as being made “a living soul,” man’s high prerogative is to catch upon the mirror of his own nature the glory of the Creator, and to reflect it back upon him in intelligent and holy worship. His headship over nature is to this end: that, in the interpretation of her secrets, he may disclose the “eternal power and Godhead” hidden in them from the creation of the world; and, as the organ of her hitherto silent praise, may pour it forth in psalms of joy before his throne. Man is ordained a priest to render vocal the worship of all the creatures; which is first made instinct with the life and heart his intelligence and love shall supply. It is a high and solemn function, binding on all who possess the powers of thought and feeling which distinguish men from the brutes. If sin has blinded the understanding, blunted the affections, defiled the conscience, and enslaved the will of the sinner, so much the worse for him; for there can be no release from the responsibility which belongs to him as man to render “incense to God and a pure offering.” If in his perverseness he shall bring “the torn and the lame and the sick” for sacrifice, it will surely not be accepted; but neither shall he be discharged from the obligation to “offer the sacrifices of thanksgiving” unto the Lord. The duty of worship is universal; and worship, filled with the awe which the divine majesty inspires, must always put on the humility and lowliness which prayer implies.

3. It follows logically from these principles that prayer is an instinct of man s religious nature; always operative, except when it is repressed and overcome by the sinfulness which will brook no restraint, and seeks to escape from all connection with the Most High. Instinct has been defined that which “prompts to the performance of actions without deliberation, and without necessary knowledge of the relation between the means employed and the ends attained.” It is set in contrast with reason in man, as “the power determining the will of brutes.” This distinction is scarcely true, if understood to mean that the gift of reason wholly excludes the power of instinct. Unquestionably reason, as the nobler endowment, renders man less dependent upon instinct, and lifts him into a higher sphere of its own. And as the reason is developed, the power of instinct waxes less and seems to be almost superseded. It is difficult to conceive of the nature of any creature which is not furnished with the instincts necessary for its preservation; and man, with all his intellectual endowments, sometimes finds the slower processes of reason anticipated by the quicker activity of instinct. One falling from a lofty spire grasps at the empty air, with every muscle strained to its utmost tension; and one thrown overboard at sea will clutch the floating straw as though it were a solid spar. In either case the act proceeds from the instinct of self-preservation without the intervention of reason, which would instantly expose the futility of the endeavor. The distinction between the two is sufficiently drawn in the philosophic verse of Pope:

“Reason, however able, cool at best,
Cares not for service, or but serves when prest,
Stays till we call, and then not often near;
But honest instinct comes a volunteer,
Sure never to o’ershoot, but just to hit,—
While still too wide or short is human wit;
Sure by quick nature happiness to gain,
Which heavier reason labors at in vain.
This, too, serves always, reason never long:
One must go right, the other may go wrong.”

If the possession of reason, then, does not exclude the operation of instinct in man, we should expect his religious nature to be defined and protected by tendencies which were designed to guide with the unerring certainty of moral instincts. Amongst these the disposition to pray must be reckoned one of the most conspicuous. A soul cast in the image and after the likeness of God, may be expected to assert its spiritual nature by striving to commune with its divine author. Nothing but sin drags these aspirations into the dust, and extinguishes the prayer in which they seek to rise.

We have chanced to light upon some illustrations of this moral instinct in a quarter where the reader would not be likely to look for speculations of this kind. We refer to Bulwer’s Strange Story, in that portion of it where one of the interlocutors accumulates the arguments in favor of the existence of soul in man. With this general acknowledgment, we will appropriate what is pertinent to the matter in hand without formal quotation of the language. He points, for example, to the little child lisping the morning or evening prayer at its mother’s knee, and asks how it is that before that infant mind can be taught a single rule in arithmetic or grammar, or even to combine the letters of the alphabet into the words it shall employ, it grapples with the mystery which is a scandal to the philosopher;1 and in the solemnity which overawes its young heart, bows before the majesty of the divine presence and worships the Father in heaven? Opposite to this picture, he sketches the form of an aged sire breaking his staff as he sits upon the edge of life, and committing his soul to God in holy trust as he is about to face the dread uncertainties of the eternal and unchanging future. What but the religious instinct in both could thus touch with responsive faith the mysteries which are so unsearchable by human reason? Not content with these natural illustrations, this philosophic writer proceeds to instances in which the instinct of prayer asserts its supremacy in defiance of the unbelief and skepticism by which it is often oppressed. There is the familiar case of Lord Herbert,2 of Cherbury, who, after writing against the truth and certainty of any particular revelation, and asserting the sufficiency of nature’s light in religion, could inconsistently throw open his casement and pray to God for a sign through the blue sky whether to publish or to suppress the book. A similar contradiction is cited in the great Caesar, who could deny the immortality of the soul in the Roman senate, but could not ascend his chariot without muttering a charm, nor lead his army across the Rubicon without consulting the omens.3

In the same line of evidence are the vows and prayers of men extorted in their hours of peril; the deep instinct leaping out of concealment in the presence of danger, and overmastering the philosophy which would smother the petition for divine help. It has been well noted, too, in this connection, that the impulse to pray in the foresight of peril is peculiar to man, and is not shared with the beasts of the field. The brute has unquestionably a far quicker perception of danger than man — reads sooner and with a truer interpretation the signs and portents of nature. He pricks up his ear to the first sound of the distant thunder, catches the first gleam of the lightning’s polished blade, feels first the sullen calm which forebodes the storm, detects first the tremulous wave-like movement of the solid earth when, as if with some secret heartache, her parting crust is about to open and swallow everything in the abyss. But with all this ready apprehension of danger, the brute never gathers up its instincts in the form of prayer. He betakes himself blindly to some supposed place of safety, or flees in terror wildly in any direction from the fatal spot, or in dumb despair sinks beneath the doom which he cannot avoid. But man, with the higher instinct of his higher nature, turns in his prayer to the God who is able to save.4 In the full recognition of his helplessness, he casts himself upon the bosom of him “in whom he lives and moves and has his being.”

If these suggestions are of any force in proving prayer to be an instinct of our religious nature, then the application is very direct to establish its universal obligation. “With that steadiness which characterizes all instincts, this should act uniformly in drawing all men toward God as their portion. If it does not, the disturbing influence is sin, which cripples and counteracts this original tendency; and for this disturbing influence, as well as for the aberration and perversion it occasions, we are consciously responsible at the bar of our Judge.

4. Prayer is a universal duty, as the moral discipline through which the faculties of the soul are “brought to their fullest development, and to the fullest enjoyment of which they are capable. Dr. Chalmers deduces an argument for the immortality of the soul from the great law of nature, that “for every desire or every faculty, whether in man or in the inferior animals, there is a counterpart object in external nature.”5 In the case of brutes, this adaptation is exact; “with whom,” to cite his own expressive phrase, “there is a certain squareness of adjustment between each desire and its own gratification.” “The one is evenly met by the other,” so that there is no overlapping on either side. Under the guidance of corporeal instinct, the animal puts forth its effort for a certain enjoyment; and this enjoyment comes exactly up to that desire, neither falling below nor reaching beyond it. Man, on the contrary, has yearnings which this earth can never satisfy, and which point directly to God and the great hereafter as the objects of his search.

This deserves to be a little further considered. Here is a bridge spanning a broad river with a single arch. One end rests upon its abutment this side the stream, the other upon its abutment at the further bank; and the very law of gravity which threatened the structure with ruin serves only to steady it and to hold it firmly in its double socket. Does this emblem teach how man, with his aspirations for the Infinite and Eternal, shall bridge the chasm which lies between? It must be with a single span resting upon its abutments on either side of the gulf, in the nature of man and of his Maker alike. For example, there is intelligence in man, and over against it there is the fulness of truth in God; the former finds its complete satisfaction only in the latter. God has, indeed, expressed his thoughts in his works; but the human mind never rests with contentment in any of these finite forms of truth. It presses up the stream to find truth at its source, as it is in God himself. Knowledge gained affords repose only until the mind shall recruit its strength in coming thus far, which becomes then the point of departure for discoveries yet to be made. The mind is continually bounding along the curve of the finite, whose tangent is perpetually soliciting to embark in the search of the infinite. How, then, shall man complete his intellectual culture, except by personal communion with the Supreme Mind, the source from which all truth is derived? The bridge rests its arch upon human intelligence this side of the chasm, and upon the fulness of divine truth at the other side; and prayer moves upon that highway, carrying up man’s longing after truth, and receiving communications from God which shall become his knowledge.

Take another department of our complex nature, the affections. With what a wealth of love is man endowed? How easily the heart diffuses itself over all the circles of human relationship — filling each one without diminution of its abundance, and then lapping over with a full remainder into the immensity beyond! These earthly connections and associations form but the school where we are trained in the divine art of loving. The educated affections, exhaustless because ever expanding, refuse to be absorbed by objects wholly finite, and break over all limitations to find the infinite in goodness. How shall these reach their fullest expansion and enjoyment, until, rising upon cherubic wing, they terminate upon him who is styled in Scripture “the blessed God”?

So with the imagination and the taste. Man goes forth in search of the beautiful; feeds upon its finite expression with a momentary delight; strives to reproduce — perhaps to embellish — it in his own creations of sculpture, painting, poetry, and fiction; then turns wearily aside to ask, Where is the archetypal glory, of which these are but the faint and fleeting shadows? Is it not clear that man must pass over the bridge whose arch rests upon the finite and the infinite alike? And as he stands transfigured before the presence of the throne, find the perfection of his nature in beholding the glory of his Lord?

And what shall we say of the will, the root of man’s activity, in which thought and emotion both crystallize and are embodied? Only this: that faith, drawing up the future until we are abreast of it, and so delivering us from the discontent of the present, is the spring of all heroic deeds. And faith, with truthful finger, points ever to the eternal and unseen; it leads up to God, in whoso service and praise man finds his highest activity engaged, and that forever.

It is needless to enlarge. All human endowments of intelligence, conscience, affections, and will, are so many points in man’s nature to which all that is divine may attach itself, and so draw him into fellowship with the august Being in whose image he was first fashioned. Prayer, as the medium of this intercourse, becomes the necessary discipline through which he is perfected for an immortal destiny.

5. Prayer is obligatory upon all, that human agency may blend intelligently with the divine, in working out the scheme of providence and grace. Undeniably these two factors enter into the production of every event. Our philosophy may be unable to detect precisely where or how they blend; but the same philosophy will teach us to accept both upon their separate evidence. Man, if ho be a responsible being at all, must move upon his own plane, working, contriving, predestining (if you will) up to the bent of his knowledge and power. God, too, if he be acknowledged in the supremacy of his being, must move upon his plane, infinite in wisdom and power, “working all things after the counsel of his will.” Where these plans and purposes intersect, or how they fold one upon the other, we may not be able to distinguish.

All that we do know is, that the intersection of these threads makes the web of history. We may not be able to measure the angle at which these planes touch each other, nor to see how the one can move across the other without contradiction or even friction. We only know that in the loom the shuttle must move between and across the threads, and that warp and woof cannot run in parallel lines. It is the crossing at right angles, with a good pressure of the threads against each other, that gives the firm texture of the web.

The only choice, then, given to man is as to the mode and spirit of his concurrence: whether to burrow in the dark like a mole, without an intelligent purpose or sincere desire to bear his part in the great scheme of providence; or whether to blend his affections and volitions in sweet harmony with him who, from the beginning, threw upon the screen of his own thought the design of the universe and the draft of its history. If man is to be a willing co-worker with God in the execution of his plans, then must he pray. He cannot rise to an equal share of the divine sovereignty, so as to sit down at the council board of the Godhead; he can only pray to be a single thread in the mighty tapestry which has been woven in the divine loom from all eternity.

These specifications will suffice. The explicit command of Jehovah; the nature of prayer as the language of dependence, of guilt, and of worship; the force of the instinct which impels to its exercise; the office of prayer in the discipline and perfection of character; its necessity as the point of junction between the divine and human agencies; together with the fact, only here alluded to, that it is the appointed channel through which God’s favor flows to man; all these make the duty of prayer absolutely imperative upon every member of the human race.


  1. A Strange Story, Chapter XLVI.
  2. See the full account in Leland’s Deistieal Writers.
  3. Strange Story, Chapter LXXI.
  4. A Strange Story, Chapter XLVI.: “Nature does not impel the leviathan or the lion, the eagle or the moth to pray. She impels only man. Why? Because man only has a soul, and soul seeks to commune with the everlasting, as a fountain struggles up to its source.”
  5. Bridgewater Treatise, Part I., Chapter X., sections 16, 17.


Benjamin Morgan Palmer was born in Charleston, SC on January 25, 1818 to parents Edward and Sarah Bunce Palmer. He later attended Amherst College, 1832-34, taught from 1834-36, attended the University of Georgia in 1838 and Columbia Theological Seminary from 1839-41. He was licensed to preach in 1841 by Charleston Presbytery and ordained in 1842 by Georgia Presbytery. His first pastorate was at the First Presbyterian Church of Savannah, GA, 1841-42. From there he pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC from 1843-55, served as a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary from 1853-56, and finally assumed the post of his last church, First Presbyterian of New Orleans, in 1856, serving there until his death in 1902. He was struck by a street car on 5 May 1902 and died on 25 May 1902.

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