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The Unlikely Case for Standing in Corporate Prayer

Eutychus II

One piece of lore from nineteenth-century American Presbyterianism concerns the experience of Samuel Miller and his wife during Sunday morning worship services. The second professor called by the General Assembly to teach (with Archibald Alexander) at Princeton Theological Seminary, Miller had grown up with the accepted practice of Presbyterians standing for prayer during corporate worship. Much like congregations today when they rise to sing hymns and psalms, Miller's generation of Presbyterians was accustomed to standing whenever the minister led the congregation in prayer. In fact, at the time, the only alternative to standing was kneeling. But because of Puritan objections to any whiff of Roman Catholic piety, Presbyterians and Puritans stood during prayer instead of crouching on their knees. (As a side note, the oldest Presbyterian congregation in Brazil, a traditionalist church in many respects, continues to this day stand for public prayer, signaling the Brazilian church's founding in the 1860s, a time when standing for prayer was still common place, at least among the southern Presbyterians who migrated to Brazil during the United States Civil War.) Over time, however, American Presbyterians introduced a third option for bodily posture in prayer—sitting. Miller and his wife believed this was a novelty and disrespectful. After all, would you sit when you addressed a European monarch? If not, why would you do so when petitioning the Lord God of the universe? So Miller and his bride continued to stand even when the rest of their congregation sat. For anyone there who may have been peeking during the pastoral prayer they would have seen the odd sight of one couple on their feet surrounded by the rest of the congregation on their backsides.

I have enjoyed this image of late not simply because of the stubborn conviction and plausible piety that informed Miller's practice but also because of my own experience during the pastoral prayer where my wife and I worship each Sunday. No matter how early I go to bed on Saturday night, I often end up dozing three minutes into the long prayer in the morning service. If this were simply a consequence of late night fraternizing or Sunday meal preparations, then the problem would only be mine. But since I have actually tried to fix the problem by going to bed earlier and receiving eight square hours of sleep, the solution would apparently lie elsewhere. Since taking amphetamines is out of the question, I need to find an organic remedy.

One is to shorten the prayer. As impious as this may sound—and I have not yet summoned up the courage to suggest it (or even admit my problem) to the session—this solution was part of church reforms confessed by the Reformed congregations in the city of Zurich. According to the Second Helvetic Confession, the length of prayers was a matter that church officers needed to consider and monitor. Chapter twenty-three reads:

As in everything, so also in public prayers there is to be a standard lest they be excessively long and irksome. The greatest part of meetings for worship is therefore to be given to evangelical teaching, and care is to be taken lest the congregation is wearied by too lengthy prayers and when they are to hear the preaching of the Gospel they either leave the meeting or, having been exhausted, want to do away with it altogether. To such people the sermon seems to be overlong, which otherwise is brief enough. And therefore it is appropriate for preachers to keep to a standard.

There you have it—a good confessional solution to a real human problem. Long prayers make people weary. To keep them fresh and alert for the sermon, make the prayers shorter.

An alternative to shorter prayers is the solution implied by Samuel Miller's practice of standing. If Presbyterians stood for prayers, the chances of dozing off would be significantly diminished. In fact, standing has real advantages over kneeling for staying awake, since while crouching in the pew a worshiper could conceivably find a position sufficiently comfortable to slumber. But since sleeping while standing is so rare amongst God's creatures—I can only think of horses resting this way—it would seem to be the easiest way to retain the length of our current prayers and the order of our services.

One last solution is the noisy child whose parents refuse to take the rambunctious tyke out of the service. Not only does the volume of the unruly child's voice prevent dozing off comfortably, but the anxiety produced by wondering when the parents will intervene also prevents snoozing. Still, this remedy has the disadvantage of distracting worshipers from praying along with the pastor, not to mention being unpredictable—if you can't count on the child to act up, you can't expect him to keep the worshipers awake.  

For keeping the congregation awake during its prayer, that leaves the example of Samuel Miller and his wife and the only remedy standing.

Ordained Servant Online, December 2011.

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