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Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, compiled and edited by Robert Elmer

Gregory E. Reynolds

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, compiled and edited by Robert Elmer. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019, 321 pages, $23.99.

The title of this book comes from a saying of well-known Puritan Thomas Watson, “That prayer is most likely to pierce heaven which first pierces one’s own heart.”[1]

The piety founded in the theology of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms is the piety of the Puritans. Anthony Burgess, Jeremiah Burroughs, and Edward Reynolds, who wrote several of the prayers in this volume, were all members of the Westminster Assembly.

This newly published prayer book combines the prayers of thirty-two writers, mostly seventeenth-century Puritans or in a few cases men of Puritan sympathies, like nineteenth-century Octavius Winslow. I say “men,” but there is an exception, the exceptional Puritan poet and preeminent woman of letters in the American colonies, Ann Bradstreet. She (along with several prominent theologians like William Ames and Richard Sibbes) has only one prayer, presumably because she did not write many prayers. Other lesser known writers like Lewis Bayly and Robert Hawker were prolific prayer authors. Hawker wrote the most in this volume with more than fifty. Well-known devotional writer and preacher Philip Doddridge comes a close second with almost forty. There are also international connections; theologian-preachers such as William Bridge and William Ames had a strong connection with the Calvinists of the Netherlands. William Guthrie was a pastor in the Scottish Covenanter movement. Ezekiel Hopkins was a bishop in the Church of Ireland. It is also notable that all of these authors, with the exception of Ann Bradstreet were preachers, the majority of whom were also theologians. Doctrine and life were never separated, and many risked their lives, fortunes, and honor for what they believed and preached, due to the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which prescribed conformity to the Church of England and its Book of Common Prayer.

As to content, the combination of fervent devotion, sound biblical foundation, and carefully articulated theology makes these prayers a treasure to be explored and enjoyed. The prayers are divided into sixteen categories, ranging from “Teach Me to Pray” to “Your Kingdom Come.” Three categories deal with beginning, living, and closing the day. Along with a section on forgiveness of sins is a unique category “Help Me Give the Gospel to Others.” It is obvious that the editor and compiler Robert Elmer has done his work with great care and discernment.

The publisher’s blurb is informative and sums up my reason for heartily recommending this book.

For the Puritans, prayer was neither casual nor dull. Their prayers were passionate affairs, from earnestly pleading for mercy to joyful praise. These rich expressions of deep Christian faith are a shining example of holy living.

The Puritan combination of warm piety and careful intellect have fueled a renaissance of interest in their movement. This combination is on display in Piercing Heaven, a collection of carefully constructed prayers from leading Puritans. The language in these prayers has been slightly updated for a modern audience while retaining the elevated tone of the Puritans. With prayers from Richard Baxter, Thomas Brooks, and many more, each entry reminds us that heartfelt prayer is central to the Christian life.

Not only will this little volume assist Christians in their private devotions, but it will also help ministers of the Word in their preparation of prayers for the pulpit (Samuel Miller’s Thoughts on Public Prayer is one of the best sources of instruction on this topic). There is a great need for better preparation for public prayer in our ministries.

Endnotes

[1] Quoted on dedication page. I have not been able to locate the source.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2020

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