Learning How to Pray Fervently from Benjamin Francis
In the keeping of Leominster Baptist Church, Herefordshire, there’s an unpublished manuscript that records a precious friendship of two men: Joshua Thomas (1719-1797), who for 43 years was the pastor of this church; and his fellow Welshman, Benjamin Francis (1734–1799), the pastor of 42 years at the Baptist work in Horsley, Gloucestershire. The manuscript is actually a transcript, drawn up by Thomas, of letters that passed between the men from 1758 to 1770.
Francis and Thomas would mail two or three questions periodically to the other. Then, some months later, the recipient would mail back his answers, together with fresh questions of his own. These answers were commented on, new questions were answered, and both the comments and answers were mailed back along with new queries—so on and so forth. All in all, there remain 68 questions and answers in two volumes. The manuscript is entitled “Queries and Solutions of Joshua Thomas and Benjamin Francis of Horsley 1758-70, being the answers of one to questions posed by the other on matters of theology, church government, preaching.”
The questions and answers are extremely instructive as to the areas of personal theological interest among these mid-eighteenth century Calvinists. In fact, a good number of the queries relate to what we would call “spirituality” and some to prayer, which I will focus on below.
LORD, TEACH ME TO PRAY!
“How often should a Christian pray?” To this vital question posed by Francis, Thomas has an extensive answer. He considers prayers that arise spontaneously during the course of a day’s activities—and then “closet prayers” offered during times set apart, what our later generation of evangelicals often calls “the quiet time.” In response to Thomas, Francis confesses to his friend:
I am too barren in all my prayers, but I think mostly so in closet prayer (except at some seasons) which tempts me in some measure to prefer a more constant spontaneous prayer above a more statedly closet prayer, though I am persuaded neither should be neglected. Spontaneous prayer is generally warm, free, and pure, tho short: but I find closet prayer to be often cold, stiff, or artificial, as it were, and mixed with strange impertinences & wanderings of heart. Lord teach me to pray! O that I could perform the duty always, as a duty and a privilege & not as a task and a burden!
In another of Francis’ comments we find the same honesty and humility: “How languid my faith, my hope, my love! how cold and formal am I in secret devotions!” These remarks surely stem from deep-seated convictions that both of these men had about the vital importance of prayer. As Thomas remarked: “[The] great and chief delight, his meat & drink, the life of his life” is his “closet prayer and communion with God.”
Francis’ frank remarks also have their root in the belief that because the Lord had led him to seek Christ at a very young age he should be more eager to pray out of a sense of gratitude. But he confessed:
The more spiritual, divine & disinterested any duty is, the more opposition there is in sinful nature to it. I have sometimes wondered at the opposition, or at least disinclination I find in my wicked heart too often unto prayer, as if it were to perform some very painful service, and also at the vile excuses that offer me their enchanting couch to rest myself upon. I can follow you and even outstrip you in all your complaints; only that my negligence in this solemn duty may be much more appreciated than any in you, since the Lord, I hope at least, inclined me to seek him very young, & overwhelmed me with Joy by a sense of his Love. . . . It is but comparatively seldom that I am enabled to pour forth my whole soul to God in prayer according to my desire. A stupid, indolent, sensual or legal temper sadly clogs the wings of my prayers. . . . True prayer has humility, faith and love for its ingredients, and it is for want of having these graces in their lively exercises that I pray not more frequently, more fervently.
Thomas sought to encourage Francis by reminding him that
closet prayer [is like] the smoke on a windy day. When it is very calm the smoke will ascend and resemble an erect pillar, but when windy, as soon as it is out it is scattered to and fro, sometimes ’tis beaten down the chimney again and fills the house. Shall I not thus give over? Satan would have it so, and flesh would have it so, but I should be more earnest in it.
Francis sought to pray to God twice daily, but he confessed that his difficulties with following a discipline of a set time for prayer stemmed from his being away from his home on itinerant preaching journeys. He also admitted that he had taken up “an unhappy habit of sleeping in the morning much longer” than he should have. And this cut into valuable time for prayer. He did not try to excuse such failings.
How much has changed since Francis’ day—and yet how much remains the same: the same struggle with sin and poor habits that hinder our praying and devotion!
In 1767, Thomas asked of his friend, “How may one know whether his Prayers are answered or not?” Francis has six brief answers:
- By the removal of the evil prayed against, or the reception and enjoyment of the good prayed for.
- By the peculiar and extraordinary circumstances that may attend the removal of the evil or the reception of the good: as the success of Abraham’s servant etc.
- When one does not receive the blessing prayed for, but receives another, perhaps not thought of by him, yet more seasonable, needful & useful.
- When he is assisted by the Spirit to pray, to pray in faith, and to wrestle with God. His prayer will then be answered, whether he perceives it or not, or whether he lives to see it or not, yea though he does not receive the particular good he prays for.
- When God meets, that is, revives and relieves him in prayer, that is a speedy way in which God answers the prayer of his people. “I will not remove thy sore affliction, Paul, though thou hast entreated me thrice; but my grace shall be sufficient for thee to bear it.” Thus God sometimes answers a prayer with a promise, but not the immediate blessing.
- In general one may conclude that God answers his prayers, when he is made more holy and resigned to the will of God, and enabled to persevere in all the duties of religion, and to rejoice in the God of his salvation.
The last of these six answers is especially important. It displays the mature realization that four of the most important things for which we could pray are: (1) growth in holiness; (2) unreserved commitment to God’s sovereign will over one’s life; (3) perseverance; and (4) a heart of joy in God.
When Francis died in 1799, it is noteworthy that what was remembered by his close friends in regard to his devotion were his “fervent prayers.” He would have been surprised!