300-year-old prayers still resonate

Feb 16, 2015 by

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From what resources can we draw in the current vigorous conversations across the church? How about prayer?

prayer bookHere are two that might be useful. They are prayers drawn from Die Ernst­hafte Christien­pflicht, translated by Leonard Gross and published as Prayer Book for Earnest Christians: A Spiritually Rich Anabaptist Resource by Herald Press in 1997. The project was initiated by Levi Miller, then the director of the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church.

This small book has been described as one of the best-kept publishing secrets in the Anabaptist tradition. Since its first known edition in 1708, there have been 87 editions or reprints — 65 in Canada and the U.S.

These prayers, used by Anabaptists, as well as other European Christians, “span the barriers of time, language and culture and are as fitting today as then,” Miller wrote.

Amish, Old Order Mennonites and other conservative Anabaptists still resonate with the themes of piety and discipleship. Prayer Book for Earnest Christians contains such prayers as a petition for forgiveness, prayers for those suffering, those fallen from membership, for faithful church leaders, for political authorities, and, as might be expected, a prayer for enemies. Reflecting the context of suffering, there are prayers for people exiled and persecuted, for those in physical poverty and for the good-hearted people who help in times of danger.

Following a prayer for enemies, there is a prayer against the enemies of the church, calling on God to “Impede and restrain, shatter and destroy all their evil intentions” while saving the petitioners from “all [such] godless, depraved persons!”

Prayers for use by the gathered community are added to personal prayers of devotion. Among the prayers for the church is a plea for unity amid internal dissension, titled “Petition Against Schism”:

We ask you holy Father, to show your grace and mercy to us all, throughout the whole wide world. Graciously draw us together with your blessing, care, and protection. Do not let division and disunity come among us.

Oh! May the false mob spirit which tears a group apart not be found among any of us, if this is not praying against your holy will. Instead, kindly safeguard us, O holy, dear Father, from every type of false doctrine and false living, from every kind of mistrust and guile, from false faith and every sort of unkindness, and from every false idea and evil opinion. Indeed, safeguard us graciously from all that might damage or hinder our salvation and joy that might divide us, or lead us away from your love and righteousness, or bring us to neglect your holy Word.

A second prayer echoes the first: “Prayer for Unity of Mind and Understanding in Godly Matters.”

Eternal, merciful God! You are a God of peace, love and unity, not of conflict and division. With this unity you view the world in your righteous judgment, knowing it has forsaken you. You alone can establish and maintain unity in a world which in its own wisdom has fallen away from you, especially in those things which relate to your divine truth and the salvation of souls. You let the world divide and splinter into pieces, so that with the false wisdom of disunity which can only lead to disgrace, the world might again turn to you, O Lover of unity!

We are poor sinners whom you have graciously endowed with the ability to understand all this. So we pray and implore you through the Holy Spirit to dispel confusion. Unify what is divided and make it whole. Also give us the means to seek your unique, eternal truth, which leads to divine unity.

Thus may we turn away from every division and become of one mind, will, conscience, spirit and understanding, aligned according to Jesus Christ, our Lord. May we then praise and glorify you, the heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with steadfast unity and with one voice, through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, in the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Can these prayers, echoing through the generations before us, still speak?

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.


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