The eighteenth century evangelical revival in Britain is well known for its preaching and its hymn singing. Yet what is less often recalled, though no less real, was the prayerfulness of these Christians.
Some of the most famous preachers from Whitfield to Wesley from Newton to Grimshaw were involved in this outpouring of God’s favour. Some of the same names – like Wesley and Newton were involved in the production of the great hymns from that period. But who were those who prayed?
In the history of one great hymn of that period we can see something of these Christians’ commitment to prayer. It is the famous hymn “Jesus, Where’er Thy People Meet,” written in 1769.
At that time, John Newton was ministering at a town called Olney. His friend, neighbour, brother in Christ, and fellow hymn writer was the much-troubled William Cowper. Cowper suffered deep depression and periods of very tragic insanity.
There were a growing number of people attending the weekly prayer meetings organised by John Newton. So, they “removed the prayer meeting to the great room in the Great House” he wrote to a friend. “It is a noble place, with a parlour behind it, and holds one hundred and thirty people conveniently.”
This new and larger place to meet for prayer led Newton to write a prayer request to a friend. “Pray for us, that the Lord may be in the midst of us there, and that as He has now given us a Rehoboth (Hebrew word meaning “a broad place or a room”), and has made room for us, so that He may be pleased to add to our numbers, and make us fruitful in the land.”
It was on this occasion that William Cowper, a member of this growing prayer group, wrote this great hymn.
Jesus, where’er Thy people meet,
There they behold Thy mercy seat;
Where’er they seek Thee Thou art found,
And every place is hallowed ground.
For Thou, within no walls confined,
Inhabitest the humble mind;
Such ever bring Thee, where they come,
And, going, take Thee to their home.
Dear Shepherd of Thy chosen few,
Thy former mercies here renew;
Here, to our waiting hearts, proclaim
The sweetness of Thy saving Name.
Here may we prove the power of prayer
To strengthen faith and sweeten care;
To teach our faint desires to rise,
And bring all Heav’n before our eyes.
Behold at Thy commanding word,
We stretch the curtain and the cord;
Come Thou, and fill this wider space,
And bless us with a large increase.
Lord, we are few, but Thou art near;
Nor short Thine arm, nor deaf Thine ear;
O rend the heavens, come quickly down,
And make a thousand hearts Thine own.
(Copyright Public Domain)
We do not normally sing verse 5 these days with its reference to praying at the command of God and blessing us with a large increase of friends to join us in prayer.
But even as we do sing the other verses, we often miss the historical point of the hymn. It is wonderful to be reminded that God who can be prayed to everywhere and anywhere inhabits not a building but the humble mind. It is especially helpful to be reminded of that when a new and grand prayer room is being opened. And when we do start in a new place for prayer what better to ask for than “Here we may prove the power of prayer”?
One of Charles Wesley’s hymns was a wishful prayer for “a thousand tongues” to sing the redeemer’s praise. William Cowper’s wishful prayer was for an increase in people to pray. He wanted “a thousand hearts” to be made God’s own. Hearts like this are full of praise and full of prayer.
For another resource mentioning William Cowper see Ignorance Or Historical Censorship?
For another resource mentioning John Newton see John Newton