Some books have a strange and unanticipated ability to capture people’s attention and exceed all expectations in the number of copies they sell. That has certainly been the case with The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. Over the almost fifty years since it was first printed, demand for this little resource has not only steadily increased but has often come from some unlikely quarters.
Given that the label “Puritan” often has pejorative connotations — even in some Christian circles — why has this anthology of Puritan prayers managed to bless such a broad cross section of the church for so many decades?
The answer lies in some measure with the story of how the Banner of Truth came into existence. In the postwar years in Britain, largely through the influence of men like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J.I. Packer, many rediscovered the Puritans and their writings with a fresh appreciation of what Packer once described as “Christianity of an older, deeper, richer, riper sort.”
During the seventeenth century in England, the Puritans served as heirs of the Protestant Reformation. They both preserved and built on the theological legacy of men like Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli. They also maintained the rich piety that marked that crucial era in church history — a piety rooted in the conviction that, as Paul says in Titus, “knowledge of the truth . . . leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1 NIV).
The Puritans were first and foremost pastor-teachers who sought not merely to educate and inform their congregations but to see their lives transformed by God’s word and Spirit. They were Bible men through and through, and the impact of their ministries was plain to see in the congregations they served. They wrote prolifically, and much of their writing simply offered in print what they taught and proclaimed from their pulpits week by week. This multipronged ministry led to the penetrating application of great Bible truths worked out in the everyday experience of their people.
It was hardly surprising, then, that the legacy of these men lived on through their books in the centuries that followed, with notable figures like George Whitefield being influenced by them and, in turn, being used by God in significant measure in their own days. However, with the dilution of evangelical convictions and the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century, the influence of the Puritans began to wane — that is, until their works were rediscovered in the aftermath of the Second World War.
In that surprising context, a new generation of preachers began to benefit from these classic works. Iain Murray was one of those young men, and he, along with like-minded friends, helped stir up fresh interest in the Puritan legacy.
Roots of a Classic
This was the soil into which The Valley of Vision sunk its roots. Through Murray’s contacts at that time and his early work with what would become The Banner of Truth, he encountered Arthur Bennett, an Episcopalian minister. When he came across Bennett’s writings on the life and work of David Brainerd (a close friend of Jonathan Edwards and missionary to the Delaware Indians in New Jersey during the eighteenth century), Murray sent Bennett some examples of Puritan prayers and suggested not only that he might find them helpful, but also that he might consider editing and abridging some of them to bring them back into circulation for the church.
The outcome of these interactions was an effort not merely to republish these prayers from the past but also to use them as a template for a book more suited to a new generation of Christians. In Murray’s words, they planned to use these Puritan prayers as “a source for a book in more modern form, taking thoughts, petitions, and, at times, even language, recast, and all more natural to [our] own prayer life today.” They hoped to create not only a record of the past but even “more a devotional work to aid Christians in their communion with God in the present day” (as the preface to the 1975 edition says).
In God’s providence, Bennett’s predecessor in his parish in Hertfordshire was Rev. E. Bickersteth, a gifted evangelical Anglican poet and hymn writer. Bickersteth clearly influenced Bennett and his work in compiling his devotional anthology.
Prayers for Every Season
The beauty of this collection of prayers is multifaceted, traversing the entire scope of the Christian journey from the depths to the heights. The prayers express the deep desires of the heart and the perplexities of our Christian experience in language full of deep reverence for God on the one hand and, on the other hand, a down-to-earth sense of our needs, longings, and failings. Through them all, there is the rich gospel realization that, despite our manifold sins and transgressions — through omission as much as commission — the grace of God in Christ is more than sufficient for our guilt, and the aid of the Holy Spirit is more than equal to our human weakness.
The prayers are organized topically. They begin, quite appropriately, with an acknowledgment of the Holy Trinity — eternally one God in three persons. What follows is a sequence of prayers that both savor God’s triune glory and celebrate the benefits that belong to us through our union and communion with God in Christ. From there, the prayers cover the nature of our salvation — its grounds and benefits — and our communion with God as we grow in grace.
An entire section of prayers expresses our daily need of penitence as one of the hallmarks of genuine conversion. In addition, other sections offer prayers for our spiritual needs and prayers to remind us of the various privileges we enjoy: our access to God in prayer, the gifts God lavishes upon us as his children (which we so easily undervalue), and the calling we have as disciples of Christ. Another section relates to the work of the ministry (but which can be prayed by all Christians for their own pastors). The closing section takes a heaven’s-eye view of the challenges and struggles we face in daily life. This little volume contains, quite literally, “a prayer for all seasons of life.”
Awake to God
Those of us who belong to this present era — some fifty years after this rich devotional resource was compiled — might find its language and form somewhat alien to what we are used to. Whether we try using the prayers in our own personal prayer life or in public prayer, their style and tone may sound quaint. Even still, we should not allow this impression to put us off.
The very fact that their style, tone, and content take us out of our often-thoughtless comfort zones should give us pause for thought. Not least because, when we reflect on the tone as much as the content of these expressions of praise and petition, we realize they convey an affectionate regard for God’s glory, holiness, and beauty too often absent in our own day.
In that sense, this collection of prayers from a different era in the church’s history reflects a depth of communion with God and an awareness of his glory and attributes that many churches of our time lack. The Valley of Vision, then, may become for us what it has become for so many: a time-honored aid to cultivating our daily appreciation of God and our moment-to-moment need of him.