Standing in Public Prayer: Samuel Miller (1769 – 1850)

From Public Prayer. 

There have been some minor updating of old English words and punctuation.

Standing is the fourth and last of the attitudes becoming and adopted in public devotion. And this, it is well known, was the posture adopted in the Church of Scotland; by our fathers, the Puritans, in England; and by the descendants of both churches on this side of the Atlantic. There is much to recommend this posture. We spontaneously rise in the presence of a superior. It is expressive of respect and reverence. We have also many examples of this in Scripture.

  • When Solomon, in the midst of the thousands of Israel, made a prayer at the dedication of the temple, while the king himself knelt down on a platform of brass, all the people around him stood up, while they united with him in addressing the throne of grace. (2 Chr 6:13).
  • When Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast, and offered up a solemn prayer, in the critical circumstances in which he and his people were placed, we are told that he stood upright, and that the whole multitude, not only the men, but their wives and their children, all stood and prayed. (2 Chr 20:5, 13).

We know, too, that the usual posture in public prayer, in the temple, and afterwards in the synagogue, was that of standing. This practice was evidently adopted in the early Christian Church.…Thus it is incontrovertibly evident that, for the first three hundred years after Christ, standing in public prayer was the only posture allowed, on the Lord’s day, to the mass [majority] of Christian worshippers, who were in a state of union with the Church.

In all Presbyterian churches standing is regarded as the appropriate posture in prayer at all times. This posture is recommended by a variety of considerations.

  • It was evidently the apostolical and primitive plan.
  • The first General Council, as we have seen, in the fourth century, enjoined it by a solemn canon.
  • It is a posture expressive of respect and reverence.
  • It is adapted to keep the worshipper wakeful and attentive; while the postures of kneeling and sitting are both favourable to drowsiness.

Says Mr. Trench:

“It is a mistake, growing out of forgetfulness of Jewish and early Christian customs, when some commentators see in the fact that the Pharisee prayed standing, an evidence manifesting his pride. Even the parable itself contradicts this notion; for the Publican, whose prayer was an humble one, stood also. But to pray standing was the manner of the Jews. See 1 Kings 8:22, 2nd Chr 6:12, Matt 6:5 & Mark 11:25. True, in moments of more than ordinary humiliation or emotion of heart, they changed this attitude for one of kneeling or prostration; see Dan 6:10, 2nd Chr 6:13, Acts 9:40, Acts 20:36, & Acts 21:5.

Hence the term station (statio) passed into the usage of the Christian Church on this account. It was so called, as Ambrose explains it, because, standing, the Christian soldier repelled the attacks of his spiritual enemies; and on the Lord’s day the faithful stood in prayer to commemorate their Saviour’s resurrection on that day; through which they who by sin had fallen, were again lifted up and set upon their feet.”

— Trench on the Parables.

It is to be remembered that this testimony [above] is from the pen of a distinguished clergyman of the Church of England.

The posture of standing has been objected to by some on two grounds.

  1. First, as fatiguing to the feeble and infirm. But, if the officiating minister be tolerably discreet in the length of his prayers, this objection can have little or no force to those who are in ordinary health. It will, surely, rather be a relief than otherwise to stand up ten, or at most, twelve minutes, when the sitting posture is to be maintained during almost the entire remainder of the time allotted to the public service.
  2. It has also been alleged, in the second place, that the standing posture is unfavourable to close and solemn attention; that it tempts him who maintains it to look about him; and that it exposes females to be gazed at by surrounding worshippers more than other postures which might be adopted. But if there be really a devout spirit, and a disposition to depress the countenance, to withdraw the eyes from surrounding objects, and in any measure to cover the face with a fan or the handkerchief, it is easy to see that the objection before us may be as perfectly obviated as in any other posture.

Sitting in public prayer

The posture of sitting in public prayer has no countenance either from Scripture, from reason, or from respectable usage, in any part of the Church’s history. It was never allowed in the ancient Church, and was universally regarded as an irreverent and heathenish mode of engaging in public devotion. True, if there be any worshippers so infirm from age, or so feeble from disease, that standing erect would really incommode [i.e., inconvenience] or distress them to a degree unfriendly to devotion, let them sit; not in a posture of indifference or indulgence; but with bowed heads, and fixed countenances, as becomes persons reluctantly constrained to retain such an attitude, and who are yet devoutly engaged in the service.

It were greatly to be wished that this matter should engage the attention of pastors and church sessions to an extent commensurate with the evil to be remedied, and which is evidently gaining ground.

Thirty or forty years ago, nineteen out of twenty of all Presbyterian worshippers were in the constant habit of standing in public prayer. Nothing else was thought of; and if any one was constrained by disability or sickness to remain sitting, he felt as if his posture needed an apology. Such a case was an exception to a general rule. But the practice of indulging in this posture has gradually made so much progress, that sitting has almost become the general rule, and standing the exception. Now, when we cast an eye over many of our worshipping assemblies, we see a large portion of the professed worshippers not only sitting, but sitting in such a posture of lounging indulgence, as evinces that nothing is further from their minds than a spirit of devotion. This surely ought not to be so. It is unscriptural, unseemly, and highly revolting. Where there is really a spirit of devotion, there will be some manifestation of it in the outward posture. And where the outward posture is unfriendly to such a spirit, it will, in spite of any professed wish to the contrary, speedily banish it. Unless ministers, then, are willing that the members of their flocks should gradually fall into habits in the highest degree unfavourable to the spirit of devotion, let them raise their voices against this growing evil. Let them warn their hearers against the indulgence of a spirit of lounging indifference in the house of God. Let them proclaim, that, even when standing erect may cost some effort, and be attended even with some pain, this very circumstance may tend to obviate drowsiness, and to keep the mind more intent on the solemnity and importance of the exercise.