SMU Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology SMU, Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology SMU Bridwell Library Perkins School of Theology

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Books for Devotion: Private Prayer and Prayer Books

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Private Prayer and Prayer Books

The first prayer quoted in the Bible occurs in Genesis 18:3, when Abraham, seeing God in the plains of Mamre, bows down and says "My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant." Although countless other personal prayers are found in the Bible’s narrative books, by far the richest scriptural source of prayers has been the Book of Psalms. In the majority of the psalms, an individual addresses God directly, beginning with a petition to be heard; then the supplicant presents a particular need or desire, often concluding with a promise of praise or worship in return. Other psalms consist of personal hymns of thanksgiving or praise. The Book of Psalms became the basis, if not the model, for the longstanding traditions of liturgical prayer services within both Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. However, when Jesus Christ provided the Lord’s Prayer as a new model (Matthew 6:9–13), he invoked examples of vain public prayer (6:5–8) in order to teach his followers to pray righteously as individuals:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

The books in this exhibition respond to the desire to pray "in secret," far from the eyes and ears of the congregation. Each one was easy to carry and use; even the largest book in this selection fits comfortably in one’s hands, and most are slender, containing no more than what was to be recited over the course of a day, a week, or a series of occasions throughout the year. In many instances, these particular copies show evidence of an individual’s pride of ownership — personal inscriptions, monograms, bookplates, and expensive custom-made bindings.