Prayerful voice: Self-shaping, intimacy, and the Puritan practice and experience of prayer

Date of Completion

January 1999


History, United States




Puritan prayer was an act of self-expression and definition that has received surprisingly little attention from historians. The puritans themselves, however, saw extemporaneous and scripture-based prayer as that which most fundamentally distinguished them. Even the sermon was understood primarily as a vehicle leading to prayer. As New England minister John Cotton wrote, “Is not the purpose of preaching that you learn to pray?” Puritans used scripture passages creatively to craft prayers reflecting personal concerns, to fashion new identities as children of God and the bride of Christ, and to define the events of their lives as meaningful in the context of what Charles Hambrick-Stowe has called “the drama of redemption.” ^ Men's and women's prayers differed in ways that illuminate the experience of gender in seventeenth-century puritan culture. Women found in prayer a means to exercise their expressive voice, demonstrate competence, and pin spiritual status. Men used prayers to address difficult vocational choices, struggles with sexual desire, and strained relations between fathers and sons. ^ Sources that reveal the puritan practice and experience of prayer include spiritual diaries and autobiographies, devotional poetry, letters, and prescriptive treatises. ^