I’m new to books of prayer. For many years, I never really saw the point of them. I mean, why would one benefit from reciting or quietly reading the prayers written down by others? Shouldn’t one earnestly seek God with one’s own words or thoughts? Wouldn’t it be the case that using the collected spiritual thoughts of others is merely cheating? It was reasoning along this line that held me back from using anything other than the Bible to seek inspirational material for an active prayer life. I”ve never really been that keen on reading the works of other Christian authors for fear that I might be led astray by false doctrines and distortions of the true message of the Gospel. Goodness knows how many books published in recent times have apparently run roughshod over the true message of hope contained in the pages of the Holy Book.
So, it was with some trepidation that I decided to bite the bullet and order a copy of a little prayer book called, The Valley of Vision, compiled by the late Reverend Arthur Bennett(1915-1994), an English Christian evangelist, who dedicated his life to shepherding a flock of fellow Christians in the various places he settled during his long and fruitful life.
A Brief Biography
Arthur was born on May 15 1915, in the South Yorkshire town of Rochester, as the First World War raged across Europe. The family had moved a few times in search of a higher standard of living, spending some time in Cudworth before finally settling in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. The son of a barber, Arthur left school at the age of 14 where he took up a job as a “lather boy” in his father’s establishment. It was around this time that Arthur joined the local Salvation Army and one day, so his biographers inform us, while he was was walking though the citadel, he heard the sound of singing and people giving praise to God in the town hall. He entered and was welcomed by the congregation. The event stirred him and that same evening he resolved to give his life to Christ.
During his late teens, Bennett joined the Church of England and travelled to London to train as an evangelist, working among the poor of the city. By the time he reached his early twenties, Arthur was assigned to a number of villages spread across East Anglia, where he would travel from place to place in a horse-drawn cart. While assigned to the village of Elmsett, Suffolk, he met the love of his life, Margarette Jones, who was also a Bible teacher, and the couple were married in Margarette’s home town at Carmarthenshire, South Wales, on August 26, 1942. By then, Arthur had almost completed his studies at Bristol’s Clifton Theological College, shortly after which he was ordained as a minister in the Chuch of England. He accepted his first post as curate at Woodhouse, Huddersfield, where the couple remained until 1949, when he was then appointed Vicar of Christ Church, Ware, Hertfordshire. And in 1956, Bennet, his wife and five children moved to St. Paul’s Church, at St. Albans, Hertfordshire, where they lived for the next eight years. In the mid 1960s, Bennett accepted an invitation to shepherd a few parishes in the catchment area of Ware, Hertfordshire, where he settled into 17 years of Bible teaching and preaching. After 39 years of active ministry, Bennet retired to Clapham, Bedfordshire, and after a short illness passed away in 1994, where he was laid to rest in the Churchyard of Little Munden, Hertfordshire. His wife, Margarette, survived him a few more years before breathing her last in 1997.
Interest Piqued in Puritan Spirituality
From his early youth, Bennett cultivated a keen interest in Church history, and in particular, the early Puritan movement, which began as an ecclesia within the Church of England in the late 16th century. Bennett was drawn to the simple spirituality of Puritan thinking, studying the available archives of their literature which had done much to disseminate the Good News far beyond the shores of England, but especially so in Colonial North America. Drawing on his diligent studies conducted throughout his career, Bennett set himself the task of compiling a collection of prayers from the founding fathers of Puritan spirituality, dating from the closing years of the 16th century right up to the late 19th century. Although he authored several important books on similar themes, Arthur Bennett is best known for his little book of Puritan prayer, The Valley of Vision, which was first published in 1975 by The Banner of Truth Trust.
At first sales of the work were slow, culminating with about 20,000 copies of The Valley Of Vision sold by the time Bennett passed away in 1994, but in the time since, the estimated number of copies of the work in the hands of Christians rose rapidly to over 350,000 copies distrubted around the world. I have a strong preference for the printed word. My copy is the small, bonded leather edition representing the 18th re-print as of 2018 (405 pages, £19 UK) You can also get a sense of the kind of spiritual exercises in the book by having a look at the first 14 pages which is presented in PDF format here.
Contributors & Content
As explained in the preface to the work, Bennett drew on an eclectic mix of prayers and devotions of some of the more prominent members of the Puritan movement dating mostly from the 16th through 18th centuries, which include:
- Thomas Shepard (1605-1649)
- Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
- Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)
- John Bunyan (1628-1688)
- Isaac Watts(1674-1748)
- Philip Doddridge (1702-1751)
- William Romaine (1714-1795)
- William Williams [of Pontycelyn] (1717-1791)
- David Brainerd (1718-1747)
- Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) It also includes a small number of prayers composed by those attracted to Puritan spirituality in the 19th century including:
- Christmas Evans (1766-1838)
- William Jay (1769-1853)
- Henry Law (1797-1884)
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), widely considered to be the last of the great Puritans.
The opening prayer, called The Valley Of Vision, was written by Bennett himself, the title of which was inspired by a reading of Isaiah 22( KJV emphasis);
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty
thy glory in my valley.
All of the prayers derived from the Puritan writers are approximately the same length as Bennett’s opening devotion, and for convenience are divided up into very useful sub-sections so that the reader can concentrate on different themes, which include:
1. Father, Son and Holy Spirit
2. Redemption and Reconcilaition
3. Penitance and Deprecation
4. Needs and Devotions
5. Holy Aspirations
6. Approach to God
7.Gifts of Grace
8. Service and Ministry
10. A Week’s Shared Prayers
Even a cursory reading of the book will show that all the Puritan authors were deeply committed to the Scriptures, with no turning to the right or to the left, as it were. These were holy men, who considered all of creation sacred, and who poured out their innermost thoughts to their Creator, witholding nothing. In my mind’s eye, I see those prayers billowing upwards, headlong toward the mercy seat of God, where the Scriptures inform us that they are collected in vials(Revelation 5:8).
In all, some 196 prayers are presented, but Bennett does not reveal the individual authors of those prayers.
I have many favourites to draw on. Here’s an excerpt from Section I; Father Son and Holy Spirit; from a prayer entitled: Man’s Great End:
Lord of All Being,
There is one thing that deserves my greatest care,
that calls forth my ardent desires,
That is, that I may answer the great end for which I am made-
to glorify thee who hast given me being,
and to do all the good I can for my fellow men;
Verily, life is not worth having
if it be not improved for this noble purpose.
Yet, Lord, how little is this the thought of Mankind!
Most men seem to live for themselves,
without much or any regard for thy glory,
or for the good of others;
They earnestly desire and eagerly pursue
the riches, honours, pleasures of this life,
as if they supposed that wealth, greatness, merriment,
could make their immortal souls happy;
But alas, what false delusive dreams are these!
Some of the prayers brought an instant smile to my face. How about this opener(under Sins) for efficiency?
Pardon all my sins of this day, week, year,
all the sins of my life,
sins of early, middle, and advanced years,
of omission and commission….. pp 158
Say no more eh? That’s right! Our God forgives all sins; past, present and future.
Others are altogether more sonorous. Take this excerpt, taken from a prayer entitled, Union with Christ;
Thou hast made man for the glory of thyself,
and when not an instrument of that glory,
he is a thing of nought;
No sin is greater than the sin of unbelief,
for if union with Christ is the greatest good,
unbelief is the greatest sin.. pp 36
Unbelief is portrayed as sin, and not only that; it is ” the greatest sin.” And where might one find support for that position in the Scriptures? Well, for a start, how about the tract from Hebrews:
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
Unbelief is rebellion, anarchy of the heart, a conscious decision to reject the authority of our Creator over our lives. Hebrews 3 reminds us:
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; while it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
So, simply put, those without faith will not enter His rest.
So much for Universalism!
There are many eclectic topics discussed in the prayers chosen by Bennett. One prayer I especially liked is found in the Service and Ministry section and gives thanks to the Lord for giving us His precious Word. Called the Minister’s Bible, here’s an excerpt:
O God of Truth,
I thank thee for the holy Scriptures,
their precepts, promises, directions, light,
In them do I learn more of Christ,
be enabled to retain his truth,
and have grace to follow it.
Help me to lift up the gates of my soul that he may come in
and show me himself when I search the Scriptures,
for I have no lines to fathom its depths,
no wings to soar to its heights.
By his aid may I be enabled to explore all its truths,
love them with all my heart,
embrace them with all my power, engraft them into my life. pp 346
In this ephemeral world we live in, with its endless distractions and technological marvels, reading the Bible every day has become as important to me as eating, exercising and washing. It has become a constant comfort to read and re-read in the quiet of the morning and in the evening; to meditate on its precepts and absorb its spiritual wisdom that is older than nature herself.
Many of the Puritan authors demonstrate an acute awareness of sin, and the utter inadequacy of trying to achieve salvation by one’s own efforts(Ephesians 2:8-9). You can sense a great desire of many of the contributors to go home, to be eternally re-united with their Creator in Paradise. In the Valediction section, for example, we read this prayer, entitled Earth And Heaven;
I live here as a fish in a vessel of water,
only enough to keep me alive,
but in heaven I shall swim in the ocean.
Here I have a little air in me to keep me breathing,
but there I shall have sweet and fresh gales;
Here I have a beam of sun to lighten my darkness,
a warm ray to keep me from freezing;
yonder I shall live in light and warmth forever.
My natural desires are corrupt and misguided,
and it is thy mercy to destroy them;
My spiritual longings are of thy planting,
and thou wilt water and increase them;
Quicken my hunger and thirst after the realm above pp 370
The Valley of Vision is a great resource for those who have committed themselves to a Christian path through this present evil age. Every day, we edge closer to our eternal home(Hebrews 13:14), where we will serve the Lord with purity of heart. And though I was sceptical about whether any prayer book would do anything to enrich my prayer life, I must admit to have been badly mistaken. There is so much richness in the pages of this little classic prayer book, treasures that can transform the inner groanings of the soul into beautiful, deep and expressive worship.
And that’s why I would unhesitatingly recommend it to the faithful.
Thanks for reading!