Spiritual genealogies
Lee March 5, 2016

I recently discovered a little book of prayers during an internet search. As usual, I don’t know how I found it, but I was so intrigued I had to buy one, and I’ve been absorbed in it ever since it arrived in the post. Dating from the late 18th century, Forms of prayer, for the use of Christian families was written by Samuel Knight A.M., who came from Wintringham, Lincolnshire in the north of England. 

I read the 1814 edition online, but my copy is a facsimile of the original 1792 edition and features the 18th century practice of substituting a lower case ‘f’ for each lower case ‘s’ that comes before the end of a word. So the word ‘goodness’ becomes ‘goodnefs’ and ‘distress’ becomes ‘diftrefs’. It takes some getting used to, especially when ‘souls’ looks like ‘fouls’ and ‘sins’ looks like ‘fins’!

But after a few chuckles, I got over the oddness and was completely hooked. So much so that this small volume of set prayers has prompted 21st century me to reevaluate my prayers—not only the way that I pray, but also what I pray. I’m starting to wonder whether, as a product of my time, I’ve begun to adopt attitudes and practices that aren’t helpful or even appropriate when I’m relating to God in prayer.

Profound: Here are just some of things that I’ve noticed. These prayers convey an understanding of God’s majesty, sovereignty and otherness that seems to be more profound than mine. They make me question whether I find the right balance between relating to God as my heavenly Father and rightly remembering his awe-inspiring splendour and breath-taking power:

O Lord God Almighty! very great, and very glorious art thou! Help us to approach thee, at all times, with solemnity, reverence, and godly fear. Thou art the sovereign Lord of all: thou madest all things, and for thy pleasure they are, and were created…We are lost in wonder, when we reflect upon thy greatness and majesty, and still more so when we reflect upon thy goodness and mercy.

I’ve been challenged by how wholeheartedly, how willingly, these prayers express the fear of the Lord. It’s been a humility-check for me and a spur to keep God at the centre in all things:

Thou art ever mindful of us, though we are too forgetful of thee; thou art inviting us by daily mercies to gratitude and love; but alas! our deceitful hearts are continually apt to start aside like a broken bow. We are ever ready to revolt and go backward. Lord, have mercy upon us! Turn thou us, and we shall be turned; draw us, and we will run after thee.

And the unflinching honesty of these prayers about the Christian’s need for God holds me to a higher standard. When it comes to trust in God, I think I have so much more to learn:

Thou knowest, Lord, our several cases and circumstances much better than we are able to describe them; and thou knowest what blessings will be most suitable to each of us. O bestow them upon us, that our souls may praise thee. Whatever may be needful to promote our real growth in grace and holiness, mercifully give, tho’ we, through our ignorance, may neglect to pray for it.

Samuel Knight’s modest little volume was a true-blue bestseller—by 1844, thirty editions had been printed—and it saddens me that such spiritual riches have somehow been overlooked and forgotten by later generations. Yes, the language is archaic now, but with a little patience we can still uncover the treasures within.

Ordinary: This is just a fragment of Samuel Knight’s godly model of prayerfulness, but before I go I want to tell you a little more about the man himself. The thing is, he has helped me to discover a spiritual genealogy of faithful Christians, that connects me with him in ways I could never have imagined.

The Collier, by Robert Havell (aquatint, 1814): Wikimedia Commons, public domain
The Collier, by Robert Havell (aquatint, 1814): Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Samuel is an interesting man. The A.M. after his name shows that he had a Master of Arts degree (from Latin, Artium Magister) from Magdalene College, Cambridge. While it was common enough for 18th century clergymen in the Church of England to have studied at university, it was almost unheard of for someone like Samuel Knight whose father was a Yorkshire collier. It’s not clear whether Titus Knight was a coal miner, coal merchant or worked on coal barges. But we know he worked with coal and a university education was far beyond the reach and expectation of his family.

But in his great kindness, God had other ideas for the Church of England and for Samuel Knight (1759 – 1827) who was born the same year, and not far from, another notable Yorkshireman, William Wilberforce. Samuel’s birth came when the great evangelical revival was transforming British society and the official church.

For more than twenty years, two great evangelists, John Wesley and George Whitefield had been preaching the good news of salvation through Jesus to the ordinary people wherever they found them, because the Church of England no longer would. Even though Wesley and Whitefield were ordained, their fellow clergymen actively prevented them from preaching in their churches and mocked them with labels like ‘methodist’ and ‘dissenter’. They derided the way these men applied their Christian faith in their lives.

Well, it turns out that Samuel’s father, Titus Knight was one of those ordinary people who began to follow Jesus through the extensive ministry of evangelists in Yorkshire. And despite his working class origins, he became a Methodist lay preacher and came to the attention of the Countess of Huntingdon, a wealthy and influential evangelical philanthropist. Amazingly, for two months every year, Titus Knight the collier worked as an assistant to George Whitefield (who was also a chaplain to Lady Huntingdon).

Later on, young Samuel Knight was noticed by George Burnett, a founder of the Elland Clerical Education Society. This group of evangelical clergymen had begun funding the university education of poor but gifted young men who otherwise could never have trained for the ministry. Prominent evangelicals such as William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon also supported the Elland Society fund and, in fact, Charles Simeon founded another society just like it, to raise up evangelical ministers in London. These men all wanted to see evangelical clergymen in Church of England pulpits so that the gospel could be preached, freely and truthfully.

With this combination of resources and influence, and through the determined leadership of evangelical Samuel Hey at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Samuel Knight the collier’s son became a clergyman in the Church of England. He became one of a growing generation of evangelicals who, because of their heartfelt faith and humble courage, would eventually help to transform the denomination from the inside out.

Heritage: And this is where I made my serendipitous discovery of the spiritual heritage that connects Samuel Knight and me. This same generation of evangelical clergymen from the north of England included Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden (another Elland Society beneficiary), who became the first and second chaplains to the penal colony of New South Wales. Richard Johnson was chosen as chaplain because he was known to another great evangelical, John Newton and his friend William Wilberforce, and Wilberforce was a Member of Parliament and a trusted friend of the Prime Minister, William Pitt.

And so Richard Johnson sailed with the First Fleet in 1788 to establish a tiny penal colony that clung to the edge of a vast and unfamiliar continent. In spite of the physical hardships and the agonising difficulties the first chaplain faced, John Newton was convinced that Richard Johnson’s pioneering ministry would eventually grow. This is how he encouraged him, during the early years:

I have not been disheartened by your apparent want of success… You are sent..not to sow salad seeds, but to plant acorns; and your labour will not be lost, though the first appearances may be very small, and the progress very slow. You are, I trust, planting for the next century. I have a good hope that your oaks will one day spring up and flourish, and produce other acorns, which, in due time, will take root, and spread…

An oak did indeed grow. It grew into today’s strongly evangelical Anglican Diocese of Sydney, and I am a tiny leaf grafted onto that oak tree, drawing on the strength, vigour and commitment of the spiritual genealogy that first worked to ensure that it was planted.

Much like old prayer books, genealogies often fade into obscurity over time. It doesn’t take long for successive generations to forget how much they owe to those who have gone before them. So I’m doubly grateful to have uncovered not just a prayer-filled gem, but also to have caught a glimpse of my spiritual heritage.

Ultimately though, these things remind me that it is the great God, who saved me to live for him, who formed the family tree of evangelicals that connects Samuel Knight to me and to so many others today. And it is always God who makes trees grow—from the acorns he creates.

Featured image: Photo by Rob Birkbeck | Lightstock.com

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