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Intercessory Prayer and Spiritual Movements of the Past

A. T. Pierson


The pivot of piety is prayer. A pivot is of double use; it acts as a fastener and as a center; it holds in place, and it is the axis of revolution. Prayer is the double secret: it keeps us steadfast in faith, and it helps to all holy activity. Hence, as surely as God is lifting His people in these latter times to a higher level of life, and moving them to a more unselfish and self-denying service, there will be a new emphasis laid upon supplication, and especially upon intercession.

This revival of the praying-spirit, if not first in order of development, is first in order of importance in every really onward advance. Generally, if not uniformly, prayer is both starting point and goal to every movement in which are the elements of permanent progress. Whenever the church is aroused and the world’s wickedness arrested, somebody has been praying. If the secret history of all really spiritual advance could be written and read, there would be found some intercessors who, like Job, Samuel, Daniel, Elijah, like Paul and James, like Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, George Müller and Hudson Taylor, have been led to shut themselves in the secret place with God, and have labored fervently in prayers. And, as the starting point is thus found in supplication and intercession, so the final outcome must be that God’s people shall have learned to pray, if there is not to be rapid reaction and disastrous relapse from the better conditions secured.

These convictions have so been inwrought into the mind of the writer by patient and long continued study of the religious history of the race, that there seems to be no seal of permanence upon any movement, however spiritual in appearance and tendency, which does not sooner or later show a decided revival of the praying spirit.

There is a divine philosophy behind this fact. Our greatest need is to keep in close touch with God. Our greatest risk is the loss of the sense of the divine. We are in a world where every appeal is to the physical senses and through them. Reality is in direct proportion to the power of contact. What we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell — what is material and sensible — we cannot doubt. The present and material absorbs attention and appears to us solid, substantial; but the future, the immaterial, the invisible, the spiritual, seem vague, distant, illusive, imaginary. Practically the unseen has no reality and no influence upon the vast majority of mankind. Even the unseen God is less a verity than the commonest object of vision; to many He, the highest verity, is really vanity, while the world’s vanities are practically the highest verities.


God’s great corrective for this most awful inversion and perversion of the true relation of things, is prayer. “Enter into thy closet.” Why? There all is silence, secrecy, solitude, seclusion. Within that shut door, we are left alone. All others are shut out, that the suppliant may be shut in — with God. The silence is in order that we may hear the still, small voice, that is drowned in worldly clamor, and which even a human voice may cause to be unheard or indistinct. The secrecy is in order to a meeting with Him who seeth in secret and is best seen in secret. The solitude is for the purpose of being alone, with One who can fully impress us with His presence only when there is no other presence to divert our thought. The place of seclusion with God is the one school where we learn that He is, and is the rewarder of those that diligently seek Him. As Dr. Plummer used to say, the closet is “not only the oratory, it is the observatory,’’ not for prayer only but for prospect — the wide-reaching, clear-seeing outlook upon the eternal! The decline of prayer is the decay of piety; when prayer ceases altogether, there is spiritual death, for prayer is the breath of life to every child of God.

To keep in close touch with God in the secret chamber of His presence, is the great underlying purpose of prayer. To speak with God is a priceless privilege; but what shall be said of having and hearing Him speak with us! We can tell Him nothing He does not know; but He can tell us what no imagination has ever conceived, no research ever unveiled. The highest of all possible attainments is the knowledge of God, and this is the practical mode of His revelation of Himself. Even His holy word needs to be read in the light of the closet, if it is understood. “And when Moses was gone into the tabernacle of the congregation to speak with Him, then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that to as upon the ark of testimony, — from between the two cherubims, and he spoke Unto him.” Nu. vii. 89. And, where there is this close touch with God, and this clear insight into His name which is His nature, and into His word which is His will made known, there will be a new power to walk with Him in holiness and work with Him in service. “He made known His ways unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel.” The mass of the people stood afar off and saw His deeds, like the overthrowing of Pharaoh’s hosts in the Red Sea; but Moses drew near into the thick darkness where God was; and in that thick darkness he found a light such as never shone elsewhere, and in that light he read God’s secret plans and purposes, and interpreted His wondrous ways of working.

All practical


depends on closet communion. Those who abide in the secret place with God show themselves mighty to conquer evil, and strong to work and to war for God. They are the seers who read His secrets; they know His will; they are the meek whom He guides in judgment and teaches His way. They are His prophets, who speak for Him to others, and even forecast things to come. They watch the signs of the times and discern His tokens and read His signals. We sometimes count as mystics those who, like Savonarola and Catharine of Siena, claim to have communications from God; to have revelations of a definite plan of God for His Church, or for themselves as individuals, like the reformer of Erfurt, the founder of the Bristol orphanages, or the leader of the China Inland Mission. But may it not be that we stumble at these experiences because we do not have them ourselves? Have not many of these men and women proved by their lives that they were not mistaken, and that God has led them by a way that no other eye could trace?

But there is another reason for close contact with the living God in prayer — a reason that rises perhaps to a still higher level. Prayer not only puts us in touch with God, and gives knowledge of Him and His ways, but it imparts to us His power. It is a touch which brings virtue out of Him. It is a hand upon the pole of a celestial battery, and it makes us charged with His secret life, energy, and efficiency.

Things which are impossible with man are possible with God, and with a man in whom God is. Prayer is the secret of imparted power from God, and nothing else can take its place. Absolute weakness follows the neglect of secret communion with God — and the weakness is the more deplorable, because it is often unsuspected, especially when it has never yet been known by us what true power is. We see men of prayer quietly achieving results of the most surprising character. They have the calm of God, no hurry, or worry, or flurry; no anxiety or care, no excitement or bustle — they do great things for God, yet they are little in their own eyes; they carry great loads, and yet are not weary nor faint; they face great crises, and yet are not troubled. And those who know not what treasures of wisdom and strength and courage and power are hidden in God’s pavilion, wonder how it is — they try to account for all this by something in the man, or his talent, or tact, or favoring circumstances. Perhaps they try to imitate such a career by securing the patronage of the rich and mighty, or by dependence on organization, or fleshly energy — or what men call “determination to succeed” — they bustle about, labor incessantly, appeal for money and cooperation, and work out an apparent success, but there is none of that Power of God in it which can not be imitated. They compass themselves about with sparks, but there is no fire of God; they build up a great structure, but it is wood, hay, stubble; they make a great noise, but God is not in the clamor. Like a certain preacher who confessed that, when he felt no kindling of inspired thought and feeling, he walked up and down the pulpit, and shouted with all his might — they make up for the lack of divine unction and action by carnal confidence and vehemence. There is a show of energy, resolution, endeavor, and often of results, but behind all this a lamentable and nameless deficiency.

Nothing is at once so undisputable and so overawing as the way in which a few men of God live in Him and He in them. The fact is, that, in the disciple’s life, the fundamental law is “not I, but Christ in me.” In a grandly true sense there is but one Worker, one agent, and He divine; and all other so-called “workers “ are instruments only in His hands- The first quality of a true instrument is passivity. An active instrument would defeat its own purpose; all its activity must be dependent upon the man who uses it. Sometimes a machine becomes uncontrollable, and then it not only becomes useless, but it works damage and disaster. What would a man do with a plane, a knife, an axe, a bow, that had any will of its own and moved of itself? Does it mean nothing when, in the Word of God, we meet so frequent symbols of passive service — the rod, the staff, the saw, the hammer, the sword, the spear, the thrashing instrument, the flail, and in the New Testament the vessel? Does it not mean that a willful man God can not use; that the first condition of service is that my will is to be so lost in God’s as that it presents no resistance to His and no persistence beyond or apart from His, no assistance to His. George Mailer well says that we are to wait to know whether a certain work is God’s; then whether it is ours, as being committed to us; but even then we need to wait for God’s way and God’s time to do His own work, otherwise we rush precipitately into that which he means us to do, but only at His signal, or we go on doing when He calls a halt. Many a true servant of God has, like Moses, begun before his Master was ready, or kept on working when his Master’s time was past.


There is one aspect of prayer to which particular attention needs to be called, because it is strongly emphasized in the Word, and because it is least used in our daily life; we mean intercession.

This word, and what underlies it, has a very unique use and meaning in Scripture. It differs from supplication, first in this, that supplication has mainly reference to the suppliant and his own supply; and again because intercession not only concerns others but largely implies the need of direct divine interposition. There are many prayers that allow our cooperation in their answer, and imply our activity. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we go to work to earn the bread for which we pray. That is God’s law. When we ask God to deliver us from the evil one, we expect to be sober and vigilant, and resist the adversary. This is right; but our activity in many matters hinders the full display of God’s power, and hence so our impression of His working. And the deepest convictions of God’s prayer-answering are wrought in cases where we are in the nature of things precluded from all activity in promoting the result.

*It will, therefore, be seen that the objection which often hinders our praying, or praying in confidence of results — namely, that we are entirely helpless to effect any result — is


and when such praying is answered, the evidence of God’s working is irresistible. It is when we are in trouble and refuge fails us, when we are at our wits’ end, that it becomes plain that He saves us out of our distresses. Unbelief is always ready to suggest that it is not a strange thing if a prayer for the conversion of another is answered, when we have been bending every energy toward the winning of a soul; and we find it very hard to say how far the result is traceable to God and how far to man. But when one can do nothing but cry to God, and yet He works mightily to save, unbelief is silenced, or compelled to confess, this is the finger of God.

The Word of God teaches us that intercession with God is most necessary in cases where man is powerless. Elijah is held before us as a great intercessor and the one example given in his prayer for rain. Yet in this case he could only pray. There was nothing else he could do to unlock the heavens after three years and a half of drought. And is there not a touch of divine poetry in the form in which the answer came? The rising cloud took the shape of “a man’s hand,” as though to assure the prophet how God saw and heeded the suppliant hand raised to Him in prayer! Daniel was powerless to move the king or reverse his decree; all he could do was to “desire mercies of the God of heaven concerning the secret;” and it was because he could do nothing else, could not even guess at the interpretation when he knew not even the dream — that it was absolutely sure that God had interposed, and so even the heathen king himself saw and felt and confessed. All through history certain crises have arisen when the help of man was vain. To the formal Christian, the carnal disciple, the unbelieving soul, this fact, that there was nothing that man could do, makes prayer seem almost a folly, perhaps a farce, a waste of breath. But to those who best know God, man’s extremity is God’s opportunity, and human helplessness is the argument for praying. Invariably those whose faith in prayer is supernaturally strong, are those who have most proved that God has wrought by their own conscious compulsory cessation of all their own effort as vain and hopeless.

George Müller set out to prove to a half -believing church and an unbelieving world that


and to do this he abstained from all the ordinary methods of appeal, or of active effort to secure the housing, clothing, and feeding of thousands of orphans. Hudson Taylor undertook to put missionaries into Inland China, by dependence solely upon God. He not only asks no collections, but refuses them in connection with public meetings. He and his co-workers are accustomed to lay all wants before the Lord, whether of men or money, and expect the answer, and it comes. The study of missionary history reveals the fact that, at the very times when, in utter despair of any help but God’s, there has been believing prayer, the interposition of God has been most conspicuously seen — how could it be most conspicuous except amid such conditions?

One of the most encouraging tokens of God’s moving in our days is, therefore, what, for lack of any better terms, we have called the revival of the prayer-spirit. This is very noticeable in the numerous “prayer circles” and “prayer covenants,” which have been formed within ten years past. In Great Britain particularly, intercession has been unusually emphasized of late. The Keswick movement has been more conspicuous for prayer than for anything else. The whole atmosphere of the convention has been laden with its fragrance, and the intervals between the meetings are very largely filled up with private supplications, or with smaller gatherings of two or three or more who seek further converse with God. There are organizations for prayer alone — some whose members do not know each other, or meet in common assemblies, but whose only bond is a covenant of daily supplication for one another and for objects of mutual interest. Anyone who will read the two volumes in which is told that wonderful story of the China Inland Mission, will find that beyond all else believing prayer is brought to the front, as the condition of all success. It fell to the writer of this paper to spend some weeks at the Mission Home, in London. From morning till night there was one sacrifice of praise and prayer, and at least once a week, with the map of China in full sight, the various missionaries and stations are mentioned by name, individually, the peculiar circumstances being made known, which incite to earnest, sympathetic supplication. And thus, both in larger and smaller circles of prayer, the spirit of intercession has a marked revival.

This is doubtless the most hopeful signal apparent above the horizon, and it is a signal calling God’s people to a new life of unselfish and believing prayer. Every church ought to be a prayer circle; but this will not be, while we are waiting for the whole body to move together. The mass of professing Christians have too little hold on God to enter into such holy agreement. May the writer venture a suggestion — the fruit of long and prayerful thought — to his brethren in the ministry, and to all who yearn for a revival of the prayer-spirit? It is this, that


be formed, without any regard to numbers. Let the pastor unite with himself any man or woman in whom he discerns peculiar spiritual life and power, and without publicity or any effort to enlarge the little company, begin to lay before God any matter demanding special divine guidance and help. Without any public invitation — which might only draw unprepared people into a formal association — it will be found that the Holy Spirit will enlarge the circle as He fits others, or finds others fit, to enter it — and thus quietly and without observation the little company of praying souls will grow as fast as God means it shall. Let a record be kept of every definite petition laid before God — such a prayer circle should be only with reference to very definite matters — and as God interposes, let the record of his interposition be carefully kept, and become a new inspiration to believing prayer. Such a resort to united intercession would transform a whole church, remove dissensions, rectify errors, secure harmony and unity, and promote Holy Ghost administration and spiritual life and growth, beyond all other possible devices. If in any church the pastor is not a man who could or would lead in such a movement, let two or three, who feel the need, meet and begin by prayer for him. In this matter there should be no waiting for anybody else; if there be but one believer who has power with God, let such a one begin intercessory prayer. God will bring to the side of such an intercessor others whom He has made ready to act as supplicators.

Not long since, in a church in Scotland, a minister suddenly began to preach with unprecedented power. The whole congregation was aroused and sinners marvelously saved. He himself did not understand the new enduement. In a dream of the night it was strangely suggested to him that the whole blessing was traceable to one poor old woman who was stone deaf, but who came regularly to church, and being unable to hear a word, spent all the time in prayer for the preacher and individual hearers. In the biography of C. G. Finney similar facts are recorded of “Father Nash,” Abel Cleary, and others. In 1896 I met in Newport, England, a praying circle of twelve men, who had met for twenty-five years every Saturday night to pray for definite blessings. Not a death had occurred in their number during the whole quarter century. The first impulse leading to this weekly meeting was interest in Mr. Spurgeon’s ministry. They felt that with his great access to men he had need of peculiar power from above, and on the Sabbath following their first meeting, he began to preach with such increased unction as attracted general notice. Examples might be multiplied indefinitely. But the one thing we would make prominent is this: that above all else, God is calling His people to new prayer. He wills that “men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting;” that, of all, “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men.” And if this be done, first of all, every other most blessed result will follow. God waits to be asked. He has the fountains of blessing which he puts at the disposal of his praying saints. They are sealed fountains to the ungodly and the unbelieving. But there is one Key that unlocks even heaven’s gates; one secret that puts connecting channels between those eternal fountains and ourselves, that key, that secret, is prevailing prayer.

In London an enterprising newspaper has a private wire connecting with Edinburgh, in order to command the latest freshest news from the Scottish Athens. One night the clerk, who was out to collect local items, returned late and could not get in — he had forgotten to take his night-key. He thought a moment. It was of no use to knock at the door — the only fellow-clerk in the building was too far away to hear him. He stepped to a neighboring telegraph office and sent a message to Edinburgh; “Tell that I am at the street door and cannot get in.’’ In twenty minutes the door was unfastened and he was at his desk in the office. The shortest way to get at the man in the fourth story was by Edinburgh, How long will it take us to learn that our shortest route to the man next door is by way of God’s throne! God has no greater controversy with his people today than this, that, with boundless promises to believing prayer, there are so few who actually give themselves unto intercession.

A. T. Pierson, "Spiritual Movements of the Half-Century, Missionary" Review of the World, 1898