“The vital breath of the church”: Prayer, personalism and spiritual power in the thought of G. H. Morling

Prayer, worship and intimacy with God feature strongly in George Henry Morling’s evangelical approach to spirituality.

In a diary entry dated 19 August 1928, Morling famously states, “There must be a very strong stand taken for doctrinal-experimental truth.”[1] His commitment to this principle prompted him to seek a balance between what he viewed as rival extremes of dry intellectualism and impulsive fanaticism in the life of the church.

For example, Morling writes in an article in The Australian Baptist in 1937, in relation to personal qualities that make for a good Baptist minister, “Too often the culture of the educated man needs warming and empowering, while the enthusiasm of the zealot needs controlling” (doc 150:2). 

In a similar vein, his 1940 Principal’s report to the Annual Assembly of the Baptist Union of NSW states:

We are acutely conscious that theological learning is not always consistent with religious effectiveness. The church has ever with it the danger of pride of reason, the intolerance of the intellect which is just as great as the intolerance of ignorance, and the coldness of heart, which absorption in books only too readily begets. We humbly hope that our realisation of the danger is a safeguard against it.[2]

This article explores the ways in which Morling’s commitment to “doctrinal-experimental truth” influenced his approach to the Christian practice of prayer.[3]

In his lecture notes on the doctrine of God, Morling assigns three pages to prayer (doc 92:20-22). Humans, he says, have always prayed, even those associated with Buddhism and Confucianism, which he regarded as philosophical rather than religious traditions (doc 92:20).[4] The Bible, too, encourages the practice of prayer, in the context of a personal relationship with God. Thus, Morling observes, 

Abraham, Moses and others spoke with God in prayer as a man speaks with his friend. The Psalms are full of earnest and triumphant supplication. The Lord taught His disciples to come to God in prayer as children to a father who is able and ready to help them (80:62).

For Morling, the Psalms “give us a model of true prayer” (doc 13:1). He notes the intimacy expressed between Jesus and God in the Gospels (e.g., Mt 6:5ff, 25ff; Jn 12:37f; 17:1ff). In 1947 (perhaps written earlier), he presented five lectures at the Bible School of the Baptist Theological College of NSW titled, “Studies in the prayer life of our Lord” (doc 24), in which he highlighted the human need for prayer expressed by Jesus, his prayer habits, his present intercessory ministry, the fruits of Jesus’ prayers, their relation to the will of God, the contribution made by prayer to the “perfect reposefulness” of Jesus, and the ways in which prayer requires and produces faith (doc 24:1-8). 

In various places, Morling comments on “Paul’s great Prayer” in Ephesians 3:14-19. Reflecting on that passage, and his favourite theological theme, he states that the secret to intimacy with God is an awareness of the mystical union of the believer with Christ (doc 38:99). Such an awareness leads naturally to prayerfulness. In document 38, Morling speaks of preparation for the indwelling of Christ in the believer, the nature of the available spiritual power, the sphere of its operation (“the inner man”), the divine agency (the Holy Spirit), the indwelling itself (cf Eph 3:17), the conception of Christ involved, and the development and climax of the prayer with doxology (doc 38:98-103). 

Prayer is, for Morling, an ordinary, practical aspect of life in Christ, but also a profound privilege that one should not take for granted. On the invitation to “draw near to God” (Heb 10:22), employing the Old Testament imagery of that epistle, he observes, “What a glory it is to pray when, consciously, we have entered within the veil and stood within the Holiest in the Presence of Him Who is at once Holy God and Loving Father” (doc 103:338). He notes that the promise of the return of Christ presents an opportunity for “prayerful expectancy” (doc 55:96; cf Mt 24:42; Mk 13:33). 

On Colossians 2:9, Morling speaks of the hunger of “an ever increasing capacity for God which is progressively satisfied” (doc 82:83). In his allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, commenting in 1948 on Song 2:9, he remarks, “You will find that the love of the heart for Jesus will be greatly enriched if, in the secret place, with reverence and complete sincerity, there can be directed to the Divine Lover of our souls, words akin to those of this maiden whose heart overflows with love” (doc 12a:5). 

Similarly, commenting on Song 5:16, he writes, “The loving soul does more than admire Christ. It worships and adores him. Let prayer pass beyond mere meditation into the direct contemplation and adoration of the risen Christ” (doc 13:8). In The Quest for Serenity, Morling suggests that inner serenity is achieved through the spiritual discipline he terms “the way of inwardness,” which implies “a constant returning to the centre.”[5] He goes on:

We cannot really pray unless we are consciously in God’s presence. Perhaps you have found it difficult to gain this sense of God. I suggest that you adopt this method. Remembering that God is ever coming to His children, do not strain to draw God out of a seemingly silent heaven. Instead simply let your heart go out towards Him and wait confidently for Him to come to you. Don’t try to find God. Let yourself be found of Him.[6]

Prayer is also integral to discerning the will of God. In his notes on “Living in the will of God,” on divine guidance for vocational decisions, Morling invokes the proverb “iron sharpens iron” (Prov 27:17), and emphasises the benefits of collegiality and Christian fellowship. He adds,

I can make no wiser suggestion than this to anyone really concerned about discovering the will of God. Call together a few of your choicest Christian friends. Put your case to them. Pray together in an unhurried manner, seeking the mind of Christ. I do not doubt but that clear guidance will be given (doc 147:195).

Morling also discusses prayer through a theological lens, hoping to facilitate “accurate thinking” that will “encourage and strengthen devotion” (doc 92:20). The lens he selects is Boston personalism, as outlined by American Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins, who in turn relied on the American philosopher, preacher and theologian Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910).[7] Morling asserts that prayer presupposes a personalist worldview. 

Personalism, the Christian philosophy that later inspired Martin Luther King, Jr (1929-1968) to work for justice and peace, affirms divine transcendence and immanence, generally interprets the known universe as “spirit,” and holds that God is at work in the world and in human history to fulfil his purposes.[8] Personalism is a form of transcendental empiricism holding that:

    • ultimate reality is a Person (i.e., God);
    • we as the creation of this divine Person are true persons; 
    • we are endowed with freedom;
    • the divine Person is working out a purpose in human society; 
    • the goal of history is a perfect society of men and women in fellowship with God.[9]

Moreover, as Mullins points out, personalism is a philosophy based on fact and experience; the human will is a first cause, in relational terms, and not the result of transformation of external force; God can make known to us the contents of his will; and God is the most free of all beings, and in making humans in his own image he makes them free. 

Further, “since man is the crown of nature we must assume that he is its end and goal.” In an impersonal universe, “every edifice of human culture and higher civilization falls in ruins”; “the whole fabric of human thought collapses”; “all moral attainment ceases to have meaning or value”; and “man’s religious life becomes empty of all meaning.”[10] It is unclear to what extent Morling may have embraced personalism as a philosophy of life, but he was uncritical of its use by Mullins in his treatment of “Modern worldviews.”

Despite the spiritual optimism expressed in personalism, Morling laments the general retreat of God-consciousness, evidence for which he believed he saw in Australian society and elsewhere. Faced with a loss of desire to pray, he says “it is easily possible to adopt a pose of intellectual embarrassment when the real difficulty is moral, a failure to be willing to accept the consequences of what belief implies” (doc 92:20). He addresses what he saw as three objections to prayer common in his time. 

First, if God is omniscient and benevolent, why must we petition him? In response, Morling notes that Jesus petitioned God in prayer; and “prayer is necessary not in order that the Heavenly Father might be induced to give us His good things but in order that we might be able to receive them” (doc 92:21). 

Second, on the question of how answered prayer can be consistent with the inexorable reign of physical laws, Morling states that God adapts scientific laws to his purposes; that God is immanent and not a “deistic absentee”; and that “God as personal can never limit himself to impersonal action.” Here Morling quotes American Protestant minister Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) at length, who says, inter alia, “The whole analogy of human experience suggests that the world is not governed by law: but that it is governed by God according to law” (doc 92:21).

Third, it may be claimed that prayer is a form of auto-suggestion, a fantasy by which “prayer and worship are simply the means whereby an illusion is fixed ever more firmly in men’s minds” (doc 92:22). In response, Morling quotes British philosopher Laurence W. Grensted (1884-1964) at length, who claims that auto-suggestion itself is a mystery, and “if suggestibility and faith are intermingled, faith is not thereby shamed or stultified thereby any more than man is shamed or his adult personality rendered unreal by the fact that he was once a child and that he never, in this life, wholly put away childish things” (doc 92:22).[11]

Morling also quotes American scholar and Presbyterian minister George A. Buttrick (1892-1980), who asserts that auto-suggestion is not an inner spring but “the hidden channel of a river with far objective sources.” For Buttrick, auto-suggestion is a form of prayer: “If a man suggests God to himself, presumably that august idea also had its fount beyond the pool of [the] man’s own life” (doc 92:22).[12]

Commenting on the uplifting words of Paul in Ephesians 3:14-19, Morling quotes French Protestant preacher Adolphe Monod (1802-1856), whose confidence and optimism with respect to prayer was contagious and resonated with Morling the preacher, pastor and scholar:

Nothing can restrain or bind the power of God toward us; nothing in Him, not even in us, no limits set to his power, for it knows no limits; not even the weakness of our prayers, and the imperfections of our knowledge, for He is able to transcend all our demands and all our conceptions (doc 38:103).

For Morling, prayer is nothing less than direct communion with God, the primary way in which union with Christ was expressed. It is clear that Morling was sustained, strengthened and inspired through private prayer. He lived, according to his students, in an almost constant attitude verging on prayer, even in the midst of formal lectures. 

Morling saw prayer as not only essential to personal emotional health, spiritual vitality and ministry effectiveness, but also vital to the corporate expression of “doctrinal-experimental truth” in the life of the church. In his estimation,

The practice of prayer was ‘the vital breath’ of the early church … If the Word of God is the food which nourishes the soul, and Christian activity is the exercise which it requires, then prayer is the atmosphere which it is to breathe (doc 80:62f).

If one could claim that Morling’s adult life was shaped by any single practice, it would be that he was shaped by a life of prayer. It was arguably this profound spiritual quality, humbly and warmly expressed, that most endeared him to others within the evangelical community, guaranteed his professional survival in the dangerous world of NSW Baptist politics, and gave him the unusual title of “Baptist mystic.”

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book. This article draws on research undertaken for, but not included in, the author’s PhD thesis.


References

[1] E. Ron Rogers, “Morling, George Henry,” in Brian Dickey (ed.), The Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography (Sydney: Evangelical History Association, 1994), 268.

[2]      Rogers, George Henry Morling, 158f; BUNSW Year Book 1939-40, 83.

[3] Document numbers in the text relate to the author’s personal collection of primary sources on G. H. Morling. For more information contact the author.

[4] Here Morling directs students to the Prologue of the book, Hear My Prayer: A Book to Help You Pray (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938), various contributors.

[5] G. H. Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1965), 70.

[6] Ibid., 71, original emphasis.

[7] E. Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion, 112-120; see also Borden P. Bowne, Personalism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908). 

[8] Ibid., pp. 113-120.

[9] Mullins, The Christian Religion, 112f.

[10] Ibid., pp. 119-120.

[11] Laurence W. Grensted, Psychology and God: A Study of the Implications of Recent Psychology for Religious Belief and Practice (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1936), pages unknown.

[12] George A. Buttrick, So We Believe, So We Pray (New York: Abingdon Press, 1951), pages unknown.

Image source: Church Times