Praying Payson Of Portland, Maine
This is the second of four biographies on important Christian leaders that ministered during the Second Great Awakening (approximately 1790–1840). The last column highlighted Charles Simeon of Cambridge.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference designed to help pastors deepen their preaching skills. The keynote speaker was a national authority on preaching. Throughout his lectures he quoted Edward Payson (1783–1827) of Portland, Maine. I had also read Payson’s works and had been deeply blessed. I was delighted to meet someone who appreciated this great servant of God. After the conference, we discussed our mutual appreciation of Payson’s life and writings.
Although Edward Payson is largely forgotten today, he was well-known in the first half of the 19th century. According to Iain Murray, Payson’s biography by Asa Cummings “was probably the most influential ministerial biography to appear in the United States in the first half of the 19th century.”1 His popularity was so great that thousands of 19th-century parents named their children after him.2
Who was Edward Payson; why was he important; and what can we learn from his life and the times in which he lived?
In 1783, Edward Payson was born to Seth Payson, a congregational pastor in Rindge, New Hampshire. From an early age, his unusual intelligence was evident. By age 4, he was a proficient reader. Like most great preachers, Payson’s “thirst for knowledge was the ruling passion of his soul.”3 This thirst was evident in his childhood.
When he was 17, his father enrolled him at Harvard as a sophomore (he skipped his freshman year). He graduated in 1803 at age 20. His classmates ridiculed him for his voracious reading. They said in jest that he had read every book in the Harvard library.
The death of his brother in 1804 ignited his conversion. It was a decisive change for the 21-year-old. Payson wrote his mother about his new relationship with Christ, “I am so happy, that I cannot possibly think nor write of anything else.”4
Convinced that God had called him to the ministry, he began the rigorous spiritual disciplines that would eventually produce such a great harvest. He started the discipline of rising early for prayer and Scripture reading. He immersed himself in books like Jonathan Edwards’ treatise on Original Sin and The Freedom of the Will, preparing himself single-mindedly for the calling that he so keenly felt.
He also began the prayer life that later made him famous. “He prayed without ceasing,” wrote his biographer.5 He “studied theology on his knees. Much of his time he spent literally prostrated, with the Bible open before him, pleading the promises.”6
Payson began to perceive his sinfulness at this point in his life. A typical diary entry reads: “Never appeared so exceedingly vile and loathsome to myself as I did this day. … I felt like sinking into the dust, in the idea that His pure eye was fixed upon me, and that saints and angels saw how vile I was.”7
In 1807, he began a pastoral relationship with the Congregational Church in Portland, Maine, where he served until his death in 1827. Such grace and power attended his preaching that three Congregational societies asked this 24-year-old to become their pastor. One even offered to build a new church for the multitudes that waited to hear his preaching. A typical entry in Payson’s diary during this time reads: “Was not much assisted myself, but what was said seemed to come with power. Many were in tears, and all seemed stirred up; so that, though I went crushed down under discouragement, I came back rejoicing.”8
In 1811, at age 28, he married Ann Louisa Shipman, who bore him eight children. Their family was a model of Christian godliness and was admired throughout New England.
Payson was an effective soul-winner. Unlike many churches today, his congregation did not grow primarily by disgruntled Christians transferring from across town. He also did not consider a person to be converted on the basis of his testimony alone. Rather, Payson, like other pastors of his generation, waited until the novice began to show signs of spiritual fruit. Only then did they consider a person converted and admit him to the Communion table.
With these strict guidelines in mind, in September of 1809, he wrote his mother, “Last Communion, we admitted 11 to the church, and next Sabbath we shall admit 12 more.” He went on, “The appetite for hearing seems insatiable, and our assemblies are more crowded than ever. Many have lately joined us.”9 This was typical of his experience. During the 20 years of his ministry, his church received more than 700 new converts.
What was the secret of Payson’s success? The first reason for his success was prayer. At 26, he notes in his diary, “Was enabled to agonize in prayer for myself and [my] people, and to make intercession with unutterable groanings.”10 He was nicknamed “Praying Payson.” It has been said that the wooden floor at his bedside was worn by his knees from his often prevailing.11
The second reason for his success was his emphasis on preaching. Payson believed the proclamation of God’s Word was his primary job. To this end, he labored in God’s Word and prayer many hours each day. Administration and counseling did not distract him until his time with God was satisfied.
The third reason why he became a successful evangelist was he preached with great passion. Although he preached with great love and affection, he always sought, like Charles Simeon, “to rouse and humble, rather than to comfort them; for, if they can be kept humble, comfort will follow.”12
As his preaching reputation grew, he received numerous invitations to preach in neighboring New England churches. Then offers began to come from larger, more prestigious churches in cities like New York, but Payson refused them all. Ambitious for God, not money or prestige, he remained loyal to the flock God had entrusted to his care.
After his death, many tried to explain the power behind his preaching. “It was the eloquence of truth spoken in love,” noted his biographer. “The words seemed to come from his mouth encompassed by that glowing atmosphere in which they left the heart, and to brand their very impression in every heart on which they fell.”13 The Christian Spectatorwrotethat he spoke “as if from actual observation … as if [he] had seen with his own eyes the spiritual objects he described — that he had heard from Christ.”14 Every preacher who has been greatly used by God has had a similar reputation. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones noted that great preachers speak as witnesses. They testify to what they have seen and heard, not to what others have told them.
God did not favor Payson with a long life. In his early 40s his health began to fail. He suffered in great pain for several months. As his suffering grew so did his joy in God. He lost the use of his limbs. Although he was confined to bed and in great pain, the joy of the Holy Spirit inundated him. “I can find no words to express my happiness,” he wrote a friend. “I seem to be swimming in a river of pleasure, which is carrying me on to the great fountain.”15 He died in the spring of 1827.
Today’s Christian leader can learn many lessons from Edward Payson. The first lesson is the need for the power of a deep experiential union with Christ. Payson enjoyed great pulpit power because he spent much time in prayer and Bible study. Through these disciplines God spoke, and to the degree that God spoke Payson’s preaching was infused with spiritual power.
Payson’s humility enhanced his relationship with God. He was well acquainted with his sin and therefore, by extension, God’s love. Because Payson was so weak in his own eyes, God’s power was safe in his hands (2 Corinthians 13:4). A fellow minister, who knew Payson well, wrote: “In all my conversation with this wonderful man, I never heard him utter a word that bordered on boasting, or savored of pride; but he seemed to have a surprising sense of his own unworthiness, and of the amazing love of God in making himself known to him. And giving him a hope in his mercy.”16
The second lesson we learn from Payson is the importance of spiritual reading. A quick glance over church history reveals that great leaders are usually great readers. Certainly Payson exemplifies this principle. We will impact our generation to the degree we cultivate our mind, by immersing ourselves in solid Christian books that provoke our love for God and our sense of personal need.
The third lesson we learn from Payson is the proper role of a pastor. Payson would be uncomfortable with the contemporary ceo pastoral model. Although he faithfully administered his church, it was a necessary burden. He gave precedence to the real work — prayer and the ministry of God’s Word (Acts 6:4). His biographer claims that Payson spent 12 hours a day in study and 2 hours in prayer.17 Payson believed this was the pastoral work that brought the results he longed for.
Finally, Payson’s life reminds us of the importance of prayer. His reputation as a man of prayer earned him the appellation of “Praying Payson of Portland” given him by his peers. In our last issue we learned that Charles Simeon, a contemporary of Payson, felt every minister needed three qualities — humility, humility, and humility. Payson’s advice to his fellow ministers grew from the same root. “Prayer is the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing. … Pray, then, my dear brother, pray, pray,” he told a friend.
Comparing the spiritual fervor of Payson’s era with that of today, Iain Murray writes, “what marked them [Payson and his peers] most was their low views of themselves.”18 Murray then notes how this great sense of poverty propelled them into prayer. He quotes Payson as an example, “Earnestness in prayer … requires a true view of oneself: You cannot make a rich man beg like a poor man; you cannot make a man that is full cry for food like one that is hungry. ”19 Needy people pray. Humility motivates prayer: self-sufficiency hinders it. Payson’s great sense of need and personal bankruptcy led him to the prolonged prayer that was the source of his spiritual power.
Of Payson, E.M. Bounds wrote, “His continuing instant in prayer, be his circumstances what they might, is the most noticeable fact in his history, and points out the duty of all who would rival his eminency. To his ardent and persevering prayers must no doubt be ascribed in a great measure his distinguished and almost uninterrupted success.”
The Complete Works of Edward Paysonare available in three volumes.20 His biography and sermons are rich and illuminating. The clarity and quality of his prose is comparable to that of Charles Spurgeon, and his theology is rich and deep. One admirer has written, “His sermons are easy to read and the reader comes away with a clearer view of our Lord and God. After reading one sermon, you will have a hard time finding an equal who can communicate God’s truths in such a gentle method, yet so powerfully.”21
I encourage you to find out more about Edward Payson. His life and spirituality are a tonic for today’s busy spiritual leader. You will not be disappointed — History is His Story.
- Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 194.
- A Google search for “Edward Payson” is convincing. Many 19th-century Americans had Edward Payson as their first and middle names.
- Edward Payson, The Complete Works of Edward Payson, Vol. 1, (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1846. Reprint, 1987), 20.
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 79.
- Ibid., 79.
- Ibid., 91.
- Ibid., 132.
- Ibid., 186.
- Ibid., 189.
- See http://www.watchword.org/smithers/ww36a.html
- Edward, Works, 250.
- Ibid., 446.
- Ibid., 447.
- Ibid., 409.
- Ibid., 297.
- Asa Cummings, A Memoir of the Rev. Edward Payson(New York: American Tract Society, 1830), 75.
- Murray, 218–220.
- Ibid., 219.
- See the edition by Sprinkle Press, Harrisonburg, Pa.
- See http://www.intercom.net/~hisalone/