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“…we do not know how to pray as we ought…” -Romans 8:26

Paul’s admission here comforts me, given the variety of ways my prayers tend to be thwarted—by distraction, desperation, or general confusion. When I read it, I picture someone wholly sympathetic, albeit lacking in wisdom or courage—struggling to discern God’s will, to align her desires with God’s. The Spirit graciously bridges the gap between her goodwill and that elusive work of God’s.

When I ponder my imperfect prayers, I don’t get down to specifics. I don’t tend to scrutinize my past petitions, to consider whether or how far they have veered from God’s desire as we know it in scripture. I keep no tally of wrongs. Instead, I treat the Spirit’s intercession as a blanket insurance policy—no need to know how or when, just that the Spirit makes up for my imperfections at praying. It’s the general principle that matters, not the details.

Lately, however, my satisfaction with the general principle has been unsettled. My thoughts on Paul’s realism about prayer have been challenged by one historical account of a particular set of prayers gone horribly wrong: those of slave-holding mistresses in the antebellum south.  

My theology students and I have been reading Lauren Winner’s devastating work, The Dangers of Christian Practice. In it, Winner, who is an Episcopal priest as well as a church historian and professor at Duke Divinity School, examines past moments when Christian practices became both distorted and distorting. Her middle chapter examines the downfall of prayer as an exponent of the deformed Christianity of white slaveholders.

Keziah Brevard

Winner recounts the ways that prayer intersected with the slave economy. She takes a close look at the prayer journal of the slaveholder Keziah Brevard. Sometimes Brevard prays that God will correct or admonish those she enslaves within her household. Sometimes she prays that God will damn them for the temerity to thwart her wishes. Often, she simply prays that God will cool her temper and grant her patience—patience to participate in a cruel system of hers and others making. 

The latter is an example of how prayer was used by slave-mistresses to achieve the mild demeanor expected of them despite the violence that slaveholding entailed.​ In this way, prayer was directed at concealing the fact that slavery produced violence (thereby propping up the lie that slavery brought about contentment). Keziah Brevard’s prayers served the system of slavery, therefore, by ingraining her more deeply within it. 

My interest is not primarily in the question, What do we do with the violence and sin of Christians past? — important as that question is. Like Winner, I’m interested in what the history of spotted spirituality implies for our own spiritual lives, and what we do about that. 

What can we say about the vicious prayers that Christians sometimes pray? 

My students have been energized by questions worthy of their investigation. They ask, with Winner, whether Brevard’s prayers, so out of keeping with Jesus’ good news to the outcasts, ought to be discounted as prayers. That her prayers were vicious and self-deluding, none doubt. Many of them voice Brevard’s exasperation in the face of the intractability of fellow human beings who owed her nothing. Were Brevard’s prayers—well, prayers?

My students disagree with each other on this one. On the one hand are those who take her point that surely Brevard’s sin-seeped heart is not different in kind from ours, and so, it is likely that she poured her heart out in response to a genuine relationship with God, even if her God was part idol. Perhaps, then, her prayers were really prayers, but prayers perverted from their true function. 

On the other hand, I have equally intelligent students who insist that there is something self-contradictory in our definition of prayer if we imagine that prayer—given us by God for aligning our wishes and desires toward God’s will—might include forms that drag us further away from God. Brevard’s pleas for a contorted arrangement of power between herself and the humans she lived with cloaked with the garb of religiosity was not prayer at all. They were merely “prayer-like,” that is, semblances of prayer. 

Lauren Winner

For her part, Winner insists that the prayers of Keziah Brevard ‘count’ as prayers, that they, in fact, teach us something about the innate difficulty of prayer. It simultaneously opens us to God’s activity while also inviting us to present our inevitably malformed desires to God, sometimes calcifying those same desires. 

I confess, I’m not sure which instincts are correct. In one respect, however, whether we count these petitions as true prayers or merely “prayer-like” doesn’t matter, because either way, these women believed they were praying. They believed they were responding to a righteous God who had drawn them outside of themselves. They also believed, damningly, that this God wanted a world carved up by hierarchies of skin color, where some were entitled to exact labor from others and to enforce this arrangement through violence and other dehumanizing means. 

What about the vicious prayers we also, surely, sometimes pray? Prayers that prop up the harmful cultural ideologies in which we naively take part? Prayers that solidify self-serving lies about ourselves and the society we inhabit?

And what if we read Paul’s confession in this light? Perhaps there are prayer-like utterances utterly bereft of the Spirit’s grace. Perhaps. But surely there are also real responses to God that are themselves a disturbing mixture of evil and grace. How is the Spirit at work reforming these prayers, “interceding” for the saint qua sinner “according to the will of God”? 

Relying on the Spirit’s-intercession-as-insurance-policy spares me from recognizing the consequences of my evil desires. But perhaps the Spirit sometimes works by awakening me to them? This awakening will entail taking a harder look at the damage caused by the malformed prayers of my own and my exemplars of the faith. 

Most prayer anthologies are filled with prayers that we would like to emulate and make our own, but Winner envisions a different kind of anthology, which “would include not only prayers to be respoken but also prayers to diagnose our crookedness and chasten us for it” (91), among them the misguided prayers of slave mistresses praying for the obedience of their slaves. That is a book I need on my shelf. 

Source: Lauren Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Cambria Kaltwasser

Cambria Kaltwasser is assistant professor of theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, and a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Her research focuses on the doctrine of humanity, sanctification, and Christian hope.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is good. This morning I prayed Psalm 58, and therefore prayed violent, self-righteous words, thoughts I reject for myself. A thing about prayer is that we don’t fully own our prayers, not even our own. And they don’t escape the contradictions, the necessary contradictions of Christian faith. I’m glad you’re teaching this stuff at Northwestern.

  • Ann says:

    Thank you for shaking up my prayer life a bit. I used to attend early morning prayers with African American charismatics who would pray “Lord, show us what to pray for today” and then wait for the Spirit’s leading. In that group I often experienced powerful spoken prayers that I sensed were beyond our own wisdom.
    You’ve reminded me that a humble emptiness is a good place to start in prayer.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Cambria, We do often pray prayers that are between evil and grace. I am aware that most of our prayers don’t follow what the Lord expects but he listens. The women who practiced slavery are an example of sin being prayed in a practice where we think we are always being righteous. The prayers of those women were sinful and needed Jesus’s intervention. This happens even today with the racism I see practiced among people who are considered to be fine Christians. My minister spoke this morning of Billy Garahan and the times he was converted. The first one was toward God, and the second to fight racism. I do believe many people need a second conversion to Biblical anti-racism.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    The prayers of the slave owner reminded me of the Pharisee’s prayer in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). But that was also a fairly standard Jewish prayer, much like Ps 26 (se v.1&11). We do the same thing when we pray, “God bless America” as if we deserved more than other nation, instead of as a humble request for God to bless us despite our many faults and failures as a nation just like any other. We, like the lady who owned slaves, need to pray more like the sinful Tax Collector, more like Ps 51 (see v.3).

  • R Z says:

    Thank you for this Cambria! I am a day behind here, but grateful for your discernment. I have wondered often why we spend so much time searching for a formula that enhances our manipulation of prayer abd so little time humbly asking just what prayer was intended to be. Consequently, we assume that quantity supercedes quality. More volume and frequency and duration will presumably produce better “results.” But the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ John 17 prayer would seem to point toward more soul searching and acquience toward the will of God. I have always maintained that the “”petitions” of the Lord’s Prayer are really pledges of contentment and trust, not petitions at all. Similarly the Luke 11 and Matthew 7 parable about giving our children a snake or a stone cannot be about God needing us to badger the righteous one who is presumably either blind or apathetic. History proves repeatedly that we continue to pray for improper, self-deluded outcomes that are jaded by our times and culture.
    I just finished reading about the history of factors (nationalistic, prideful, aristocratic and ethnic ) leading to millions of deaths in WW I, not to mention WW II and the Russian revolution that followed. Senseless imperialistic territorialism!
    The powers that were all claimed God on their side. Perhaps they each celebrated a national day of prayer. Prayer abuse never seems to go away.

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