Friday, January 2, 2009

A Beautiful Prayer

Praise for the Lord #2
Words & music: Luther G. Presley, 1937

Luther Presley (1887-1974) also wrote the lyrics to "When all of God's singers get home" (PFTL #839), which was set to music by Virgil O. Stamps of the famed Stamps-Baxter Quartet. Presley managed the Arkansas branch of the Stamps-Baxter publishing enterprise, and was one of the company's house writers.(Tribe) Like the better-known Albert Brumley, he learned his craft at a young age and was conducting singing schools by the time he was 18.(UCA Archives) He was an extremely prolific songwriter, though he is best known for just a few of his songs, including--interestingly enough--"When the saints go marching in".(Sallee) See the references below for more of his personal story.

Stanza 1:
In the Bible we read of a beautiful prayer,
A prayer sent to heaven above;
It was prayed by a heart that was laden with care
And filled with such wonderful love.

Jesus is the great example to us of prayer. If He, in His sinlessness, needed to pray, how much more do we? If He, in the busy rush of His three-year campaign to change the world, took time out pray, how much more should we? The prayer life of Jesus is a fascinating study. We find that He regularly took time for extended, private prayer (Mark 1:45, 6:46). He also led in public prayers such as the "Lord's Prayer" of Matthew 6:9-13. His one extended prayer that we have recorded in John 17 reveals a rich, balanced prayer life that praises God, uplifts others, and asks little for oneself except the ability to glorify the Father more fully.

But Jesus also shows us how to pray in anguish. "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much," (James 5:16b) but this time the most fervent prayer of the most righteous Man who ever lived could not avail to deliver Him from the terrible price that had to be paid. Truly, it was a "heart that was laden with care / and filled with such wonderful love." Only His wonderful love kept Him on the road to the cross.

When the Savior was praying
In the garden of Gethsemane,
He said, "loving Father,
If You will, let this cup pass from me."
I know He was thinking
Of the anguish death would bring to His own,
How deep was His sorrow,
When Jesus was praying alone.

The Gethsemane prayer is recorded in Matthew 26:39 as "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will." In Mark 14:36 it is "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." In Luke 22:42 there is yet another wording: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." It is worth remembering that Jesus prayed this three times, begging the Father to spare Him, though surely He knew there was no other way, and knew what His decision would be. The terror of that night is probably beyond our comprehension.

But was Jesus thinking, as the song says, of the effect His death would have on others? Yes, He certainly was. In 26-verse prayer recorded in John 17, He spends verses 9-19 praying for His disciples. In Luke 22:31-32 we learn that Jesus prayed specifically for Peter's restoration after the denial Jesus knew was coming. On the cross, He made arrangements for John to care for His mother Mary (John 19:26); and yes, He even prayed for His tormentors: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."(Luke 23:34)

Stanza 2:
You can catch the sad tone of His voice as He said,
"Thy will, no my own must be done;"
As a lamb to the slaughter He soon must be led
To die as the Crucified One.


The scripture reference is Isaiah 53 verse 7: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth." Jesus fulfilled this before Pilate (Mark 15:4-5), refusing to plead for His life or even to make a defense against the charges brought against Him.

What is more innocent or gentle than a lamb? In the same way, Jesus, in whom even the skeptical Roman governor Pilate "could find no guilt"(Luke 23:4), was the most gentle and innocent human being who ever lived--and was the only one who could carry our sins to the cross. The sacrifice of a lamb dates back to Genesis 4, the first recorded time in history when sinful man approached God in worship. In the last plague of Egypt, the blood of a lamb on the doorpost was the sign that a house was under God's protection and would be "passed over".(Exodus 12) Christ has now become that Passover,(1 Corinthians 5:7) and "you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot."(1 Peter 1:18-19).

Stanza 3:
As He prayed there alone in such deep agony,
It was a most beautiful prayer;
Just to think His great heart was all broken for me,
That He my great sorrow must share.


That last line may also be inspired by Isaiah 53, from verses 4-6: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows... he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed... the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

It is a matter of profound joy, and sorrow, and wonder, and gratitude, to think of that.

About the music: Classic Stamps-Baxter style, with an alto lead that would be sung by a high tenor in a quartet. The ragtime/jazz influence typical of the quartet gospel style is seen in the bluesy sound of the alto lead at "Gethsemane" in the chorus; the rhythm is in the fast 6/8 time favored by many gospel writers of the day. (I have been told that Tillit Teddlie's tendency to write in 6/4 instead of 6/8--not that it technically makes any difference--and his admonition "Not too fast" in the song "Earth holds no treasures" (PFTL #225), were attempts to keep people from singing his songs like uptempo bluegrass!)

Something to think about: Does the catchy, peppy music of this song match the message of the words? Compare it, for example, to "'Tis midnight, and on Olive's brow" (PFTL #709), where the quiet, contemplative hush of the music matches the somber scene painted by the text. Of course there can be different emotional approaches to the same subject--but does this music really fit the scene of Jesus praying in Gethsemane?


Tribe, Ivan. Baxter, J.R., Jr. Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. Routledge, 2005, p. 32.

University of Central Arkansas Archives. Luther G. Presley Collection.

Sallee, Bob. He wrote "When the saints go marching in". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 21 Apr 1998. Reprinted at


  1. I hate this song, here is why: I dont really think of Jesus sweating drops of blood in anguish almost to death as "beautiful". Plus, are we sure we know what He was thinking:
    Of the anguish death would bring to His own. Maybe he was thinking about how he didnt want to be crucified!!!!

    I like your comment on the peppy tempo too....for example, try singing Night With Ebon Pinon to the Tune of Sing and Be Happy. The words fit perfectly but it destroys the message of the song. Likewise here, I think we just like showing off our voices.

    1. I love this song. Is there a recording that can be down loaded?

  2. Hey Friends,

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    Church of the Holy Sepulcher

  3. I Love this hymn.. every word and every emotion comes out of me when I sing this song.. though it was a sad, painful, horrible death.. singing these words remind me of the death he took on for me. When I sing this hymn.. it reminds me of what he did for me and I can picture him in the garden. It is a very sad song.. but the love is so strong.

  4. I love this hymn. I feel everything when I sing this song in church.. it is moving and thought provoking.. I visualize Jesus in the garden just speaking to His father. I can't fully imagine the pain .. anguish .. his death Did bring to his own .. but what he did for me.. was and still is today "beautiful" the words are moving .. and they make me "feel" as I should. Beautiful song. One of my favorites.