Ep.132: Book Review: Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today we look at The Meaning of Prayer by Harry Emerson Fosdick (New York: Association Press, 1915), published in 1915 during the first world war. My copy is a pocket size hardcover edition which I inherited from my mother.

The book covers topics like :“Prayer as Communion with God”, “Hindrances and Difficulties [in Prayer]”, “Unanswered Prayer”, and “Prayer as a Battlefield”. Each chapter contains seven daily devotionals, followed by comments and further teaching, and concludes with suggestions for study and discussion.   

I’m using the daily devotional part for Lent this year, marking my place each day with the ribbon. Last week, my wife told me she picked up the book, opened it at random, and read one of the daily devotionals. “It’s really good,” she said. So the book comes not just  with my recommendation, which many people consider unreliable, but also with my departed mother’s recommendation and my wife’s. It must be good.

The daily devotionals are well written, accessible, and usually quote the Bible and two or three authors on the topic of the day. Each finishes with a prayer from someone famous–Samuel Johnson, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, and others. 

The first devotional is titled “First Day, First Week.” Here’s an excerpt: “Samuel Johnson once was asked what the strongest argument for prayer was, and he replied, ‘Sir, there is no argument for prayer.’ One need only read Johnson’s own petitions . . . to see he was not declaring prayer to be irrational; he was stressing that praying is like breathing or eating, that we do it because we are human, and afterward argue about it as best we can” (Fosdick, 1, paraphrased). 

Another devotional reflects the World War One situation at the time Fosdick was writing. He says, “Prayer has been greatly discredited in the minds of many by its use during war. Men have felt the absurdity of praying on the opposite sides of a battle, of making God a tribal leader in heaven, to give victory as Zeus and Apollo used to do, to their favorites”  (Fosdick, 3). 

I like the devotional that quotes Abraham Lincoln saying, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go; my own wisdom and that of all around me seems insufficient for the day” (Fosdick, 6). 

I also like that Fosdick has a chapter on “Prayer as a Battlefield”. Here he quotes the Psalms and Jesus in Gethsemane and Paul on spiritual warfare. He says, “No one. . .has ever succeeded in describing the achievement of goodness except in terms of a fight. As Paul says, ‘The flesh wars against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh’” (Fosdick, 162, paraphrased).

That’s Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer. Over a hundred years old, a bit dated, but well written, thoughtful, and encouraging. 

You can buy the book on Amazon, or get a free pdf on the internet. 

Let’s pray. 

Our Father, Fosdick says, “The intellectual puzzles are found in the fringes of prayer; prayer at its center is a simple and as profound as friendship” (Fosdick, 35). 

O God, strip away our intellectual doubts, our false and unworthy thoughts of you, and our false and unworthy prayers, until we are left face to face with you, the living God, in a friendship where we speak and listen to your quiet voice.


I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.