Touch, Worship

Hymn reflects complex forms of prayer

Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire (UMH 492)

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
at trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains at reach
The Majesty on high.

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters Heav’n with prayer.

O Thou by Whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,
The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray.

JAMES MONTGOMERY (1771-1854) was an avid worker for missions and an active member of the Bible Society in his time. He was a hymn writer who was simple in his writing style, both in vocabulary and structure. He began writing poetry at the age of 10. Like John Wesley, Montgomery was inspired by the hymns of the Moravians.

The Rev E. Bickersteth, an Evangelical priest, requested Montgomery to write for his Treatise on Prayer. The hymn “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire” (UMH 492) was written in 1818 in response to a request.

In 1819 the Treatise on Prayer was published with “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire” as selection 278 under “Hymns Chiefly Intended for Private Use”, with the scripture text Ephesians 6:18 “Pray without ceasing.”

In his text, Montgomery describes prayer in beautiful and powerful imagery: prayer is the burden of a sigh, an infant speech, Christian’s vital breath, the constant sinner’s voice. It reflects the complex forms in which prayers are framed by various states of the human soul and mind.

The hymn reminds us of our relationship with God – the Life, the Truth and the Way to whom our prayers are addressed and from whom we ask “Lord, teach us how to pray.”

This hymn text is set to many tunes. One contemporary tune I found for solo or choir is composed by Sally DeFord. You can fi nd her music in her website:

Judith Mosomos is a Lecturer in Church Music at the Methodist School of Music.