As many of you know, finishing a master’s degree in theology is not an end to a quest, by any means—it is barely the beginning. Almost a year later, among many topics that I am still trying to wrap my mind is spiritual formation: specifically, in what sorts of spiritual practice should I encourage others? It’s not as if I’m ignorant of the options. However, I am wary of making anything a strict requirement—whether specific practices, specific frequencies, or other variables one might toy with. I want to help people encounter God, not feel shame over culturally bound rules.
In particular, I’ve been curious about the evangelical “Quiet Time.” When and how did it start? What role did it play then, and how should I see it now? It seems obvious that is not for everyone—the illiterate, the Bible-less, those less individualistic. That’s not to say it’s not valuable. I’m just not convinced it’s the absolute measure of spiritual maturity some have made it out to be.
Enter Greg Johnson’s dissertation, From Morning Watch to Quiet Time: the Historical and Theological Development of Private Prayer in Anglo-American Protestant Instruction. Here’s how he tells the story (161):
The overarching narrative we have proposed began with the promotion of the Morning Watch at the close of the nineteenth century. In a world of militarism, progressivism and muscular Christianity, the Morning Watch centered evangelical devotional practice on petitionary prayer. Prayer became a spiritual battle against cosmic forces of evil in which Christian soldiers furthered the church’s global missionary warfare. The Christian’s role was active, engaged, and militant.
However, at the same time that the Morning Watch became dominant among evangelicals in Britain and American, events like World War I and the resulting declines of militarism, progressivism and muscular Christianity set the stage for the decline of the Morning Watch as well. Into this new world of push buttons and machines, conflict, anxiety, busyness, brokenness and alienation—a world in which evangelicals were no longer cultural leaders—the Quiet Time arose as an answer to the hurried pace of modern life. While evangelicals like Simpson and Pardington [early Christian & Missionary Alliance leaders] had developed the Quiet Time before the War, its growth in popularity began in earnest during the 1920s and 1930s. Rather than warfare, quietness became the key component of evangelical devotional life. Stillness functioned as a doorway into a spiritual communion with God whose central benefit lie—not on the mission field—but within the soul praying. Within this Quiet Time experience, the Morning Watch’s emphasis on petition gave way to a renewed stress on listening to God.
While aspects of the Quiet Time resembled Pentecostalism (e.g. the expectation that God still speaks to individuals), Quiet Time proponents heavily emphasized the role of Scripture, biblical ethical principles, or both in guiding personal revelations and did not typically promote practices like glossolalia (152-160). Johnson credits the parachurch organizations of neo-evangelicalism, and in particular, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, in making the Quiet Time the primary evangelical devotional practice from the 50s onward (164-172). He also notes that people sometimes spoke of the Quiet Time in ways which, out of context, would appear to describe the sacraments, conversion, or baptism of the Holy Spirit (139-141). The Quiet Time also began to be rewritten into evangelicalism’s history and the history of Christianity as a whole (179-182).
For me, this information has been helpful to make sense of my own experience in the church, as it shows how the Quiet Time developed within a particular context for particular reasons, as well as how the rhetoric around the Quiet Time has compared with that around other practices. While in many ways this relativizes the Quiet Time, I am left completely certain that the Quiet Time is a well-intentioned and useful spiritual practice for many. I admit I am not certain it is as useful to all as to some. There is much about the Quiet Time that I like better than the Morning Watch, though a few things about the Morning Watch that I like better than the Quiet Time. And then there are other ways in which (even apart from their recent development) I find both deficient as “primary” spiritual practices—partly because I’m cautious to try to identify a single primary practice to begin with.
All in all, I greatly appreciated learning from Johnson’s research on the practice, (which of course is much more detailed and meaningful than a couple short paragraphs can convey). I would highly recommend it if you wish to satisfy your own curiosity on the topic. As for me, I’m still thinking things through and hoping to expand on this direction of study with further reading. Any suggestions? And what do you make of all this? What sorts of spiritual disciplines do you practice and/or recommend to others and why?