How Technology Changed the Book of Common Prayer

The first chapter of Brad J. Kallenberg’s excellent book God and Gadgets opens with the following passage from the 1790 version of the Book of Common Prayer. He tells the reader to “watch for a surprise,” so please, watch for it.

Almighty and everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being; we, Thy needy creatures, render Thee our humble praises, for Thy preservation of us from the beginning of our lives to this day, and especially for having delivered us from the dangers of the past night. For these Thy mercies we bless and magnify Thy glorious Name, humbly beseeching Thee to accept this our morning sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, for His sake who lay down in the grave and rose again for us, Thy Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. (577)

Did you find it? Does anything in this prayer seem out of place?

Kallenberg writes,

Look again: “…especially for having delivered us from the dangers of the past night.” This phrase sounds childish even, as if the pray-er is still afraid of the dark. What’s going on here? … I have a hunch–but you’re probably not going to like it. The single most important difference between their lives and ours, between their prayers and ours, between their Christianity and ours, lies in the fact that we have electric lights. The Book of Common Prayer eventually dropped the line about dangers of the night. (2)

Interesting, right? If you think about your own life, is there anything you no longer pray for because of technology… or anything new that you pray for now only because of technology?

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

12 thoughts on “How Technology Changed the Book of Common Prayer”

    1. I agree, John.

      Having “candles and the like” doesn’t get you very far. In college my room mate and I did a “technological experiment” for a week, consisting of going on nothing but candle light for our studies. Doing it in the bleak midwinter made it all the worse, since it would be well dark by 5pm. Not only is it extraordinarily difficult to see (and concentrate on what you’re seeing), it is very wearisome, and we found our bodies growing tired much more quickly than normally. Having less light caused us to want to just go to bed! After that experiment I am convinced that artificial, electric lighting has tremendous (note: not “bad”) cognitive and social effects.

      Now imagine that experiment, but not merely confined to your dorm room, but your entire existence; the sun sets, and it’s dark, or at least dim. Period. You’d be praying, too, I think.

      1. After giving it more thought and reading Will’s thoughts, after imagining my evening’s activities illuminated by flickering candles, I think I’m more apt to agree now. I can see how the patterns of life would still be more tied to daylight. I think candlelight had some effect, but certainly not to the degree of electric lights.

  1. I missed that. I thought it was going to be something about “grace” vs. “grave” in the last line, and how we can edit things much more quickly these days with computers. Maybe since I still have small kids who ask in their prayers for no bad dreams, I didn’t think anything about being delivered from night dangers.

  2. I’m not sure I buy it either. Certainly electric lights can make us feel safe at night, but how safe one feels at night also has a lot to do with non-technological things such as where you live or how much money you make. If you’ve never been to a place where you’ve felt the need to thank God for making it through the night, consider yourself lucky. Or blessed. Or, more likely than not … wealthy.

    1. I won’t address the electric light issue, but I think most of don’t ever consider the fact that people in the Arctic (such as Inuvik, NorthWest Territories) have five weeks of “no sun” in the winter and about two months of “no night” during the summer.

      Adventists adjust their Sabbath calendars for such differences but I don’t know of any other Christian fellowships that take geography into account in this way.

      By the way, in the Arctic, the day the sun appears over the horizon in January is a day of rejoicing. If they had a Teutonic background they might have named that day after the goddess of the dawn, Esta.

  3. Regardless of whether or not the advent of electric lights was the cause of that particular line being removed from the Book of Common Prayer (even Kallenberg presents his idea as a “hunch”), I think that John’s point is still valid. There are certainly things that I worry more or less about as a direct result of the technology that I use every day. In the end, it makes me thankful for the common graces that I get to take part in and gives me pause when thinking about what technologies have caused more worry and stress than good in my life.

    Thanks for your insight, John.

  4. I’m not sure about the electric lights theory either, but people back then were more prone to premature death than we are now, so the child’s prayer “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” was a lot more real to them. The dangers of the night could have included more than merely what hides in the darkness. Death could strike, and if you made it through the night without dying, it was worth giving thanks over.

    But to answer your final question, I take for granted certain cures that technology delivers with almost perfect predictability. If I have a headache, I take some Tylenol. I usually don’t pray about it. That’s not a particularly new advance of technology in my lifetime, though. I suppose now with ready contact via email/Facebook with friends and family all over the world, I no longer pray as I’m going to bed that God will watch over them, since that prayer arose partially out of a lack of knowing how they were. Now I know, almost up to the minute, how everyone is, so I don’t worry about them or feel the need to pray (unless I’ve heard via the Internet that they are in distress).

    On the flip side, there have been times when I’ve prayed because of broken technology. Once when I was up late at work trying to find a mysterious bug, I finally realized I wasn’t going to find it that night, so I left to go get some sleep and left it in God’s hands. I started a rebuild of the program before I left. When I got back the next day, the bug was gone. I never did figure out what had caused it, and it never mysteriously reappeared.

    I also often find myself praying for guidance in my use of technology, a kind of prayer that never would have crossed my mind prior to about 10 years ago.

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