May 29, 2024

Johann Starck


Try to imagine a war fought in your homeland for thirty years. Our country was brought low by a four-year Civil War. What would have been the fallout caused by thirty years of bloodshed? For the first half of the 17th century, armies from all over Europe fought on German soil during the Thirty Years War. When the Peace of Westphalia treaty was finally signed in 1648, a quarter of Germany’s population died, and its economy was in shambles. The damage done to its moral fiber was catastrophic. While most of its citizens still believed in God, many functioned as if faith no longer made a difference in their real lives. A movement called Pietism emerged to revitalize spirituality in dead churches. Nobody aspires to piety anymore. “Don’t be so pious” isn’t something we want to hear. How strange that a word once was used as a term of honor has now become a put-down. Piety in its original sense meant fidelity and loyalty to God. Pietists were people who sought a personal relationship with Jesus with its attending implications for a faith-filled life. Johann Frederick Starck (1680-1756) had pietistic sympathies and served rural and city churches in Frankford. He also was a popular preacher in poorhouses, orphanages, and to criminals on death row. His enduring contribution was a devotional The Daily Handbook in Good and Bad Days. Don’t you love the title? It was, as advertised, a handbook for prayer to address every conceivable situation. Not only did it offer morning and evening prayers and help for the sick and dying, but it also supplied prayers for circumstances I have never seen in print. He wrote prayers for use during and after a thunderstorm, prayers while taking medicine and even prayers for women in labor. His handbook taught future generations how to pray and has been reprinted 160 times, as recently as 1999. His prayer “for those in affliction” leads us to pray:

O gracious God, who beholds the afflicted and miserable; and whose tender mercies are over all Thy works! Behold, a poor, afflicted soul, I stand before the throne of Thy grace, and beseech Thy help…Lord, help me; Lord, have mercy upon me. Thy wrath is but for a moment, but Thy moment is almost too long for me. Merciful God, Thou who in Thy Word has so graciously permitted Thy children to pray to Thee, saying, “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you:” let my asking and seeking and knocking find acceptance with Thee. Remove my affliction from me; yet not my will, but Thine be done. I do not desire to prescribe to Thee the day or the hour or the manner in which Thou shall help; I will wait patiently for Thee. But I beseech Thee, let me experience Thy quickening grace. If Thou will not entirely remove my affliction, remove a part of it…O God, how long will Thou forget me? How long will Thou hide Thy face from me? Is thy mercy clean gone forever? Does Thy promise fail for evermore? O let me see that Thou are still my Father and will have mercy upon me…Let me not be tempted above that which I am able; and sweeten all my bitterness and sorrow with the enjoyment of Thy love, with Thy mighty succor, and with the quickening foretaste of heaven. Amen.
John Frederick Starck, The Daily Handbook in Good and Bad Days, 1904.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.