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Great Prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep”

Child praying

DAVID ADAMS looks at the rather obscure origins of a famous bedtime prayer…

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.

Child praying

PICTURE: Jude Beck/Unsplash

The origins of this classic children’s bedtime prayer is somewhat obscure although it’s commonly said its origins lie in an old English prayer known by various names including the ‘Black Paternoster’ or ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke or John’.

The prayer subsequently appeared in Thomas Fleet’s The New England Primer, an educational textbook published in North America in the 18th century, and in 1840, JG Rush set it to music for his London Jingles collection. It came to be featured in numerous hymnals and songbooks in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are numerous different versions – the above of which is just one – including one which adds two additional lines:

If I should live for other days,
I pray thee, Lord, to guide my ways.

It has been suggested that US President John Adams said a version of this prayer every day.

While this prayer – which some characterise as a nursery rhyme – might be seen as too confronting for children today, the prayer grapples very directly with the issue of our mortality and the trust we place in God with regard to our eternal fate. As writer Heather Adams points out, David captures a similar sentiment in Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (NIV)



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