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The Nature, Warrant, and History of Family Worship

By J.W. Alexander


      Family worship, as the name imports, is the joint worship rendered to God, by all the members of one household. There is an irresistible impulse to pray for those whom we love; and not only to pray for them, but with them. There is a natural as well as a gracious prompting to pray with those who are near to us. Prayer is a social exercise. The prayer which our Lord taught His disciples bears this stamp on every petition. It is this principle which leads to the united devotions of church assemblies and which immediately manifests itself in Christian families.

      If there were but two human beings upon earth, they would be drawn, if they were of sanctified hearts, to pray with one another. Here we have the fountain of domestic worship. Time was, when there were but two human beings upon earth; and we may feel assured that they offered adoration in common. This was the Family Worship of Paradise.

      That religion should specially pertain to the domestic relation is not at all wonderful.1 The family is the oldest of human societies: it is as old as the creation of the race. Men were not drawn together into families by a voluntary determination or social compact according to the absurd figment of infidels: they were created in families.

      It is not our purpose to make any ingenious2 efforts to force into our service the history of the Old Testament or to search for Family Worship in every age of the world. That it has existed in every age, we do not doubt; that the Old Testament was intended to communicate this fact is not so clear. But without any indulgence of fancy, we cannot fail to discern the principle of Family Worship appearing and reappearing as a familiar thing in the remotest periods.

      While all the church of God was in the ark, the worship was plainly Family Worship. And after the subsiding of the waters, when "Noah builded an altar unto the Lord," it was a family sacrifice which he offered (Gen 8:20). The patriarchs seem to have left a record of their social worship at every encampment. As soon as we find Abraham in the Promised Land, we find him rearing an altar in the plain of Moreh (Gen. 12:7). The same thing occurs in the vale between Hai and Bethel. Isaac not only renews the fountains which his father had opened, but keeps up his devotions, building an altar at Beersheba (Gen. 26:25). Jacob's altar at Bethel was eminently a family monument and was signalized by his saying on the way "unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you" (Gen. 35:1, 2). The altar was named EL-BETH-EL. This descent of religious rites in the family line was in correspondence with that declaration of Jehovah respecting the family religion which should prevail in Abraham's house (Gen. 18:19). The service of Job in behalf of his children was a perpetual service: he "sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all; thus did Job continually," or as it is in the Hebrew, "all the days" (Job 1:5). The book of Deuteronomy is full of family religion, as an example of which we may specially note the sixth chapter. The Passover, as we shall observe more fully in the sequel, was a family rite.

      Everywhere in the Old Testament good men take cognizance3 of the domestic tie in their religion. Joshua, even at the risk of being left with none but his family, will adhere to God: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15). David, after public services at the tabernacle where "he blessed the people in the name of the Lord," returns "to bless his household" (2 Sam. 6:20). He had learned to connect God's service with domestic bonds in the house of his father Jesse, where there was "a yearly sacrifice for all the family" (1 Sam. 20:6). And in the predictions of penitential4 humbling, which shall take place when God pours on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications, the suitableness of such exercises to families, as such, is not overlooked: ?The land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; the family of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; all the families that remain, apart, and their wives apart? (Zech. 12:12-14).

      In the New Testament, the traces of family religion are not less obvious. We gladly borrow the animated language of Mr. Hamilton of London and ask: "Do you envy Cornelius, whose prayers were heard, and to whom the Lord sent a special messenger to teach him the way of salvation?" He was a 'devout man, one who feared God with all his house, and prayed to God always,' and who was so anxious for the salvation of his family, that he got together his kinsmen and near friends, that they might be ready to hear the apostle when he arrived and share with himself the benefit (Acts 10:2, 24, 31). Do you admire Aquila and Priscilla, Paul's 'helpers in Christ Jesus,' and who were so skilful in the Scriptures, that they were able to teach a young minister the way of God more perfectly? You will find that one reason for their familiarity with the Scriptures was that they had a 'church in their house'? (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:5). It was doubtless recognized in regard to spiritual as well as in regard to temporal things, that "if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim. 5:3). That spirit of social prayer which led disciples to join in supplication or praise, in upper chambers, in prisons, in the stocks, and on the sea beach could not but have manifested itself in daily household devotion (Acts 1:13; 16:25; Gal. 4:12; 2 Tim. 1:3).

      Our records of primitive Christianity are so much distorted and corrupted by a superstitious tradition, that we need not be surprised to find a simple and spiritual service such as this, thrown into the shade by sacerdotal5 rites. Yet we discern enough to teach us, that believers of the first ages were not neglectful of Family Worship.

      "In general," says Neander6 in a work not published among us, "They followed the Jews, in observing the three seasons of day, nine, twelve, and three o'clock, as special hours of prayer; yet they did not use these in a legal manner, such as militated against Christian liberty"; for Tertullian7 says, in regard to times of prayer, 'nothing is prescribed, except that we may pray at every hour, and in every place.' The Christians began and closed the day with prayer. Before meals, before the bath, they prayed, for as Tertullian says, the ' refreshment and nourishment of the soul must precede the refreshment and nourishment of the body; the heavenly before the earthly.' When a Christian from abroad, after brotherly reception and hospitality in the house of a brother Christian, took his leave, he was dismissed from the Christian family with prayer, 'Because,' said they, 'In thy brother thou hast beheld thy Lord.' For every affair of ordinary life they made preparation by prayer."

      To this we may add the statements of a learned man, who has made Christian antiquities his peculiar study: ?Instead of consuming their leisure hours in vacant idleness, or deriving their chief amusement from boisterous8 merriment, the recital of tales of superstition, or the chanting of the profane songs of the heathen, they passed their hours of repose in rational and enlivening pursuits; found pleasure in enlarging their religious knowledge, and entertainment in songs that were dedicated to the praise of God. These formed their pastime in private, and their favorite recreations at their family and friendly meetings. With their minds full of the inspiring influence of these, they returned with fresh ardor to their scenes of toil; and to gratify their taste for a renewal of these, they longed for release from labor, far more than to appease their appetite with the provisions of the table. Young women sitting at the distaff9 and matrons going about the duties of the household, were constantly humming some spiritual airs.

      And Jerome10 relates, of the place where he lived, that one could not go into the field without hearing the ploughman at his hallelujahs, the mower at his hymns, and the vinedresser singing the Psalms of David. It was not merely at noon and in time of their meals that the primitive Christians read the word of God, and sang praises to His name. At an early hour in the morning, the family were assembled, when a portion of Scripture was read from the Old Testament, which was followed by a hymn and a prayer, in which thanks were offered up to the Almighty for preserving them during the silent watches of the night, and for His goodness in permitting them to meet in health of body and soundness of mind; and at the same time His grace was implored to defend them amid the dangers and temptations of the day, to make them faithful to every duty and enable them in all respects to walk worthy of their Christian vocation. In the evening before retiring to rest, the family again assembled, when the same form of worship was observed as in the morning with this difference: that the service was considerably protracted beyond the period which could conveniently be allotted to it in the commencement of the day. Besides all these observances, they were in the habit of rising at midnight, to engage in prayer and the singing of psalms, a practice of venerable11 antiquity, and which, as Dr. Cave justly supposes, took its origin from the first times of persecution, when not daring to meet together in the day, they were forced to keep their religious assemblies in the night.?12

      When we come down to the revival of evangelical piety at the Reformation, we find ourselves in the midst of such a stream of authority and example that we must content ourselves with general statements. Whatever may be the practice of their degenerate sons, the early Reformers are universally known to have set great value on family devotion. The prayers of Luther in his house are recorded with warmth by his coevals13 and biographers. The churches of Germany, in a better day, were blessed with a wide prevalence of household piety. Similar facts are recorded of Switzerland, France, and Holland.

      But in no country has the light of the dwelling burned more brightly than in Scotland. Family Worship in all its fullness was coeval with the first reformation period. Probably no land in proportion to its inhabitants ever had so many praying families; probably none has so many now. In 1647, the General Assembly14 issued a Directory for Family Worship in which they speak as follows:

      ?The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercise of piety, which should be in families, when they are convened to that effect, are these: First, Prayer, and praises performed, with a special reference, as well to the condition of the Kirk15 of God, and this kingdom, as to the present state of the family, and every member thereof. Next, reading of the Scriptures, with catechizing in a plain way, that the understandings of the simpler may be the better enabled to profit under the public ordinances, and they made more capable to understand the Scriptures when they are read: together with godly conferences tending to the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family. The head of the family is to take care that none of the family withdraw himself from any part of Family Worship; and seeing the ordinary performance of all the parts of Family Worship belongeth properly to the head of the family, the minister is to stir up such as are lazy, and train up such as are weak, to a fitness for these exercises.? "So many as can conceive prayer, ought to make use of that gift of God; albeit, those who are rude16 and weaker may begin at a set form of prayer; but so that they be not sluggish in stirring up in themselves (according to their daily necessities) the spirit of prayer, which is given to all the children of God in some measure: to which effect, they ought to be more fervent and frequent in secret prayer to God, for enabling of their hearts to conceive, and their tongues to express, convenient desires to God, for their family.? "These exercises ought to be performed in great sincerity, without delay, laying aside all exercises of worldly business or hindrances, notwithstanding the mockings of atheists and profane men; in respect of the great mercies of God to this land, and of His corrections, whereby lately He hath exercised us. And to this effect, persons of eminency, and all elders of the kirk, not only ought to stir up themselves and families to diligence herein, but also to concur effectually, that in all other families, where they have power and charge, the said exercises be conscionably performed."

      The faithfulness of private Christians in regard to this duty was made matter of inquiry by church courts. By the Act of Assembly, 1596, ratified December 17-18, 1638, among other provisions for the visitation of churches by presbyteries, the following questions were proposed to the heads of families:

      "Do the elders visit the families within the quarter and bounds assigned to each of them? Are they careful to have the worship of God set up in the families of their bounds? The minister also is directed in his pastoral visits, to ask, 'Whether God be worshipped in the family, by prayers, praises, and reading of the Scriptures? Concerning the behavior of servants towards God and toward s man; if they attend family and public worship? If there be catechizing in the family?"17

      When the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly of Divines was adopted by the Church of Scotland, it contained this provision, which is still valid among ourselves: "God is to be worshipped every where, in spirit and in truth; as in private families daily, and in secret each one by himself."18

      In conformity with these principles, the practice of Family Worship became universal throughout the Presbyterian body in Scotland and among all the Dissenters19 in England. In Scotland especially, the humblest persons in the remotest cottages, honored God by daily praise; and nothing is more characteristic of the people at this day. I have sometimes seen Family Worship in great houses," says Mr. Hamilton, "but I have felt that God was quite as near when I knelt with a praying family on the earthen floor of their cottage. I have known of Family Worship among the reapers in a barn. It used to be common in the fishing boats upon the friths20 and lakes of Scotland. I have heard of its being observed in the depths of a coal pit." The fathers of New England, having drunk into the same spirit, left the same legacy to their sons.

      It is highly honorable to Family Worship, as a spiritual service, that it languishes and goes into decay in times when error and worldliness make inroads upon the church. This has been remarkably the case among some of the Protestant communities of the continent of Europe. As a general statement, it must be said that Family Worship is not so extensively practiced there; and of course, it cannot be so highly prized as in the churches of Great Britain and America. This is true even when the comparison is made between those in the respective countries whose attachment to the gospel appears to be the same. There are many, especially in France and Switzerland, who as highly value and as regularly maintain the daily worship of God as any of their brethren in England or the United States; but they constitute exceptions to the above statement, rather than any refutation of it. Christian travelers observe, however, that better views on this subject, as on the observance of the Sabbath, are decidedly on the increase in France and Switzerland and probably to a certain extent in Germany and other countries on the Continent. This is to be attributed to the translation of many excellent works from the English into French and their circulation in those countries within the last few years.

      From what has been said, it is manifest that the universal voice of the Church, in its best periods, has been in favor of Family Worship. The reason of this has also become apparent. It is a service due to God in regard to His bountiful and gracious relation to families as such, rendered necessary by the wants, temptations, dangers, and sins of the family state; and in the highest degree fit and right, from the facilities afforded for maintaining it by the very condition of every household.

      Taken in part from Thoughts on Family Worship, reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria.

      ENDNOTES:

      1 wonderful: strange; astonishing.

      2 ingenious: inventive skill and imagination.

      3 cognizance: recognition; conscious knowledge.

      4 penitential: expressing sorrow for sin.

      5 sacerdotal: pertaining to priests or priesthood; a reference to Romanism.

      6 Johann August Wilhem Neander (1789-1850): German church historian and theologian. Born a Jew, David Mendel, he was converted to Protestantism and took the name Neander (Greek for:new man?). Wrote the 6 volume General History of the Christian Religion and the Church.

      7 Tertullian: (ca. 155-220) early Latin father of the church. Born a pagan, converted, finally left Roman Catholicism for Montanism. Coined the term:trinity.?

      8 boisterous: loud, noisy, and lacking restraint.

      9 distaff: a rod on which a fiber, for example, wool or flax, is wound for somebody to use when spinning by hand, or the corresponding rod on a spinning wheel.

      10 Jerome (ca. 347-419): Biblical scholar and translator of the Latin translation of Scripture known as the Vulgate.

      11 venerable: deserving honor and respect.

      12 The Antiquities of the Christian Church, Lyman Coleman, 2nd edition, p. 375.

      13 coevals: contemporaries.

      14 General Assembly: the supreme court of the Church of Scotland (as of some other Presbyterian Churches), combining judicial, legislative and administrative functions.

      15 Kirk: Scottish form of church, derived ultimately from the NT Greek adjective kuriakos, of the Lord.

      16 rude: ignorant; untaught.

      17 Recited in: Overtures of General Assembly, A.D. 1705, concerning the method of proceeding in Kirk-Sessions and Presbyteries.?

      18 Confession of Faith, Ch 21, para. 6

      19 Dissenters: persons who refuse to accept the authority of, or conform to, the laws of an established church. The term Dissenters was commonly used in 17th-century England, especially after passage of the Toleration Act in 1689, to denote groups who separated from the Church of England.

      20 friths: a narrow inlet of the sea.

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