With the manifest decay of the pulpit in Scotland there is an equal decay in the family exercises. The decay of the pulpit is manifest by the amount of heresy that is being preached by ministers and others. Again the bringing into prominence of the communion table, which is the modern altar, is a growing innovation. The pulpit is put in the background, indicating that the sacraments are of more importance than the preaching of the gospel, which is the view of the Roman Catholic Church. While our godly forefathers highly valued the sacraments as God’s ordinances yet they gave great prominence to the preaching of the Word as “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort.” Moreover, there is the shortening of the services to an incredible degree even where the preaching savours of evangelicalism; this is done to cater to the uneasiness of the modern mind when within the precincts of the sanctuary.
This lamentable state of affairs in the public assembly is bound to drain the very sap out of practical godliness in the home. The preaching of today is of such a nature that it calls for no preparation for eternity and this being so, the natural man is bound to say: “Why should I deny myself the pleasures of sin which are my chief joy.” When entertaining these views the natural man is not likely to discipline himself to search the Scriptures, neither trouble with family worship, nor care much about evangelical preaching. I am convinced that family worship is being dispensed with, not only among those who hear not the gospel preached, but to a great extent among the rising generation in the Presbyterian Church. Daily contact with those who are bordering on infidelity is partly responsible for this lamentable state of affairs and religious people when captives in a foreign land: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps 137:5-6). Should not Free Presbyterians, and others, who may value God’s words, be equally determined to hold by the truth in the private exercises as well as in the public worship?
Family worship is not a habit that originated in the rural parts of Scotland, neither during the Covenanting period nor still in the Disruption Church. We can trace family worship in the history of that part of the human race to whom the one living and true God was pleased to reveal Himself. It will be the pleasant engagement of the saints in glory to worship God for ever and ever – this will be part of their reward, to be privileged to worship God continually.
Adam and Eve in a state of innocency, without a doubt, worshipped God, and what can we call this but the origin of family worship in the world. After the fall it is evident that family worship must have been the only form of worship addressed to God, as the earth still remained to be peopled. The head of the family was the priest who worshipped the covenant God with his wife, family and servants. It was only by degrees, as the people increased, and several families happened to live near each other, that public worship began by the gathering of those families together. Was family worship to be dispensed with when public worship was thus begun? No, in no wise: “And these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Dt 6:6-7).
Many are the concrete examples that are given us in Scripture of the observance of worship in the family – Adam and his family, Noah and his family, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families. Abraham is commended by the Lord for his adherence to the good practice of worshipping God in his family: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him and they shall keep the way of the Lord” (Gen 18:19). Joshua resolved resolutely to serve God in and with his family: “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.”
In view of the references to family worship throughout the whole Bible, it is obligatory on all families to worship God in their homes. Members of the same family assist one another in worldly things and why should they not assist one another, and strive together, in seeking Christ? Again, they rejoice together in their worldly portion and why not seek to rejoice together in the things of heaven?
There are many references in the writings of the Fathers to show that family worship was customary after the Apostles’ days, but as the dark night of Paganism and Romanism approached, family worship fell into decay. Isn’t it to be feared that the same isms in the Protestant Churches of today are robbing us of the same privilege? It was not, however, in the mercy of God, forgotten for it made its appearance again at the Reformation, and in no place was the necessity of it more stressed than in Scotland. One of the earliest Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was an Act in favour of family exercises – “Act anent Ministers Catechising, and Family Exercises” (1639). The part of it which deals with family worship is as follows: “Also that in every family the worship of God be erected where it is not both morning and evening, and that the children and the servants be catechised at home by the masters of the families, whereof accounts shall be taken by the minister and elders assisting him in the visitation of every family.”
Another interesting Act of the General Assembly was that of 1647 – “Act for observing the Directions of the General Assembly for Secret and Private Worship, and Mutual Edification and for censuring such as neglect Family Worship.” The Act is too long to insert here. Paragraph I emphasises Secret Worship, part of which is as follows: “It is most necessary that everyone apart and by themselves be given to meditation, the unspeakable benefit whereof is best known to them who are most exercised therein.” This they say later is the means whereby a right preparation for all other duties is obtained. Paragraph II deals with family exercises – “The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercises of piety are these: First – Prayer and praise. Next – Reading of Scriptures, with catechising in a plain way, that the understanding of the simpler may be better enabled to profit under the public ordinances, and that they may be capable to understand the Scriptures when they are read.” Paragraph IV says: “The head of the family is to take care that none of the family withdraw himself from any part of the family worship,” etc.
All these Acts, and there are many more of them, show the great importance the divines of the past attached to those family exercises. From Scripture and from the Acts of Assembly we learn that the servant and the son are equally bound to attend the family worship and the head of the family is to see that these will not absent themselves from those exercises. Many are the masters who never think of the souls of their servants. We should not forget that Chapter XXI paragraph 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the answer to Question 156 of the Larger Catechism speak with emphasis of the duty of family worship.
Those families who have not the worship of God observed by them have God’s displeasure. Jeremiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, petitions against them: “Pour out thy fury upon the heathen that know Thee not, and upon the families that call not on Thy name” (Jer 10:25). These words contain a very solemn warning to families who neglect family worship. The family is the nursery of the church and where family duties are neglected that family, generally, proves unfruitful to the Church and to its great Head.
The parts of family worship are prayer, reading the Word, and singing, if possible. The Word is to be read not as a history of the past but as a book applicable to the state of our heart. Some read and sing but omit prayer, excusing themselves that they cannot pray; that is, they cannot address the Most High they say. These never lack words to address their fellow mTen. Others say they prefer to omit prayer because they cannot approach God with reverence; but these may have no scruples in taking the name of the Lord in vain without much provocation. Singing the Psalms is a very important part of family exercises. People associate singing with worldly pleasure, and should not the contents of the Bible give as much pleasure to move us to praise the God who reveals Himself in it. Praise is engaged in by the saints in glory but everyone of these began that pleasant work in this world.
God’s mercies are renewed every morning so should our approach to Him, by prayer, praise and reading, be renewed every morning. Night preservation calls for acknowledgment in the morning: “for Thou, Lord, only makest me to dwell in safety;” as well as to begin the day by acknowledging God and we cannot engage ourselves better than to end our day of toil and labour by approaching Him again at the family altar. Do not many say that they cannot spare the time for these duties? These have plenty time for their meals and worldly business though the important affairs of the soul are neglected. Want of time is only another way of refusing to worship God. David, though a king, could find time for family exercises.
The present time in the history of our country is one in which we should turn to the Lord in repentance and faith. If such a turning were to take place there would be a renewed diligence in the matter of all religious exercises; public and private. God’s judgments are upon the earth, but most are asleep in spiritual death and indifference. When will this nation turn unto the Lord and take with her words and say: “take away all iniquity and receive us graciously”?
(Article by Rev Archibald Beaton, printed in May 1940 issue of The Free Presbyterian Magazine.]