FAMILY WORSHIP AND THE PURITANS
The following is from a conversation that Tim Callies had with Dr. Joel Beeke from his book A Puritan Theology. I am a lover of Puritan writings and have learned so much from them in that the study of systematic and biblical theology is not just an intellectual exercise but is meant to be practical and lived out. One of the ways the Puritans lived it out was the priority of family worship. This conversation centers around chapter 53 in Dr. Beeke’s book. My hope is that you will find it useful for your own family and I imagine for many, you will find it a bit surprising about the Puritans for they are grossly misunderstood by most people today.
Tim C: To hear people talk about the Puritans, you would imagine they were harsh toward their children, making them endure endless hours of family worship. Is this accurate?
Joel B: Endless hours in family worship would have been impossible for most people in the seventeenth-century. In Puritan New England, many people were farmers who had to labor hard to produce food. Children also had much to do in school, household chores, and working alongside their fathers and mothers to learn a vocation. The Puritans also took time for recreation. They enjoyed hunting, fishing, shooting competitions, and wrestling—two New England Puritan ministers were famous amateur wrestlers. They enjoyed music in their homes, owning guitars, harpsichords, trumpets, violas, drums, and other instruments. There was a lot to do; family devotions were one part—albeit the most important part—of a busy daily schedule.
The Puritans aimed at pithy instruction and heart-moving prayer. Samuel Lee wrote that in all our teaching of the family we should beware of boring the children by talking too much. Long devotions overburden their little minds. It is best to hold the attention of children by using spiritual analogies with flowers, rivers, a field of grain, birds singing, the sun, a rainbow, etc.
Tim C: The Puritans regarded family worship as a duty. Did Puritan pastors ensure that fathers were carrying out this duty? How would they have helped families do this well?
Joel B: The Puritans did take this duty seriously. For example, in 1647, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith. Three days earlier, they had adopted the Directory for Family Worship, and required ruling elders and ministers to discipline heads of household that neglected family worship. In another branch of Puritanism, in 1677 the congregational church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, covenanted together to “maintain the worship of God” in their families, “educating, instructing, and charging our children and our households to keep the ways of the Lord.”
Puritan pastors helped families, first, by preaching on this subject; second, by writing books about family worship, and devotional books useful for family worship; third, by writing simple catechisms or promoting an official catechism; and fourth, by visiting each family in the church and catechizing the children. Parents often invited the minister over a meal, after which the minister would lead family worship. Pastoral visits both held parents accountable by revealing the level of knowledge of their children, and modeled what family worship should be.
Tim C: I know it is difficult to speak in averages, but maybe you could tell us what the average Puritan’s family devotions might have looked like. How long would they have spent and what things would they have done?
Joel B: The Puritans did not favor the following of a precise form for worship of any kind, but they did lay out principles. They called Christian parents to lead their families in the daily practice of (1) reading the Scriptures to their families; (2) leading the children in memorizing and understanding a catechism; (3) discussing biblical truth for edification such that each family member can ask questions and share thoughts; (4) praying together, which included acknowledging God as the Lord and Provider of their family, confessing their sins to Him, thanking Him for their blessings, presenting their petitions to Him for the needs and troubles of the family, and interceding as a family for friends and the nation; and (5) singing psalms to the Lord.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to speak in a meaningful way of how long the average family devotions lasted for the Puritans. No doubt it varied, also due to the ages of the children. Personally, I recommend five to ten minutes in the morning and fifteen to twenty minutes in the evening. For more practical details on implementing devotions, see my little book, Family Worship.
Tim C: You say, “We must beware of allowing corrupting influences into our private lives and homes.” What kind of corrupting influences do we allow in our homes today that the Puritans would have forbidden?
Joel B: The Puritans would probably be more concerned with the content of the media than the form of technology. The typical American home has its doors wide open for all kinds of intruders to come in, steal, and destroy the treasures of the soul. Christians must practice great discernment to guard their homes against:
(1) Lawlessness. One recent video game earned a billion dollars in sales within three days of its release. It is obviously wildly popular. The problem is that the game revolves around theft! Again, how many popular songs promote fornication and adultery? Breaking God’s laws is a very serious matter. Are you entertaining yourself with the things God hates?
(2) Worldliness. It might be an open rejection of God, a grossly immoral life, or blatant conformity to popular culture. But it might be much more subtle. Worldliness is any love not ruled by love for God. It could be pleasing people above God, seeking physical prosperity above spiritual holiness, valuing temporal gains above eternal glories, living to move forward rather than upward, or walking in pride instead of humility. In short, it is corrupt human nature without God. Someone of this world is controlled by what the Puritans called this world’s trinity: the quest for pleasure, profit, and position. The Puritans would say that the question we need to ask about an activity is: does this help my family to love Christ more, to hate sin more, and to pursue walking in the King’s highway of holiness more?
(3) Lightness. Life has light moments when we all break into laughter, but lightness (or levity) is using humor and entertainment to keep weighty realities out of our minds. We live in a culture that tries to turn life into “Comedy Central.” The tragedy of this is that it turns us away from the overflowing joy God gives through a sober consideration of gospel truth. Are you leading your family to fill their minds with distractions, or with the hope of Christ?
The Puritans would ask us today—not out of legalism but out of jealousy for the well-being of our family’s souls: What are we bringing into our homes through the music we listen to, the jokes and stories we tell, the books and magazines we read, the images we hang on the wall or welcome onto the video screen, and the games and sports we play or watch? Read Philippians 4:8, and take inventory.