Family Worship in Centuries Past

A few excerpts that give us a glimpse of family worship in centuries past.

Excerpt 1: A description of the “primitive Christians’” typical meal-time family devotion. (From Antiquities of the Christian Church, 1841)

When dinner had been served, and the family had taken their seats at the table, the master of the household, with grave and solemn voice, and in a prayer of considerable length, acknowledged their dependence on the care of their common Father, expressed their gratitude for the past tokens of his bounty, and invoked him to bless, for their health and comfort, the provisions of which they were about to partake. During the progress of the meal, some member of the family in houses of lower class, or some hired reader, in those of richer orders, entertained the company with select portions of the Scriptures; for so strong and insatiable was their appetite for spiritual food, that they could not rest satisfied and happy without providing suitable refreshment for the soul at the same time that they were enjoying comforts of the body. The viands being removed, the family circle was drawn more together, – for now were unfolded, and put into hands of all, the precious scrolls in which, in those days, the Scriptures were written. Previous to this, however, each was expected to put himself in an attitude of becoming reverence; the hands were carefully washed, that not a stain might fall on the Sacred Volume, and, while the men remained with their heads bare, the women covered themselves with a veil, as a token of respect for the Book of God. The head of the family then read aloud a few passages, both from the Old and the New Testament, accompanying them with some plain and simple admonitions of his own, or recalling to the memory of his audience the public exhortations which, on the preceding Sabbath, had been founded on them in the church; or he taught the younger branches of the house to repeat after him the beautiful prayer that was dictated by the lips of the Saviour; and told them, in simple phrase, of the love which God bears to the young, and of the blessedness of remembering their Creator in the days of their youth. These readings and exhortations were always short, and diversified, at intervals, by sacred music, – of which the primitive Christians were passionately fond. Sometimes one, distinguished by taste and talents for spiritual songs, sung some favorite piece of sacred melody; at other times, the shrill voices of the women and the children were blended in full chorus with the deeper tones of the men, – till as the hour set apart for refreshment drew towards a close, the venerable parent, whose look and attitude called for momentary silence, gave thanks to the Giver of all good, for the enjoyment of their natural and spiritual comforts, and prayed that his presence and his blessing might be with them during the succeeding period of labor and duty. Thus, among the primitive Christians, their ordinary refreshments were sanctified with the Word of God and with prayer; and thus were the words of eternal truth interwoven, in the most agreeable and captivating manner, with the habits and pleasures of everyday life.
Excerpt 2: A description of the “primitive Christians’” typical morning, evening, and midnight family devotions – not to be confused with their three daily personal devotions also described here. (From Antiquities of the Christian Church, 1841)
At an early hour in the morning the family was 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. During the day, they had, like the Jews, stated seasons, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, corresponding respectively to nine, twelve, and three, o’clock, according to our computation, when those who had command of their time, were wont to retire for a little to engage in the exercises of devotion. 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 be conveniently allotted to it in the commencement of the day. Besides all these frequent observances, they were in the habit of rising at midnight to engage in prayer and the singing of Psalms, – a practice of venerable 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.”
Excerpt 3: Instructions to church leaders on how to deal with fathers in the church who fail to lead their families in family worship. (From The Directory for Family Worship, 1647, language updated by William Gross, 2008)

And, to the end that these directions may not be rendered ineffectual and unprofitable among some, through the usual neglect of the very substance of the duty of Family-worship, the Assembly further requires and appoints ministers and ruling elders to make diligent search and inquiry, in the congregations committed to their charge respectively, whether any family or families are among them which neglect this necessary duty; and if any such family is found, the head of the family is to be first admonished privately to amend his fault; and, in case of his continuing in this, he is to be gravely and sadly reproved by the session; after this reproof, if he is still found to neglect Family-worship, let him be, for his obstinacy in such an offense, suspended and debarred from the Lord’s supper, as being justly considered unworthy to communicate in it until he amends his ways.


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