James Waddel Alexander, writing in 1851 under the pen name “C.Q.,” has given us a description of how evenings were spent on the Lord’s Day, after public worship was over. It is valuable to note the place given to family worship, Scripture, the Psalms, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the reading of classic religious books.
Among our Presbyterian forefathers it was not customary to have public service on Sabbath evenings. That time was usually devoted, in England, and especially in Scotland, to the instruction of the household. In addition to the family worship, which at these seasons was more solemn and more extended, the domestic ordinance of catechizing was observed with great punctuality and zeal….
After the evening meal of the Sabbath, the whole family was gathered, not excepting the domestics, some of whom were grey headed servants of Christ, who had grown up under the roof. In our day of restlessness it is thought enough to despatch a few questions and answers; but the Scottish method was to go through the whole Shorter Catechism, without omission or abridgment. The presiding person, in this exercise, was the master of the house; and we know families, in which, even now, this service is constantly performed without book. We were lately told by a lady, that, after her father's death, the catechetical examination was faithfully carried on by the mother; and no doubt, this has happened in thousands of instances. Though the Larger Catechism was extensively taught, as was the case in a family from which the writer is descended, it was the Shorter Catechism which every youth, without exception, was expected to know. Any one who chooses to try the experiment, may easily satisfy himself how deeply this form of sound words is impressed on the memory of all who have enjoyed a regular Presbyterian training. After attaining a perfect knowledge of the text, children were made to learn a sufficient number of Scripture proofs. This was in itself a theological education. By weekly repetition, it was not merely taught, but inculcated, in the proper sense of that term; so that scarcely any lapse of years could entirely eradicate it from the mind. Whatever may be said about the tediousness of such a discipline, we believe all who have passed through it agree in looking back to those evening exercises as serenely delightful; and in regretting the seeming necessity of denying the same to their own children.
In the Presbyterian houses to which reference is now had, Holy Scripture had its place, in the looking out of passages quoted by the preacher, and in repeating psalms and paraphrases. Expositions of a familiar kind were not unfrequently given, which left their impression on the youthful mind. In days when books were scarcer than at present, many an hour was spent in reading aloud from such works as Rutherford's Letters, Boston's Fourfold State and Crook in the Lot, Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, Guthrie's Interest, and the Sermons of Binning and Andrew Gray. Does not the heart of some reader bless God for these golden opportunities?
There are many congregations among ourselves, in which the evenings of the Lord's days are vacant. It is a very serious question for parents and householders, how far they may employ this sacred season, statedly, for the benefit of their families. Thorough and effectual catechising demands at least a weekly exercise; and where there is no other engagement, the best time for these is the Sabbath evening. Religious instruction, at such a season, is sanctified by the hallowed day, and sweetened by the flow of home- feelings. The service need be neither tedious nor burdensome. A little management may render it delightful. Next to the house of God, there is no place so favourable for the conversion of children as the happy fireside. Let not the subject be laid aside, without some careful recurrence to the past, some candid self-examination, some deliberate planning, some resolved purpose, some self-denying and courageous endeavour, and some prayer to God for his blessing.
Alexander’s snapshot of Sabbath evenings past was meant to encourage readers of his own day to redeem those hours with family exercises of worship, catechetical instruction, and devotional reading. How much more do we need — “in our day of restlessness” — such encouragement in the early part of the 21st century?