Moses D. Hoge on "The Cotter's Saturday Night"

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One of Robert Burns’ most beloved poems is the word picture of family worship that constitutes his 1785 “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” (the full text can be read here). The scene was portrayed as a painting by William Kidd (c. 1850). This portrayal also served as inspiration for Moses Dury Hoge in an “unpremeditated address delivered before the Conference of the Evangelical Alliance” in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1884. Philip Schaff asked Hoge to deliver this address (which is also reproduced in the appendix to Peyton Harrison Hoge’s Moses Dury Hoge: Life and Letters) at the very last possible minute, but it proved to be a memorable and profitable deliverance on the subject of “Family Religion.”

After quoting lines from William Cowper, Hoge moved on to discuss Burns’ memorable poem:

And as one quotation suggests another, you, my friends from another land, will allow me to remind you of the hallowed scene depicted by one of the greatest bards, not only of Scotland but of the world — the picture of "The Cotter's Saturday Night," when the family, gathered for the evening worship, formed a circle around the fireside, and when the old patriarch, having read a portion from "the big ha' Bible," and all together having sung a psalm, borne upward by "Dundee's wild warbling notes," or "plaintive Martyrs" or "noble Elgin" —

"Then kneeling down to Heaven's eternal King,
The saint, the husband and the father prays.
Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing.
That thus they all shall meet in future days,
No more to sigh or shed the bitter tear.
Together hymning their Creator's praise,
In such society, yet still more dear,
While circling time moves round in an eternal sphere."

There is a picture of family worship whose outlines will never grow dim, and whose colors will not fade.

Well was it said, "From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs," and as long as piety in the household continues to be the characteristic of the life of the people of any land, it will never be with out the patriot soldier to defend its rights, or the patriot bard to sing its glories. Then let family worship open the gates of the morning with praise, and close the portals of the day with peace; let the children grow up under the hallowing influences of household piety, and these salutary impressions will never be effaced.

Words to consider on a weekend over a century later. “…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Family Religion Recommended by William Arthur

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A notable sermon on family worship has recently been added to Log College Press. Preached by William Arthur (1769-1827), who came to America from Scotland in 1793, it is titled “Family Religion Recommended,” and it is based on Joshua 24:15: “As for me, and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Rev. Arthur preached this sermon on two occasions in 1794 — once in the congregation of Robert Annan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and once in the congregation of Arthur’s cousin, John Mitchell Mason, in New York City. Published later the same year, Arthur’s sermon still serves his stated goal of “doing good” to many.

Reminding us that God sovereignly makes families, and that he deals with families as families, Arthur teaches that families have a duty to serve God. Thus, family worship is both the return of a debt of gratitude for mercies received and a duty owed to the God who has ordained the institution, and seeks such to worship him in spirit and in truth.

He bemoans the families who neglect this duty, and sit down to eat without so much as giving thanks to God for their daily bread. Without dismissing the importance of personal and private religious duties, Arthur emphasizes the Scriptural examples of families who worship together and mourn their family sins together, and teaches that this is a regular, not an occasional, duty. Family worship, he says, is recommended to us by the practice in Scripture of many faithful and godly witnesses.

Also, Arthur commends to us the promises of the God who says that will manifest himself through his covenant to families.

How animating is the following promise; which has, I suppose, a primary view to the return of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity; but has a running applicability, and a continued accomplishment, especially in the New Testament times! At the same time saith the Lord, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Says he, in another part of scripture, In all places, where I record my name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee; and is not his name recorded in our habitations?

Arthur went on to serve the congregation of the Pequea Presbyterian Church in Gap, Pennsylvania for 22 years. He died in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1827, but he is remembered as a faithful and godly minister who encouraged family, as well as corporate and private, worship.

J.W. Alexander: Remember to pray for your pastor

James Waddel Alexander reminds us what a privilege it is to lift our pastors before the heavenly throne to receive grace and blessing from above upon the ministry of Christ’s word:

The primary advantage of family-prayer to the church, is that it is answered. It is no small thing for any congregation to have daily cries for God's blessings on it ascending from a hundred firesides. What a spring of refreshment to a pastor! The family-devotions of praying Kidderminster, no doubt, made [Richard] Baxter a better minister, and a happier man; and it is possible that we are reaping the fruits of them, in his "Saints' Rest," and "Dying Thoughts." We have all heard of the preacher who told his flock that he had "lost his prayer-book," meaning their prayers; as also that good quaint saying of the last age, "A praying people makes a preaching minister." Such aid has been well compared to that of Aaron and Hur. Faithful and affectionate Christians never fail to remember their spiritual guide in their household supplications. (Thoughts on Family Worship, pp. 148-149)

Alexander MacWhorter on Family Worship

Alexander MacWhorter (1734-1807) was an important leader in the early American Presbyterian Church. He served as a chaplain during the American War of Independence; served as President of Liberty Hall Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina; ministered to the First Presbyterian Church of Newark, New Jersey for many years; was a founder of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA); and served as a trustee of Princeton for 35 years.

Many of his sermons were collected into two volumes and published in 1803 under the title A Series of Sermons, Upon the Most Important Principles of Our Holy Religion, each volume contained 42 sermons.

The second volume contains sermons on prayer in general, on private prayer and on family worship. We draw your attention to his sermon on family worship because it is a duty just as important in our day as in his, and even more prone to be neglected in our day than his.

MacWhorter’s text is Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” He begins by reinforcing the Scriptural basis for this duty: “If it be the duty of Christians to pray everywhere proper and convenient, to continue in prayer, be instant therein, and to pray always with all prayer, and that without ceasing, these things clearly show, that at all times we should possess a praying frame of heart, and be ready on all fit occasions to perform devotional service. Then it evidently follows that they ought to worship God in their families.” Many examples from both the Old and New Testaments are given of this practice. And the warning from Jeremiah 10:25 that God will pour out his fury upon the nations and families that call not upon his name is highlighted.

The reader is reminded of both of the benefits of family worship and the unhappy consequences that proceed from failure to do so. He quotes Richard Baxter, “A holy, well-governed family is the preparative to a holy and well-governed church” and adds that “When we begin the day with God, there is ground to hope we will ‘be in his fear all the day long.’” Encouragement is given to the heads of households charged with this duty. MacWhorter reminds us again and again that great blessings are in store for the families that do call upon his name.

Take time to read this sermon by Alexander MacWhorter (Sermon IV, “The Duty of Family Prayer,” in Vol. 2 of A Series of Sermons). It will remind you why you undertake this daily devotional practice or else it will encourage you to take up this daily devotional practice. It is never too late to begin. God seeks families to worship and praise him, as this remarkable colonial Presbyterian minister teaches us.

The Monitory Letters

Although published anonymously, the author of Monitory Letters to Church Members (1855) was William Buell Sprague. These are the letters of a watchman for the souls of his flock, and they address challenging issues that were prevalent in the 19th century, and no less so today. 

Contained in this volume are a series of 22 letters written to address subjects that reflect a declination in serious religion. Among those persons and topics addressed are:

  • Those who undervalue divine truth;
  • Those who willfully skip the second worship service on the Lord's Day;
  • Those who would send their children to dancing school (Sprague does not argue that dancing is sinful);
  • Those who neglect family worship;
  • Those who travel excessively on the Lord's Day;
  • Those who neglect mid-week services;
  • Those who are stingy and censorious (overly-critical); 
  • Those who are impatient, complaining, fickle, bigoted, neglectful, and irreverent;
  • Those who lack parental involvement and oversight; and 
  • Those who would send their children to a Roman Catholic school. 

Sprague means here to uphold the sanctity of the Lord's Day, the virtue and importance of family worship, the graces of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, the appreciation of true religion, and the wholesomeness of the home. Not all in our day will agree with his position on all issues. But these letters remind us of the seriousness of the issues which are pastorally addressed. They are not to be lightly dismissed. 

Three of the letters speak to the subject of family worship. The second letter, in particular, addresses the Scriptural warrant for its duty and practice. All of them are valuable incentives to experimental piety, which Sprague aimed at in all of his writings. 

Take time to read over these monitory letters. You may not be the addressee, but they may still convict the 21st century reader and stir him or her unto a serious apprehension of our duties before God and man.