W.A. Scott asks "Do you pray in your family?"

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William Anderson Scott (1813-1885) served as moderator of the Old School General Assembly (PCUSA); ministered to congregations in New York City, New Orleans, San Francisco and other locations; edited several periodicals; and helped to found the San Francisco Theological Seminary. He was also a father of nine children.

In the second volume (1861) of The Pacific Expositor, which he edited, Scott included a brief article on family worship, which shows the priority he (obviously a busy man) placed on this particular ordinance of God. It may serve as an encouragement to others today. It comes from the September 1860 issue, p. 140..

DO YOU PRAY IN YOUR FAMILY? If you do not, you are not like the good people of old times. Wherever the patriarchs had a tent, God had an altar. They called upon the name of the Lord in the valleys and upon the hills. Joshua resolved, that, as for him and his family, they would serve the Lord; that is, worship Him.

Job practised family worship. “He sent and sanctified his children, and rose early in the morning and offered burnt-offerings, according to the number of them all. Thus did Job continually.”

David, having spent one day in bringing the ark from the house of Obed-edom to the place he had prepared for it, and in presenting peace-offerings before the Lord, returned at night to bless his household — that is, to pray for blessings upon his family, or to attend upon family devotion. Cornelius, the centurion, it is said, “feared God with his whole house” — meaning worshipped him with his family.

In the Lord’s Prayer we have a command for family devotion. “After this manner, therefore, pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven.” The form of prayer is plural. It must, therefore, mean social prayer, and if social, then family prayer; for a family is the most proper place to engage in this devotion. Paul, in his Epistle to the Colossians, having pointed out the duty of husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, adds: “Continue in prayer; watch in the same with thanksgiving.” The subject upon which he was speaking leads us to conclude he meant family prayer. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, he enjoins it as a duty to “pray always with all prayer;” — that is to offer prayer of every kind, and in every form, and at every proper season. Family prayer must, therefore, be included in the injunction.

These direct and indirect examples, and commands, from Scripture show how important family worship was to the people of God of old, and how Christ enjoins his people a duty and a blessing to assemble in families to magnify the Lord. Let us take heart from this Scriptural precept and example, as given by Rev. Scott, to enter into that blessing.

J.W. Alexander on Sabbath Evenings in Former Days

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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?

The Sitting-Room by J.W. Alexander

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In most eloquent fashion, James Waddel Alexander reminds us why families need a place to come together, as well as a routine where the heart of family life is nourished. This piece was originally published in The Presbyterian Magazine (Jan. 1851) under the pseudonym “C.Q.” (for “Charles Quill,” a favorite nom de plume of Alexander), and later republished posthumously with the author’s true name. Though he wrote in the 19th century, the need expressed here is no less greater, perhaps much more so, in the 21st.

The Sitting-Room

There is, or there ought to be, in every house, a room where all the household come together every day; a dear, well-remembered chamber, hung round by memory with the portraits of father, mother, brothers, sisters, servants, kinsfolk, friends, neighbours, guests, strangers, and Christ's poor. O, my reader, do you not remember such a room? In your wanderings, in your voyages, in the group of your own family, and among your own children, does not your thought go back to the days when you gathered around that ruddy, crackling fire, and when the heads, which are now laid low, were as a crown of glory to their offspring?

In some houses, this common-room, or “living-room,” as our Puritan neighbours call it, is the only room in the house; it is parlour, bed-room, kitchen, all in one. Blessed compensation of Providence to the poor man and his offspring; they can be always together. Wealth multiplies apartments and separates families. Go to the western clearing, and before you reach the cabin, you descry through the chinks the glow of a fire, which would serve a city mechanic for a week; entering, you behold the illumination of a whole circle sitting around the blaze, perhaps singing their evening hymn. Are they less happy than the dwellers in ceiled houses? Change the scene to the uptown seats of wealth, where the merchant prince abides in greater conveniences than Nebuchadnezzar or Charlemagne; for he has baths, hot and cold water on every floor, furnace-heat, and gas-lights. You can scarcely number the apartments. You think it a paradise. Hold! reconsider the social, the domestic part. It is three o'clock. What a solitude: The father is slaving at his counting-house. The mother is dropping cards at fifty doors, or stiffly receiving fifty visits. The boys are sparring or walking Broadway or Chestnut-street. The girls are with masters in Italian, dancing, and philosophy. The babies are airing with French nurses. Do these ever come together? Not in the true family sense. Some Christian merchants have few home joys, and are content to pray with their families once a day. The very name of a sitting-room, living-room, or common-room sounds plebeian, and savours of “the country.” Yet I know men, rich believers, who make conscience of gathering their family, all their family; and to effect this requires a place. God's blessing is on the room, whether covered with Axminster carpets or unplaned plank, whether hung with damask or with hunting-shirts and bear-skins, where that little kingdom, a Christian household, daily meets for prayer, for praise, for kind words, for joint labours, for loving looks, for rational entertainment, for reading aloud, for music, for neighbourly exchanges, for entertaining angels unawares. Thanks be to God for our Presbyterian sitting-rooms!

The Report of the 1849 Committee on Congregational Singing

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The June 30, 1849, edition of The Presbyterian, published in New York and Philadelphia, records the report of the Committee on Congregational Singing to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Old School (Dr. William Swan Plumer was on this committee). It is a fascinating read, particularly on what it has to say about the topic of choirs in relation to congregational singing. We quote the section in full:

While, in some places, as yet, singing in public worship is conducted by a precentor, or a choir, and the congregation generally join their voices in other places, a select choir performs the singing, with little or no assistance from the great body of the congregation. We are free to say that we consider the latter practice as very undesirable, at the least. It results, in some cases, from the too frequent introduction of new tunes, which are repeated so seldom, and at such long intervals, that the congregation has no sufficient opportunity to become familiar with them and this is one important reason of the dislike which is occasionally felt toward new tunes, otherwise unexceptionable. But the disuse of congregational singing arises, also, from the fact that as the more cultivated and skilful singers are apt to be collected in the choir, there is not only a corresponding diminution of the number of singers in the body of the congregations, by the transfer of voices which formerly rose from various points in the assembly, but an increased diminution is effected, because other persons, who now miss the leading voices, by whose vicinity they were encouraged to sing, have now ceased to sing at all; and at length, if the singing of the choir happens to be very excellent, the pleasure of listening to it supersedes what ought to be the pleasure, and is the duty, of following it and uniting with it; and in the end, the mass of the worshippers sit completely silent.

We do not object to choirs. They are eminently useful as leaders. The evil alluded to is not necessarily to be remedied by disbanding them. There is a more excellent way of supplying the defect. We do not insist that it is the duty of all to sing. We think rather that it is the duty of some persons not to attempt to sing in public worship. Such are the incurables in voice and ear. But, at the same time, far more persons than now attempt to sing, may, can, and ought to qualify themselves for an edifying use of their voices in praising God in his courts. And, before we too soon conclude against choirs, as the cause of the disuse of congregational singing, a little inquiry into the habits of the people, in regard to this matter, may disclose a reason or two, which make greatly against some of those who complain of the evil. In the first place, is it not a fact that people generally do not pay sufficient regard to the excellent recommendation in the Directory, (chap. 4, Sec. 2,) to "cultivate some knowledge of the rules of music, that we may praise God in a becoming manner, with our voices, as well as our hearts?" What can be expected from indolence on this point, but the dissonant marring of "becoming praise," which no man has a right to produce, or an unseemly silence, which no man has a right to relapse into, until he has made a fair, but fruitless effort to learn to sing. Secondly, let us inquire how much of this evil is to be attributed to another evil probably lying back of it: is there not reason to believe that singing in family worship has fallen into general desuetude? Where this exercise is neglected, not only does family worship lose one of its sweetest elements and attractions, with all its soothing and elevating influences, but the young are deprived of one of the most likely and important means and aids for acquiring the taste, the practice, and the skill, which fit them to join in the praises of the Lord's house, with advantage to themselves and others. The operation of these two causes appears to us to be so obvious, that they need only to be indicated in order to suggest the remedy. On this point, proper care must be exercised by pastors, elders, and heads of families. Let them co-operate in promoting the cultivation of sacred music in families, in singing schools, in Sunday schools, in singing meetings, and even in the week-day schools: and let the officers of the church take the supervision both of the instruction of their people, and especially the youth, and of the whole department of the singing in public worship. Thus much will be done to correct any undue innovations by precentors and choirs, and to secure that co-operation of choir and people which is most desirable and practicable. This combination is attainable in entire consistency with a style of church-music, such as is demanded by the dignity of the service and approved by good taste, and with the edification of the people and the greater glory of God. Otherwise, it may well be feared that the work of " praising God in his sanctuary" will be monopolized by a very few persons; and it will be no sufficient apology for the indolent worshiper, that he is ready to objurgate "singing by Committee," and "praising God by proxy," while, in contrast with his own remissness, the zeal and pains which strive to rescue the singing of God's praise from utter neglect and contempt, are worthy of all commendation.

The committee’s report can be read in full here (1849 Old School General Assembly Minutes, starting at page 390).

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.