The Family Altar


“Instructing Our Children” – 3

The Family Altar

XIX.​​ ​​ Texts that Transform

Deuteronomy 6:4-9


How are we to go about “nourishing” the souls of our children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4)? ​​ What are the concrete steps that we can take? We’ve looked carefully at discipline. We must now look just as carefully at instruction. What are the practices that will help us to instruct our children so that they will embrace our faith and be a blessing to others? God has given us means that we may utilize to that end. It is illegitimate to think that because God has promised to be the God of my children and me, then I can safely do nothing. Appeal to the sovereignty of God is a cop-out, even a form of​​ fatalism. Parents, train your children convinced that much depends on you. “Beware of that miserable delusion into which some have fallen,” Ryle warns, “that you must leave them alone, wait for grace, and sit still.”1​​ 


Others​​ while escaping fatalism​​ are infected with​​ pessimism.​​ They​​ have observed that some children reared in the most faithful homes, homes in which daily family worship was held and church​​ faithfully​​ was attended Sunday morning and evening, have abandoned the faith. So also the opposite has been observed, where children reared in the most undisciplined homes with the most nominal​​ and even wayward parents​​ are now missionaries! This observation can lead​​ to a similar​​ fatalism, one which leads to an “oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter what we do.”​​ Still​​ others view “trying” to utilize means as a form of legalism. Daily family worship and “never miss” church attendance strikes them as a mechanical and oppressive regime that betrays an​​ ex opera operato​​ view of how God works, and likely to spark resistance and rebellion.​​ 


While it is true that we cannot regenerate and convert our children, while we cannot impart faith and repentance, we can and must “train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov 22:6). “Though I cannot be the author to generate grace,” says​​ the Puritan​​ George Swinnock, “yet I may be the instrument and promote it.”2​​ Constantly we must ask of the priorities of our households, “How will this affect their souls,” either for good or ill? The Presbyterian church asks parents to vow,​​ 


Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him/her) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him/her), and you will teach (him/her) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him/her) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? ​​ (Vow #3)


The assumption behind the vow is that there are means that must be utilized if we are to transmit our faith to our children. The vow represents the historic view of the church. God has given to​​ parents means. What, then, are the God-given practices whereby we may transmit our faith to our children? What are the keys to “instruction” that are “in the Lord?”


Family altar

Henry opens his comments on Deuteronomy 6:6, 7 saying, “Means are here prescribed for the maintaining and keeping up of religion in our hearts and houses.”3​​ Exactly. God has given us means, centered around His word. When will you “pray with and for” your children? When will you “teach them the doctrines of our holy religion.”​​ When we brought our firstborn home​​ and I held him in my arms, I felt heavily both by privilege and responsibility as a parent. I realized I had​​ but 18 years to teach him the lessons I wanted him to learn.​​ I feared​​ that 18 years later​​ I’d be looking back regretting​​ that​​ while​​ I had always intended to read the Bible to​​ him, teach​​ him​​ hymns and psalms, pray with and for​​ him,​​ our family never quite managed with any consistency. I reckoned we never would unless we​​ committed​​ ourselves​​ to daily family devotions. Otherwise​​ ours​​ would be a legacy of false starts and failure. The​​ very​​ day we brought him home from the hospital, we inaugurated family prayers and maintained that discipline all through our childrearing years. Lacking resources, we assembled and eventually published​​ The​​ Family Worship Book​​ as an encouragement to others.4


Only late in the process did I realize that the Reformers purposefully moved daily prayer from the church building to the Christian home, empowering fathers as prophets, priests and kings in​​ their families. What I instinctively sensed should be done was in fact a long established Protestant practice,​​ dating back to Calvin’s Geneva and developed with particular thoroughness by​​ the​​ Puritans.5​​ “What the liturgy of the hours was for monks of the Middle Ages, the discipline of family prayer was for the Puritans,” says Hughes O. Old​​ (1933-2016). He continues, “The Puritans, whether on the Connecticut frontier or in the heart of London, whether they were Cambridge scholars or Shropshire cotters, gave great importance to maintaining a daily discipline of family prayer.”6​​ Commonly the Reformers and Puritans referred to​​ the family as a “little church,”​​ an appellation that dates at least to​​ Calvin and from him​​ the​​ man commonly called the father of English Puritanism, William Perkins (1558-1602).7​​ Richard Baxter (1615-1691), writing in his​​ Christian Directory,​​ urges that “the families of Christians should be little churches.”8​​ Matthew Henry devoted a sermon to the subject, entitled “A Church in the House.” The family, he says, “is the nursery in which the trees of righteousness are reared, and afterwards are planted in the courts of our God.” Heads of households, he urges, “must be as prophets, priests, and kings in their own families; and as such they must keep up family doctrine, family worship and family discipline.”9​​ William Gurnall (1617-1679), in his classic​​ The Christian in​​ Complete Armour,​​ summarizes the classic Reformed understanding of the duties of “family religion”:​​ 


The church began at first in a family, and was preserved by the godly care of parents in instructing their children and household in the truths of God, whereby the knowledge of God was transmitted from generation to generation, and though now the church is not confined to such strait limits, yet every private family is as a little nursery to the church.10


Currently in print are a veritable “Who’s Who” of historic Reformed authors who commend in the strongest terms the discipline of daily (typically twice daily!) family devotions. In addition to​​ Calvin, Perkins,​​ Baxter, Gurnall, Hamond, and Henry, we may cite Arthur Hildersham (1563-1632),​​ William Gouge (1575-1653),11​​ Thomas Manton (1620-1677),12​​ Oliver Heywood (1630-1702),13​​ Thomas Doolittle (1630-1707),14​​ Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), George Whitefield (1714-1770),​​ Samuel Davies (1723-1761),15​​ John Newton (1725-1807),16​​ J. W. Alexander​​ (1804-1859),17​​ Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843),18​​ and Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818-1902), among others. Jonathan Edwards​​ (1703-1758)​​ considered “family order” so important that he included in his “Farewell Sermon”​​ (to the Northampton, Massachusetts congregation that had just fired him)​​ this charge:


Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influence and governed by his rules. And family education and order are some of the chief of the means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are maintained, all the means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful.19


Family worship even achieved confessional status with the publishing of the​​ Westminster Confession of Faith​​ in 1647, which teaches that God is to be worshipped “in private families daily” (XXI.6).​​ Throughout the 19th​​ and into the 20th​​ century, books of family prayers regularly were published,​​ and denominational periodicals​​ whether Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, or Episcopalian​​ regularly contributed devotional helps for families.20​​ Virtually the whole weight of Protestant history testifies to the importance of family worship.


Case​​ for family worship

What is the case for family worship? Why should families establish the daily discipline of family devotions? We may point to biblical and practical reasons.



Where​​ do we​​ turn in the Bible to make this case? Oliver Heywood turned to the family altars in Genesis (Gen 26:25; 33:20; 35:1-15) to make his case in​​ A Family Altar,​​ where he demonstrates that Jacob, “as a householder” (Gen. 35: 2, 3),​​ by​​ teaching his family its duty (v 3), by building an altar and making an offering (v 14),​​ and by commanding his family to put away idols (v 4), “acts the part of a​​ prophet, priest,​​ and​​ king.​​ This Jacob did wherever he went, as did Abraham and Israel before him. This leads Heywood to the conclusion​​ “that governors of families must as priests erect family-altars for God’s worship.”21​​ Thomas Doolittle based his sermon​​ “The Duty of Family Prayer”​​ on​​ Joshua 24:15 (“as for me and my house…”)​​ as did George Whitefield​​ for his sermon “The Great Duty of Family Religion.” Samuel Davies​​ turned​​ to 1 Timothy 5:8 (providing for one’s household) for his sermon on “The Necessity and Excellence of Family Religion,”​​ and​​ Matthew Henry to 1 Corinthians 16:19 (reference to house church) for his sermon​​ “A Church in the House.” They all point to Genesis 18:19, Deuteronomy 6:6, 7, Job 1:5, 2 Samuel 6:20​​ (David blessing his household), Daniel 6:10​​ (Daniel retiring to his house to pray), Ephesians 6:1-4, Proverbs 22:6​​ among multiple other texts, most of which we​​ examined​​ previously.22



We​​ also​​ may​​ appeal to the obvious: families as families have praises to offer, sins to​​ renounce, thanksgivings to express, needs to make known to God. For families to do so, they must unite in a common act of worship. Dare the family tackle the world each day without seeking the protection and provision of Almighty God?​​ Heywood summarizes​​ our need this way:


There are family sins to​​ be confessed,​​ wants to be enumerated, mercies to be desired, cares and crosses to be removed, fears to be prevented, temptations to be resisted, duties to be performed, graces to be exercised, peace to be maintained or regained, passions to be suppressed, mercies to be acknowledged; and all these must be laid at God’s feet in daily prayer. That is a rare family which hath​​ not some prodigal son, or carnal soul, as a member of it; some body sick in it, or some child to dispose of in marriage, or to employ in some occupation; some doubts or difficulties that call for prayer, wherein the whole family​​ is concerned;​​ or if​​ there be no such exigency at present, yet who knows​​ how soon​​ any of these, or all these may​​ light upon a family? and what remedy is there like family prayer?23


Are these benefits to be sought without praise and thanksgiving, and without instruction from the reading of God’s word? The older authors not infrequently argue that one doesn’t need a biblical​​ text to teach what should be obvious to sanctified common sense.​​ Of course​​ the family should gather daily to worship God.”24 ​​​​ “How sad is the condition of these families that sin together, and never pray together,” Henry laments.25



Each element (which we’ll look at in a moment) is a teaching tool. Consider the less obvious element, prayer. Children will learn of the attributes of God as He is praised: His greatness, goodness, holiness, and wisdom. They will learn of the seriousness of sin as sins are confessed. They will learn of the adequacy of Christ​​ and the cross​​ as forgiveness is claimed in His name. They will learn of the importance of holiness as sanctification is sought. They will learn of the burden for​​ missions as they hear pleading for the souls of the lost. Add to this that which is learned through singing psalms and the reading of Scripture, it becomes obvious that family worship is an outstanding teaching tool.​​ 


In addition, family worship is an effective tool for preparing children for the public means of grace. Both Baxter and Henry lament how difficult their task is when children come to public worship without the benefit of family worship. However, those who have learned to sit still at home will easily learn to do so in public. Those who have become accustomed to listening to prayers, Scripture reading, and even exhortations at home, will be prepared to do so in public to the eternal blessing of their souls. They will be in the position to benefit from the public ministry​​ of the church, whereas those children deprived of family worship will struggle. “If children… were accustomed to religious exercises at home, sermons would not be so tedious​​ nor Sabbaths​​ so tiresome to them as they are,”​​ Swinnock observes.26



The activities or elements of family worship are simple: sing praises, read Scripture, and pray.

  • Sing –​​ This easily is the children’s favorite part of family worship​​ and should not be neglected. They will enjoy singing as a family. We stayed away from “children’s songs” for the most part. We were confident that they would pick up those in other contexts. The “psalm and hymn of the month” program features durable, time-proven, quality​​ songs of​​ praise​​ that​​ will acquaint the children with the rich devotional language of the church. The​​ Family Worship Book​​ features 60 psalms and 60 hymns. The​​ Psalms of the Trinity Psalter​​ CD features these psalms and the​​ Hymns Triumphant​​ CD features most of the hymns.

  • Read –​​ Commit to reading approximately a chapter a day, less when a chapter is long, more when a chapter is short. Vary the diet: historical narrative (e.g. Genesis-Nehemiah), poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon), wisdom (Job,​​ Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), prophets (Isaiah-Malachi), Gospel (Matthew-John), Acts, epistle (Romans to Jude), and apocryphal (Revelation). We used children’s Bibles for a number of years, but as the older children grew, we graduated to a “real Bible.” There is no pressure to provide an exposition, though a comment or question here and there would be in order. Take care to read with nuance and emphasis. Make the reading a lively​​ reading. J. W. Alexander (1804-1859), in his book​​ Family Worship,​​ warns that half the meaning of a passage is lost,

and almost all of its effect, are sometimes suffocated and lost, by a sleepy,​​    monotonous, stupid, careless, inarticulate, drawling, or what is worse, an​​    affected delivery.”27

Families are meant to be the nurseries of the church where the word and will of God is first heard, and the seminaries of the church where growth continues.

3. ​​ Pray –​​ Private prayer may focus on private things, public prayer on public things, and family prayer on family things. Henry provides helpful guidelines for family prayer.

Let us go by this rule in our family devotions, –whatever is the matter of our care, let it be the matter of our prayer; and let us allow no care, which we cannot in faith spread before God: and​​ whatever is the matter of our​​ rejoicing, let it be the matter of our thanksgiving; and let us withhold our​​ hearts from all those joys which do not dispose us for the duty of praise.28

More simply, follow the easy acrostic A-C-T-S:​​ Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication. Be sure to be brief, yet fervent in prayer. Pray with variety so as not to be predictable, and​​ pray with urgency so as not to be dull.​​ 



Hamond​​ warns of “short-lived convictions” and “feverish fits of devotion,” when​​ guilt or zeal overcomes inertia​​ but fails to result in consistency.29​​ Don’t allow yourself to be overcome by discouragement​​ if you’ve tried to implement​​ family worship and failed. Start again, only this time establish a set time to hold family worship and stick to​​ a set time. Accommodate irregularities in your family schedule and otherwise stick to it. Let it become as regular a part of the routine as personal hygiene and grooming.​​ 


Feel inadequate to the task? Henry exhorts us, “Plead not your own weakness and inability to perform family worship; make use of the helps that are provided for you; do as well as you can when you cannot do so well as you would, and God will accept of you.”30​​ Don’t underestimate the cumulative impact of daily family devotions over a period of 18 years. Ten minutes a day over six days a week is an hour a week, 52 hours a year, and 936 hours in 18 years. Up it to 15 minutes a day and it increases to 78 hours a year and 1404 hours in 18 years, or 175 ½ eight-hour work days.​​ 


Don’t attempt to do too much. Gather the family at a set time. Sing a hymn. Sing a psalm. Read a chapter or so of Scripture. Pray. By your prayers “carry thy children to the blessed Jesus in the arms of faith,” Swinnock urges with this assurance: “He hath as tender a respect for children now as he had then, –– and beseech him to bless them.”31 ​​​​ 


No​​ time? If that is one’s thinking, the time has come for major changes in the family’s priorities. Time is available for work, for play, for socializing, for eating, for sleeping, for everything, but there is not 10-15 minutes that one can squeeze out of a day for family worship? Surely this cannot be the case, not if the family’s priorities are straight.​​ “It is certain,” says John Owen, “that God gives us enough time for all that he requires of us of any kind in this world.”32​​ Proper regard for the souls of one’s loved ones makes a disciplined family devotional routine necessary.


Boring?​​ Others may object that family worship is boring. They remember how dull, how tiresome participation in family devotions was in their childhood, and are loathe to repeat the ordeal with their children. J.W. Alexander responds, “Very ignorant, very stupid, or very irreligious people, may transform it into a tedious and burdensome routine.” This is true enough. Yet “this is not fault of the ordinance.” Where there is inspired leadership, family worship may be made daily “a delightful and animating means of grace,” on which “shines with a pure and hallowed attraction.”33


Elisabeth Elliot in her book,​​ The Shaping of a Christian Family,​​ describes her father gathering the family​​ for their rather ordinary family prayers each morning after breakfast.


I do not say that we always followed willingly, or with anything like spiritual hunger or understanding, not until years later for most of us…​​ It is significant to me that we never had anything that comes close to what nowadays would be termed​​ sharing​​ at family prayers. Nobody talked about how they felt about God. It was a brief and quite formal little meeting, always in the living room, away from the​​ dishes and toast crumbs of the breakfast table. There was no variation in the order, no innovations, nothing “creative.” A younger child passed out hymnbooks to all who could read. Everybody sang, the nonreaders memorizing hymns with astonishing speed.34


She lists several of the classic hymns that they sang, such as “O Worship the King” and “It is well with My Soul.” She continues:


In times of deep distress I have been sustained by the words of hymns learned in family prayers. My friend Arlita Winston tells me her method for keeping depression and demons away:​​ sing hymns!​​ When three men were being taken out to be used as targets for bayonet practice in a Japanese prison camp, the men remaining sang “Abide with Me” to give the three courage to endure torture and death. Jesus sang a hymn with His disciples when He was on His way to Gethsemane. How thankful I have been in the dark hours that my parents saw to it​​ that hymns became fixed in our minds and hearts, through what was to us at the time merely a family routine.


Bible reading followed the hymn singing. My father believed in reading​​ reverently​​ (we had to sit still – no fidgeting). He believed in reading​​ regularly​​ (twice a day aloud to us, a least once in private).​​ … Rarely did​​ he (comment) on the short passage. He might occasionally put a question to a child to make sure we were paying attention.35


Intimidated?​​ She tells her story for the same reason why I have included it.


I tell this part of our story for the encouragement of fathers who do not find it easy to talk to anyone about spiritual things, let alone moderate a family discussion group. “I’m not really very spiritual,” I have heard men say. “My wife’s better​​ at that.” But a father is the priest​​ in his home, held responsible by God for​​ the​​ spiritual training of his children. I am sure my father did not feel adequate in any sense of the word – far from it, in fact. He spoke of his own weaknesses with sorrow. But he knew his job. By God’s grace he did it, without fuss or fanfare.


My father’s prayers were notably simple… ending with “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray,” whereupon we joined him in saying the Lord’s Prayer.36


Henry​​ pleads with us:


I beg of you for God’s sake, ––for Christ’s sake, ––for your own precious soul’s sake, ––and for your children’s sake of your own bodies, that you will live no longer in the neglect of so great, and necessary, and comfortable a duty as this of family-worship is.37


Ten to fifteen minutes six days a week adds up to a lot of praise, a lot of Bible, and a lot of prayer, and a lot of grace for your children.​​ It adds up.​​ 






​​ Ryle,​​ Duties of Parents,​​ 6.


​​ Swinnock, “Christian Man’s Calling,”​​ Works,​​ I:429.


​​ Henry,​​ Exposition,​​ on Deuteronomy 6:6, 7.


​​ T. L. Johnson,​​ The Family Worship Book​​ (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1998).


​​ See Elsie Anne McKee (ed.),​​ John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety​​ (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 210.


​​ Hughes O. Old, “Matthew Henry and the Puritan Discipline of Family Prayer,” in John Leith (ed.),​​ Calvin Studies,​​ VII,​​ “Papers Presented at a Colloquium on Calvin Studies,” Davidson College, Davidson College Presbyterian Church, Davidson, NC, Jan. 28-29, 1994, 69; Of late, Roman Catholics have begun emphasizing the importance of family prayers. In the book of​​ Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers,​​ Christian homes are referred to as “little churches” in which “prayer must happen… if the Sunday assembly is to become a community of prayer” (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1988, 4). The Journal of the Liturgical Conference,​​ Liturgy,​​ recently devoted an issue to the subject of “Little Churches: Ritual in the Home” (Vol. 21, Nov. 4, 2006).


​​ Oeconomie: or Household Government:​​ A Short Survey of the Right Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family, according to the Scriptures (1609;​​ London: John Haviland, 1631), 670.


​​ Baxter, “Directory,”​​ Works,​​ IV:52.


​​ Matthew Henry,​​ “A Church in the House,” in​​ The Complete Works of Matthew Henry: Treatises, Sermons, and Tracts,​​ Vols. 1 & 2​​ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997); I:251, 252; also found in​​ Family Religion: Principles for Raising a Godly Family​​ (1704; Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 33.​​ 


​​ Gurnall,​​ The Christian in Complete Armour,​​ I:164.


​​ William Gouge,​​ Of Domestical Duties​​ (1622; Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library).


​​ Thomas Manton, “Mr. Thomas Manton’s Epistle to the Reader,”​​ Westminster Confession of Faith​​ (Inverness: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1983).


​​ Oliver Heywood, “The Family Altar,” in​​ The Whole Works of the Rev. Oliver Heywood,​​ Vol. 4 (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999).


​​ Thomas Doolittle, “How May the Duty of Daily Family Prayer be Best Managed for the Spiritual Benefit of Everyone in the Family?” in​​ Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689​​ (1844; Wheaton: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981),​​ 194-272.


​​ All the foregoing are found in Don Kistler (ed.),​​ The Godly Family: A Series of Essays on the Duties of Parents and Children​​ (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993).


​​ John Newton, “Family Worship,”​​ The Letters of John Newton​​ (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965).


​​ J.W. Alexander,​​ Thoughts on Family Worship​​ (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990).


​​ Robert Murray M’Cheyne,​​ “Family Government,”​​ Additional Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne​​ (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1984).


​​ Jonathan Edwards, “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” in​​ The Works of Jonathan Edwards,​​ Vol. 1 (1834; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), ccvi.


​​ Ron Parrish’s considerable yet ​​ undoubtedly incomplete collection of 19th​​ century books for family worship includes 26 titles which we have included in the back of this chapter.


​​ Heywood,​​ Family Altar,​​ 297.


​​ See “Instructing our Children,” 1, 2.​​ 


​​ Heywood,​​ Family Altar,​​ 322-323.


​​ Eliott,​​ The Shaping of a Christian Family,​​ 60.


​​ Henry, “Church in the House,”​​ Works,​​ I:254.​​ 


​​ Swinnock, “Christian Man’s Calling,”​​ Works,​​ I:338.


​​ Alexander,​​ Family Worship,​​ 212.


​​ Henry, “A​​ Church in the House,”​​ Works, I:256.


​​ Hamond,​​ Family Worship,​​ 55.


​​ Henry, “Church in the House,”​​ Works,​​ I:252.


​​ Swinnock, “Christian Man’s Calling,”​​ Works,​​ I:411.


​​ Owen, “The Nature and Power of Indwelling Sin,”​​ Works,​​ VII:230.


​​ Alexander,​​ Family Worship, 248-249.


​​ Elisabeth Elliot,​​ The Shaping of a Christian Family​​ (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), 57.


​​ Ibid., 58.


​​ Ibid., 58-59.


​​ Henry, “Church in the House,”​​ Works,​​ I:264.