Family Worship & Family Harmony
by James Alexander & Michael J. McHugh
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, that went down to the skirts of his garments. As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore. (Psalm 133).
Family unity and peace is a blessing which cannot be overrated. This selection is designed to show that it is directly promoted by family worship.
The deliberate and consistent assembly of a whole household for the purpose of praise and worship of God, provides more than simply the means of bringing the several members together. There are striking differences among families in regard to the simple quality of cohesion. While some are a bare collection of so many particles, without mutual attraction, others are consolidated into a unity of love.
Many scattering influences are at work. Some of these may be attributed to a lack of system and regularity; some to late hours; some to peculiarities of business; some to fashion; and some to the influences of vice. From one or several of these influences we see domestic harmony impaired. Parents and children meet only at their meals, and not even at all of these. The tardy inmates of the house descend in the morning at any hour, and at long intervals, and the evening is often despoiled of the charm of home. In such circumstances, we are persuaded, the links of affection are tarnished, if not worn away.
In proportion as the subjects of mutual obligation live apart, they will cease to care for one another. No customs of society are laudable or safe which tend, in any considerable degree, to separate parents from children, and brothers from sisters. It is good to bring together the coals on the domestic hearth. Hence we have always looked with unqualified satisfaction on the New England custom of gathering all the members of a family, however remote, under the paternal roof on the day of annual thanksgiving. There is a sacred virtue in even beholding the face of an aged father and a gentle beloved mother. On this very principle, the president of a prestigious college, justly celebrated for his influence on young men, was accustomed, when he saw the first sign of rebellion in a student, to call him to his study, and kindly propose to him a simple visit to his parents. We do not wonder that the effect was often magical.
Family worship assembles the household twice every day, and that in a deliberate and solemn manner. No individual is missing. This is the law of the house from childhood to old age. The observance is as stated as the daily meals. Other employments and engagements are made to bow to this, until it becomes the irreversible rule of the little commonwealth. Such assemblies provide opportunities for each family member to look upon one another’s faces and exchange kind words and gentle wishes. Such influences, which may seem rather trivial, rise to inestimable magnitude when multiplied through all the days of long years, that is, over the entire progress of family life. By those who have enjoyed them, they can never be forgotten. Such households stand in open contrast to those where parents and children, in haste and disorder, and with many interruptions, snatch their daily bread, without so much as a word of discussion, thanks, or prayer.
Some good results, in respect of harmony, ensue, when a household purposely assembles for the common pursuit of any lawful object whatever. Union, and the sentiment of union, are promoted by joint participation, and the effect is appreciable where the gathering is frequent. Though it were only for exercise or recreation, for the practice of music, for an evening perusal of useful books, still there would be a contribution to mutual acquaintance and regard. But how much stronger is the operation of this principle when the avowed object of the meeting is to seek the face of God, and to invoke his blessing!
There is no way in which we can more surely increase mutual love than by praying for one another. If you would retain warmth of affection for an absent friend, pray for him. If you would live in the regards of another, beseech him to pray for you. If you would conquer enmity in your own soul towards one who has wronged you, pray for him. Dissension or coldness cannot abide between those who bear each other to God’s throne in supplication. It is what we meet to do at family worship. Often has the tenderness of a half-dying attachment been renewed and made young again, when the parties have found themselves kneeling before the mercy seat. Every thing connected with such utterance of mutual good-will in the domestic worship tends to foster it, and thus the daily prayers are as the dews of Hermon.
The devotions of the household are commonly conducted by the parent, and parental affection often needs such an outlet. The son or the daughter might otherwise remain ignorant of the anxieties of the father. There are yearnings which the parent cannot express to man, not even to a child, but which must be poured forth to God, and which have their appropriate channel in the daily prayer. The hearing of such petitions, gushing warm from the heart, and the participation of such emotions, cannot but sometimes reach the stubborn childish mind, and tend to a strong and reigning affection. Both parent and child, if they are ever touched with genuine love, must experience it when they come together before their God and Savior.
That revelation of divine truth which is perpetually expressed or implied in family worship, in Scripture, in psalms, and in prayers, enjoins this very peace and affection. The New Testament presents it in every page. The word of God and prayer are, from day to day, bringing the duty constantly before the conscience. The household which is subjected to this forming influence, may be expected, more than others, to be a household of peace.
Some notice must here be taken of a painful but common case. Human depravity sometimes breaks forth in friction and strife, among members of the same brotherhood, and, alas, even within the sacred limits of a Christian house. Harsh tempers, sour looks, moody silence, grudges, bitter words, and alienations, mar the beauty of the family circle. Therefore, we find slights, angry rebukes, suspicions, and recriminations entrenched in the home. Happy, indeed, is that household over which these black clouds do not sometimes hover. But what means shall we seek to dispel them? The family altar! Only an extraordinarily obstinate sinner will be able to let the sun go down upon his wrath when he is obliged to worship with the entire family. It is hard to listen long to the word of God without hearing the rebuke of all such bitter feelings. For example, the very portion read, may say to the unrelenting one, If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. (Matthew 5:23). At any rate, the whole spirit of the exercise convicts any family member who wishes to remain hard-hearted of his sin; for it is most difficult to pray with malice on the heart. The spirit of forgiveness often comes to us while we are upon our knees.
Suppose then, what we are reluctant to suppose, that mutual reproaches, perverse separation, and open quarrel, should enter a Christian family. To offenders, in such a case, the season of prayer must be an hour of keen rebuke. Avowedly, they are bowed down to pray for one another. The hypocrisy and impiety of attempting to do so out of a mind of hatred, will stare the sinner in the face, and will often bring him to repentance. Reconciliation, begun in the heart, during moments of devotion, may lead to the restoration of peace in the home.
Sad as is the thought, even husband and wife may be at odds with each other, and may give place to the devil. Harshness, severity, distrust, and unkindness, may spring up between those who have vowed to live together as heirs of the grace of life. But it is hard to believe that such persons, if they possess a spark of grace, can come to the posture and the words of prayer, encircled by their kneeling little ones, without surrendering the selfish spite, and making a faithful effort to crush the head of the viper. Marital tenderness, forbearance and love, are guarded by the exercises of family-devotion.
Contrast all this with the condition of a domestic circle subject to the same dark influences, but without these checks and this sacred balm, and you will no longer marvel that where there is no worship, there is no place for healing. The stream of unkindly temper runs on. Brooding silence is the best that can be expected. The day closes without reference to God. The griefs of the day are carried over into the morrow and all this because of a lack of spiritual influence which would be secured by the hour of prayer.
In speaking of family worship as a means of promoting family unity, we might dwell on its influence upon absent members of the household. As children grow up, there are few families which do not send forth from their bosom some children to distant places. These children are not forgotten at the hearth which they have left. Day by day, the venerable father, joined in silent love by the more melting mother, cries to God for him who is afar upon the sea, or in foreign lands. These are moments which bring the cherished object full before the mind, and make the absent one present to the heart. Such prayers serve many useful purposes. Chiefly, they rekindle and maintain the fire of affection. Most older children who leave home will not fail to prize these parental intercessions, or disregard the supplications of the brother or the sister left at home. Often, we are sure, the recollection of the domestic worship comes up before the distant youth, on the high seas, or in remote wanderings. Often is the secret tear shed over these privileges of his childhood. In the perpetual fire of the family worship, he knows he has a stable altar in his father’s house.
When, after years of absence, which may be due to some sin, the son or daughter revisits the home of his childhood, and that worship is renewed which he remembers so well—what a torrent of ancient reminiscence pours into the heart! Such associations have their influence on even hardened natures, and they go to prove the blessedness of this familiar institution.
But after all that we may urge, the great and crowning reason why domestic worship promotes harmony, is, that it promotes true religion, and religion is love. Its mission is peace on earth and good will to men. Unlike the humanistic schemes of secular philosophers and psychologists, which tear the household elements asunder, Christianity compacts the structure, and strengthens every wall. It adds a new cement, and makes the father more a father, the mother more a mother, the son more a son; so that there is not a social tie which does not become more strong and endearing by means of grace. If even enemies are reduced to toleration by the gospel, how much greater must be its influence on the ties of blood and affinity! It consecrates every natural relation, and exalts human affections by expanding them into eternity.
Its daily lessons, constantly recurring in family worship, bear directly on this point. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church. Let the wife see that she reverence her husband. Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing unto the Lord. Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ. And ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening, knowing that your Master also is in heaven. Love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous. Honor all men. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers. Be kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Such are the touching accents of the gospel in general, and of this institution in particular, familiarized to every inmate of a Christian house, from their childhood. And what the word of God enjoins, the Spirit of grace produces in the heart, where true religion finds entrance. Under the daily influence of such motives, which drop as the rain and distill as the dew, the youthful heart may be expected, in many cases, to receive the noblest charities of a renewed nature.
Amidst all the imperfections of a fallen world, there have been thousands of families, since the founding of the Church, which have realized this ideal; and what spectacle on earth is more lovely? From the very cradle, the infant lips are taught to lisp the name of God, and the soft voices of childhood join in the daily praise. Brothers and sisters, already brought by baptism within the pale of the visible church, grow up with all the additional reasons for mutual attachment, which spring from dedication to God. No day passes in which parents and children do not compass God’s altars. When the father and mother begin to descend into the autumn of life, they behold their offspring prepared to walk in their steps. There is a church in the house. When death enters, it is to make but a brief separation; and eternity sees the whole family in heaven, without exception or omission.
In cases where divorce or death have prematurely fractured the husband-wife relationship, single parents have even more reason to maintain family worship. A broken family can only be fixed by the re-establishment of Christ as the covenant head of the home. And there is no better or more meaningful way to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, the Good Shepherd, than through the instrument of the family altar. Only Christ can fill the void left by a family circle that has been broken by divorce or death.
The happiest family on earth will not always be so. The most smiling circle will be in tears some day. All that I ask is, that you would secure for yourselves and your children, a friend in that blessed Redeemer, who will wipe all tears from your faces. Your families may soon be scattered, and familiar voices may cease to echo within your walls. The children in a household do not stay children long. They quickly grow up and take off for college or careers. Oh see to it, that the God of Bethel goes with them, that they set up an altar even on a distant shore, and sing the Lord’s song in that foreign land. They may be taken from this earth altogether, and leave you alone. Oh see to it, that as one after another goes, it may be to their Father’s house above, and to sing with heavenly voices, the song which they first learned from you, and which you often sang together here—the song of Moses and the Lamb. And if you be taken, and some of them be left, see to it, that you leave them the thankful assurance that you are gone to their Father and your Father, their God and your God. And, in the meanwhile, let your united worship be so frequent and so fervent, that when you are taken from their head, the one whose sad responsibility it is to take your place, as priest of that household, shall not be able to select a chapter or a psalm with which your living image and voice are not associated, and in which you, though dead, are not yet speaking to them. And thus my heart’s wish for you all is,
When soon or late you reach that coast,
O’er life’s rough ocean driven;
May you rejoice, no wanderer lost,
A family in heaven.
This article is a chapter from James Alexander’s Thoughts on Family Worship, 1847, here edited and revised by Michael J. McHugh as published by Christian Liberty Press, 502 W. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights, IL 60004 (originally titled, The Importance of Family Worship).
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