A few months ago, a conversation with Joel Beeke went in an unexpected direction. We were talking Puritans (what else do you talk about with Dr. Beeke?) and we tried to think of a way we could team up to help people read A Puritan Theology. At that point I had only just begun reading the book, but was enjoying it tremendously and was eager to make it known to others. Yet I realized the price and sheer size of the volume makes it more than a little intimidating.
After some thought we decided to make A Puritan Theology the next of the books I would take on in the Reading Classics Together program. Not the whole book, mind you, but just the last eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 53 which discusses the Puritans and family worship. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they worshipped.
TC: To hear people talk about the Puritans, you would imagine they were harsh toward their children, making them endure endless hours of family worship. Is this accurate?
JB: Endless hours in family worship would have been impossible for most people in the seventeenth-century. In Puritan New England, many people were farmers who had to labor hard to produce food. Children also had much to do in school, household chores, and working alongside their fathers and mothers to learn a vocation. The Puritans also took time for recreation. They enjoyed hunting, fishing, shooting competitions, and wrestling—two New England Puritan ministers were famous amateur wrestlers. They enjoyed music in their homes, owning guitars, harpsichords, trumpets, violas, drums, and other instruments. There was a lot to do; family devotions were one part—albeit the most important part—of a busy daily schedule.
The Puritans aimed at pithy instruction and heart-moving prayer. Samuel Lee wrote that in all our teaching of the family we should beware of boring the children by talking too much. Long devotions overburden their little minds. It is best to hold the attention of children by using spiritual analogies with flowers, rivers, a field of grain, birds singing, the sun, a rainbow, etc.
TC: The Puritans regarded family worship as a duty. Did Puritan pastors ensure that fathers were carrying out this duty? How would they have helped families do this well?
JB: The Puritans did take this duty seriously. For example, in 1647, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith. Three days earlier, they had adopted the Directory for Family Worship, and required ruling elders and ministers to discipline heads of household that neglected family worship. In another branch of Puritanism, in 1677 the congregational church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, covenanted together to “maintain the worship of God” in their families, “educating, instructing, and charging our children and our households to keep the ways of the Lord.”
Puritan pastors helped families, first, by preaching on this subject; second, by writing books about family worship, and devotional books useful for family worship; third, by writing simple catechisms or promoting an official catechism; and fourth, by visiting each family in the church and catechizing the children. Parents often invited the minister over a meal, after which the minister would lead family worship. Pastoral visits both held parents accountable by revealing the level of knowledge of their children, and modeled what family worship should be.