Among the Puritan heirs of the Reformation, there was a clear model for family discipleship that could be learned and transferred from one context to another. Brief, daily times of family worship were central to this model; in fact, family worship and order were perceived as primary means for the prospering of true religion in all of life.
* “You are not likely to see any general reformation,” Richard Baxter noted in 1656, “till you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons, and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.”
* In Scotland, the church leadership instructed ministers to discipline any “Head of the Family” who neglected family worship and to discern in their pastoral visits, “Whether God be worshipped in the family, by prayers, praises, and reading of the Scriptures? Concerning the behavior of servants towards God and towards man; if they attend family and public worship? If there be catechizing in the family?”
* In New England, officers known as “tithingmen” maintained family order by publicly reporting fathers who failed to manage their households well.
* Even as Puritanism faded, Jonathan Edwards admonished a congregation that had forcibly terminated him with these words:
Let me now therefore, once more, before I finally cease to speak to this congregation, repeat, and earnestly press the counsel which I have often urged on the heads of families, while I was their pastor, to great painfulness in teaching, warning, and directing their children; bringing them up in the training and admonition of the Lord; beginning early, where there is yet opportunity, and maintaining constant diligence in all labors of this kind. … Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by His rules. And family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual.
This model for family ministry did not, however, prevent church leaders from gathering age-organized groups for the purpose of teaching biblical truths.
* In 1674, a resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts, recalled the restoration of his church’s “primitive practice” of “training up … male youth” by gathering them on Sundays to “examine their remembrance” of the sermon and to hear them recite portions of the catechism. Female youth gathered for a similar meeting on Mondays.
* Church records from Norwich, Connecticut, in 1675 and from Plymouth in 1694 suggest that such practices were widespread in New England.
* Cotton Mather spoke of belonging to a young people’s group that, each Sunday evening, “prayed, and sang a psalm, taking our turns in such devotions.”
* Jonathan Edwards practiced a pattern of this sort in his Northampton congregation. In 1743, Edwards described his custom in a personal letter to an acquaintance:
At the conclusion of the public exercise on the Sabbath, I appointed the children that were under sixteen years of age to go from the meetinghouse to a neighbor house, that I there might further enforce what they had heard in public, and might give in some counsels proper for their age. … About the middle of the summer, I called together the young people that were communicants, from sixteen to twenty-six years of age, to my house; which proved to be a most happy meeting. … We had several meetings that summer of young people.
Well into the eighteenth century, the primary expression of the father’s responsibility as a spiritual leader remained the consistent practice of worship in the home. It is crucial to note, however, that this was not intended to serve as the sole expression of the parents’ duty. “The whole of family religion is not to be placed in acts of worship, properly so called,” one Reformed Baptist pastor reminded his church members in 1769,
It includes family government, and discipline; the daily reading of the scriptures … , and at some times, especially on the Lord’s Day, other practical books; watching over the ways of our household, catechizing Children, instructing servants; reproving, admonishing, and correcting for irregularities of temper and conduct; and more especially for sins against God. But family worship is the most important part, and will have a great influence to promote the regular and useful discharge of the rest.
From the perspective of these heirs of the Puritans, ministry within the family entailed far more than a mere practice of family devotions; family ministry was a whole-life experience that included “watching over,” disciplining, and differentiating between children’s “irregularities” and “sins.” Furthermore, the precise patterns of family worship were seen as flexible. “The circumstances of families are so various, that no determinate rules can be laid down, nor has the word of God prescribed any,” former slave trader John Newton wrote when a friend asked him about family worship, “it is wisely and graciously accommodated to suit the different situations of his people.”
Christians of this era may not have discussed models for family ministry per se. They did, however, pursue a clear, practicable, and transferable model for the Christian formation of families. Fundamental to these expectations was the notion that parents bore first responsibility for the Christian formation of their children. Each Christian family should function, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, “as it were a little church.” The primacy of family discipleship did not, however, exclude or negate the necessary role of the larger faith-community. Neither did the primacy of the parents’ role preclude regular, age-organized gatherings of children and youth for the purpose of instruction in Scripture and theology.
This is not intended to imply that Christian parents universally pursued the ideal expectations that I have described, even in the church’s earliest centuries. No such golden era existed, whether in the first centuries of Christianity or in the Reformation or among the Puritans. (One ancient Christian writing, penned less than a century after the New Testament Gospels, portrays an angelic messenger who rebukes a father with these words: “You have been indulgent; you have not guided your family in the way of correction. Thus, the Lord is angry with you.”) Nevertheless, a clear ideal persisted in the pre-modern and early modern eras—an ideal that placed parents in the position of primary faith-trainers in their children’s lives without diminishing a direct role for the larger faith-community.
For additional reading regarding discipleship among the Puritans, click here.
For more on models for family discipleship, including references, see my chapter in A Theology for Family Ministry.