At 26 years of age, Richard Baxter was pastor of a church in Kidderminster, England. It was the 17th century. Upon arrival he found himself in a community of well-to-do, respectable townsmen where the church was not well attended and worship services lacked spiritual warmth.
In response to this state of affairs, he wrote: “The way to save this church and the community is to establish religion in the homes of the people and to build the family altar.” Accordingly he spent three years visiting the people in their homes with the determination to establish a family altar in every home in the community.
Family altar is the simple practice of gathering the members of the family together at a set time each day to read the Bible and pray together. Baxter believed this would be the primary way to renew the spiritual life of the congregation.
Family altar is a historic practice for families deeply committed to the worship of the living God. Three centuries after Baxter, I recall, as a young lad in Saskatchewan, experiencing the energy and worth of family altar. My Mother carried the burden faithfully for this exercise. Family altar was held at the close of the evening meal for one older sister, a younger sister and me. Occasionally our father sat in.
We formed our chairs to face each other in an open part of the kitchen. Mother took down her well used Bible and usually read a whole chapter. Then we sang a portion of a hymn. Mother knew about a half dozen “favorite” hymns by heart so we cycled those six again and again. After the hymn, we knelt at our chairs and Mother prayed. At the close of her earnest prayer we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.
As we children developed proficiency in reading we began to take turns at reading a paragraph or so and offering our own prayers. Sometimes what was read in the Scriptures prompted childhood questions about God or about such basic moral issues as telling the truth or getting along with playmates. Occasionally, if things had gone poorly in family relationships they were corrected. In a nutshell this daily exercise helped to develop a God-consciousness which attends us for life.
Family altar has much more competition today than in my childhood. For us there was no television, iPads, smart phones, or electronic games to commandeer our time and isolate us from one another. Today the very pace of modern life might require a simplified version for family altar, but need not choke the exercise out of existence, and will always require parental diligence.
Like Mother, we see its value and my wife and I continue the practice. At 90 years of age, we sit down in our family room after breakfast each morning and read the Bible, one chapter a day. We discuss what we’ve read and then take time for prayers. As a wholesome breakfast nourishes our mortal bodies family altar gives deep sustenance to the spiritual dimension of life.
God says to us, ”Draw near to me and I will draw near to you” and human wisdom tells us “where there’s a will there’s a way.” For newcomers to the practice, to get family altar started a parent or parents may need to gather the family together and seek agreement that at a certain time each day family life would be enriched by giving a few minutes to this spiritual exercise.
If there are young children and the NIV is the family’s favorite translation it should be used. If not, the New Living Translation is a good useable version, both reliable and readable. For small children the Picture Bible is recommended as a good choice. Whatever version is chosen it is good to make the Bible itself the text for family devotions. It’s the book we hope our children will live with for a lifetime.
Were Richard Baxter’s efforts successful? History reports that his project was so successful that in every home of his congregation there was a family altar, church attendance increased to fill the sanctuary, and public worship went from bland to spiritually warm and deeply nurturing.
Photo credit: Skara kommun (via flickr.com)