This post is not an original, but a reproduction of a piece by the Rev. Canon Arthur Middleton, Emeritus Canon of Durham.
A bishop’s concern
In his biography, Robert Nelson recorded that before he died, Bishop George Bull (1634–1710) thought he might send his clergy a circular letter, to recommend to them some methods for promoting virtue and piety in his diocese. He died before it was sent. He wanted to promote the salvation of souls committed to his care by an increase of piety and virtue. ‘The first thing therefore that I would recommend to you, and which I do earnestly exhort you to, is to apply yourselves with great diligence to establish the practice of family devotion in all the families of your respective parishes. I need not prove to you … that nothing helpeth more to keep up a sense of religion in the minds of men, than a serious, reverent, and constant performance of this necessary duty; whereby both the glory of God is much advanced, and many blessings do also accrue to those who in this manner daily adore and praise their Creator, the lover of souls.’ He goes on to recommend some small and cheaply priced books, which explain and press this duty and include forms for the performance of it. The importance of family devotions cannot be over-estimated though what a momentous task this seems in the twenty-first century, yet fifty years ago the Roman Catholic Church in this country was engaged in a mission to their members which had the catchphrase, ‘The family that prays together stays together.’
Bull goes on, ‘And to make this exercise of family devotion still more useful, you must farther exhort them, when they have leisure, as they often have on winter evenings, especially on Sundays, to introduce their family prayers with reading some portions of holy Scripture, and of other pious and religious books proper to instruct and persuade them to the diligent discharge of all Christian virtues.’
A school of godliness
As early as Thomas Becon (1511–67) as set out in his Catechism, there had been practised in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a practical family piety in which the fathers were seen as ‘rulers of their own families’. ‘For every householder’s house ought to be a school of godliness, for as much as every householder ought to be a bishop in his own house, and so oversee his family that nothing reign in it but virtue, godliness and honesty.’ This spirit provided the firm foundation for the household piety of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ‘To have children and servants is thy blessing, O Lord, but not to order them according to Thy work deserveth Thy dreadful curse.’ This prayer for householders from the primer of 1553 assumes that children and servants come under the same authority, a most important aspect of contemporary thought at the time. Herbert wrote in A Priest to the Temple, that a priest should take equal pride in his children and his servants for he would find ‘as much joy in a straight-growing child or servant as a gardener in a choice tree’. The encouragement of such a spiritual responsibility in the household created a need for practical and devotional aids.
The fulcrum of medieval devotional life was the Opus Dei, the sevenfold round of daily offices that became primarily the responsibility of religious orders, but lay people began to participate in this daily round. The Primers produced to help such people contained the Hours of the Virgin, Psalms, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the ‘fifteen O’s of St Brigid’, and other material. A fifteenth century English Primer played an important part in the devotional life of the laity. As reformed teaching became acceptable the material included in the Primer was revised and the Ave Maria disappeared, together with the prayers for the dead. When unauthorized Primers were being published, in 1538 John Hilsey, Bishop of Rochester, prepared a Primer in which new and old treasures were included, a lot of pre-Reformation material which some of the reformers would like to have seen omitted. This Primer was given royal approval in 1545 and survived the abolition of such ‘Bookes’ in 1550.
The 1549 Prayer Book in making Mattins and Evensong, weekly and seasonal Collects, Epistles and Gospels, the Psalms, Litany, Catechism and Exhortations, available to the laity made such books less important but because this was a manual of public rather than personal worship the Primer continued into Elizabeth I reign.
With the disappearance of the monastic orders the responsibility for continuous and organized prayer became the responsibility of the laity as the household became a kind of oratory in which the offices of morning and evening prayer became domesticated. Primers contained prayers for ‘first waking’, for ‘uprising’, for ‘putting on our clothes’ for ‘first going abroad’, and so on until ‘when we unclothe ourselves to bed-ward’ and ‘when we be ready to sleep’. The laity were expected to live every moment of their lives in consciousness of God’s presence, read three chapters of the Bible every day and engage in constant warfare against the sins which did so easily beset them. Devotional literature for home use found a ready market in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I that included translations of medieval classics. Five editions of Select Prayers from St Augustine’s Meditations were published subsequent to 1574 and in 1567 Hake’s censored version of The Imitation of Christ. Collections of prayers gathered from St Bernard, St Bernardino of Siena, St Brigid, Erasmus and the Spaniard, J. L. Vives, were found alongside prayers from Calvin, Foxe, Bradford and Becon. One of the most popular books for private devotion was the Book of Christian Prayers printed by John Daye in 1578.
Books of devotion
Differences of work meant differences of lifestyle and this realization produced relevant books for schoolboys, sailors, miners and suchlike. Among these were Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Path-way to Heaven (1601) and The Prentises Practise in godlinesse (1608) by ‘BP’. The more fortunate were encouraged to help the illiterate poor not only by praying for them but with practical help to supply their needs and by working for a better distribution of God’s gifts. This growing sense of responsibility for one’s personal devotion is more than merely ‘going to church’ and extends to a responsibility for others in the household. Family Prayers joined by servants and apprentices, were now becoming common, the head of the household reading to them passages of Scripture, praying with them, and, on Sundays, leading them in a procession to the parish church, singing psalms on the way. For such godly laity books were published containing a little theology, the nature of prayer, texts and subjects for meditation and lengthy prayers. There was agreement even among the Puritans on the importance of the religion in the home, encouraged through the disciplines of a godly householder. A book already mentioned in these articles that had a great influence on the earnest layman is The Practice of Piety, by Lewis Bayly. Published in 1612 it ran into eight editions in 100 years. All these books were written to help people live holy lives.
In 1627 John Cosin published his Collection of Private Devotions for the ladies at the court of Henrietta Maria, some of whom were attracted to Rome. It was a devotional Primer to be used as ‘an integral and homogenous complement to the Common Prayer of the Church’ and contained the Hour Services, the Seven Penitential Psalms and forms of confession and preparation for Holy Communion with various intercessions. Lay people were encouraged to spend much time in prayer and devotional reading, in such authors as St Augustine, St Anselm, Thomas à Kempis, St François de Sales and other standard works. Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living was written when the Church was suppressed and use of the Prayer Book was illegal. Taylor tells his readers (who were many) that people are responsible to God for what they think, say or do, and therefore they must, exercise the utmost self-discipline if they were to avoid falling into sin. God not only sees our actions but also our intentions therefore ‘do all to the glory of God’. A person’s only hope lay in regular disciplined prayer.
Much lay devotion had behind it the prayers and disciplines of the Church. Many devout laypeople heard Mattins and Evensong every day in their parish church, or had the offices said in their own homes in the presence of the entire household. They also observed the days of fasting and abstinence (of which there are 123 each year in the Book of Common Prayer). A regulated, disciplined devotional life was thus accepted by serious churchmen, some of whom were prepared to organize their households on a system of regular prayer and meditation, the most famous being set up in 1626 at Little Gidding. Prayer occupied a very important place in the lives of all good churchmen with a very strong sense of responsibility for the way in which life was lived.
It was the Puritans ‘by long extempore prayers, stuffed with absurd cant’ that brought family devotion into disrepute with many, who instead of reforming the abuse omitted it altogether. Some intended to keep such devotion alive, though of a different kind, from that of Puritanism. Thus The Whole Duty of Man (1658), more than any other work influenced the course of devotion after the Restoration, but not for families, not because of any antipathy to family prayer but because the Prayer Book provided for all ‘publick addresses to God (and such are Family Prayers)’. People of all parties in the Church saw the danger of neglecting family prayer. Archdeacon Prideaux of Suffolk, who knew that many clergy families omitted morning and evening Prayers, made this the subject of a Visitation Charge. Though Sir M. Hale ‘used constantly to worship God in his family, performing it himself if there were no clergyman present,’ Henry Dodwell urges his young minister to ‘persuade masters of families to keep morning and evening prayers.’ Then in 1688 Convocation authorized directions for family devotions with several forms of prayer. The average family would probably follow something like the pattern of prayer laid down by Jeremy Taylor: sentence; confession; absolution; Lord’s prayer; doxology; psalms; creed; collects. Grace was always said before and after meals, and catechizing, as recorded in John Evelyn’s Diary, based on the variety of competing domestic catechisms was widespread, the method being simply that of learning by heart.
The decline in family devotion after the Civil War was much regretted. The Bishop of Coventry lamented in 1725, ‘Formerly a man’s house was a little oratory, where the master prayed with all the family … it went far towards keeping up the face of virtue and piety, and preventing much wickedness.’ Yet contrary to popular opinion about religious decline in the eighteenth century, a respectable household would possess The Whole Duty, The Prayer Book and The Bible. The emphasis was on conduct rather than belief. Some held daily or weekly prayers in their houses, read devotional literature like Bishop Wilson’s Sacra Privata and supported the religious societies like the Society for the Reformation of Manners so that by the end of the century family prayers had again become common. This was the century that in 1728 produced Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and in turn the Evangelical revival that made the home central. The authority of the parents was emphasized, together with the vital role of the family as a training ground. Books to encourage a better understanding of the Book of Common Prayer abounded. By 1781 Nelson’s Festivals and Fasts (1704) reached twenty-five editions.
Some families enjoyed extempore prayer, but many preferred printed manuals, of which Henry Thornton’s Family Prayers, published in 1834 and running into thirty editions in the following twenty years, was typical. The strengthening of Christian family life continued steadily throughout the nineteenth century with Bible reading, prayers and early instruction in the catechism. Sundays were regarded as the bastion of a godly nation.