When his child was baptized, the Puritan father promised to supervise and to nurture this child in Christian faith; the father was duty bound to teach his children the Scriptures and to lead them in prayer and praise. At minimum, Puritan fathers were expected to lead their families in prayers twice each day and to expound the catechism and a Scripture text with their families every Lord’s Day.

Both husband and wife were viewed as equal in value and in essence. Yet, functionally, God had ordained the husband to be the head (1). The husband’s headship, according to the Puritans, was not a permit to please himself but a charge to take responsibility for others. Headship did not entitle a husband to “lord it over his family”; his authority was, after all, a derived authority (2). All authority, including the husband’s, is ordained, delegated and regulated by a greater head, one to whom the father will give an account. The husband’s headship was a solemn privilege of loving servanthood built on the example of Jesus Christ. Such love for one’s wife was “like Christ’s to his church: holy for quality, and great for quantity” (3). Richard Baxter put it this way:

Your authority over your wife is but such as is necessary to the order of your family, the safe and prudent management of your affairs, and your comfortable cohabitation. The power of love and complicated interest must do more than magisterial commands. Your authority over your children is much greater; but yet only such as, conjunct with love, is needful to their good education and felicity (4).

A wife’s submission is, in the words of John Winthrop, “her honor and freedom . . . Such is the liberty of the church under the authority of Christ” (5).

“To Propagate the Fear of God from Generation to Generation”: The Father’s Duties in Family Worship

Richard Baxter devoted a major portion of his Christian Directory to the duties of the father in family worship, arguing that if worshipers in the Old Testament made sacrifices twice a day-in the morning and evening-and were commanded to learn the ways of God in the family, believers in Jesus had an even greater duty to give God a sacrifice of praise daily in their households (6). Baxter visited regularly the homes of his entire congregants to make certain that they were learning the catechism (7).

For Baxter, as for all the Puritans, time and eternity were at stake. For the father to abdicate his solemn vocation of ministry in the home was to surrender his family to the whims of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Baxter included one chapter in his Christian Directory specifically to provide “special motives to persuade men to the holy governing of their families.” In this chapter, the minister of Kidderminster pointed out that “a holy and well-governed family doth tend to make a holy posterity, and so to propagate the fear of God from generation to generation” and that “a holy, well-governed family is the preparative to a holy and well-governed church” (8).

The Lord’s Day held a major place in the theology and ethics of the Puritans. Most viewed it as a remembrance that stood in continuity with the Jewish Sabbath. In addition to attendance of corporate worship with God’s people, families were expected to spend their day first preparing for corporate worship, then worshiping God in their homes. The Puritan head of the family began the day with family prayers; after the coporate gathering, family members reconvened to sing a psalm of praise. Fathers rehearsed with their children the major points of the pastor’s sermon. The father might also have read from Scripture or another “profitable book,” followed by prayer “with all the holy seriousness and joy which is suitable to the work and the day” (9). After supper, the father typically examined children and servants on what they had learned during the day, perhaps even reviewing the catechism. The day concluded with family prayer.

This pattern also formed the paradigm for weekday worship in the home: the father led, typically both morning and evening, in devotional exercises that would consist in Scripture reading, catechesis, singing, and prayer. In the event that the husband was unavailable to lead family worship, the wife did so.

It is crucial to note, however, that family worship was not intended to serve as the sole expression of the parents’ duty among the Puritans and their heirs. “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,

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 (10).

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.”

Such devotion spawned a golden age of catechisms and devotional works designed to be used in the teaching of children and in family worship. Separatists in the Puritan tradition, particularly Baptists, wrote catechisms to be used in teaching children. Benjamin Keach, a Particular Baptist preacher in London, abstracted the doctrines of the Second London Confession into a catechism (11). John Bunyan produced a work pointedly titled Instruction for the Ignorant: Being a Salve to Cure That Great Want of Knowledge, Which So Much Reigns Both in Young and Old (12). More conversational than most catechisms, Bunyan concluded with a call to repentance: “Bring thy last day often to thy bedside, and ask thy heart, if this morning thou wast to die, if thou be ready or no” (13).

Next: Every House a Household of Faith: Family Worship Among the Puritans, Part 3

(1) Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 262-63.

(2) Ryken, Worldly Saints, 76.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Baxter, Christian Directory, 2.

(5) John Winthrop and James Savage, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649 (Boston: Little and Brown, 1853), 39.

(6) Baxter, Christian Directory, 507.

(7) Baxter details his ministerial activities and sets forth a comprehensive pastoral vision in his classic work, The Reformed Pastor (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974). Also, the entire section on family, including the duties of fathers, mothers and children, was recently published in a single work, Richard Baxter, The Godly Home, ed. Randall J. Pederson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

(8) Baxter, Christian Directory, 422-31.

(9) Ibid., 573.

(10) Job Orton, Religious Exercises Recommended (American ed., Bridgeport: Backus, 1809) 66

(11) The full text of this catechism has been republished by Tom Nettles in Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1998).

(12) John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan, Vol. 2, ed. John Offor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 675-90.

(13) Ibid., 690.


[Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from the forthcoming book, Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical and Practical Perspective, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones.  Used by permission.]