Won’t daily family devotions eventually become a meaningless ritual?
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
This article was originally published in issue 71 of the Discipleship Journal. It is a classic piece from Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“There must be a home religion,” said my wife.
“I believe in home religion,” said [our friend] Bob Stephens, “but not in the outward show of it. The best sort of religion is that which one keeps at the bottom of his heart, and which goes up thence quietly through all his actions, and not the kind that comes through a certain routine of forms and ceremonies. Do you suppose family prayers, now, and a blessing at meals, make people any better?”
“Depend upon it, Robert,” said my wife . . . “Of course I would have religion in the heart, and spreading quietly through the life; but does this interfere with those outward, daily acts of respect and duty which we owe to our Creator? It is too much the slang of our day to decry forms, and to exalt the excellency of the spirit in opposition to them; but tell me, are you satisfied with friendship that has none of the outward forms of friendship, or love that has none of the outward forms of love?”
“The trouble with all these things,” said Bob, “is that they get to be mere forms. I never could see that family worship amounted to much more in most families.”
“The outward expression of all good things is apt to degenerate into mere form,” said I. “The outward expression of social good feeling becomes a mere form; but for that reason must we meet each other like oxen? Not say, ‘Good morning,’ or ‘Good evening,’ or ‘I am happy to see you’? Must we never use any of the forms of mutual goodwill, except in those moments when we are excited by a real, present emotion? What would become of society?
“Forms are, so to speak, a [photograph] of a past good feeling, meant to take and keep the impression of it when it is gone. Our best and most inspired moments are crystallized in them; and even when the spirit that created them is gone, they help to bring it back.
“We see a man entering our door who is a weary bore, but we use with him those forms of civility which society prescribes, and feel far kinder to him than if we had shut the door in his face, and said, ‘Go along, you tiresome fellow!’ Now why does not this very obvious philosophy apply to better and higher feelings? The forms of religion are as much more necessary than the forms of politeness and social goodwill as religion is more important than all other things.”
“Besides,” said my wife, “a form of worship, kept up from year to year in a family—the assembling of parents and children for a few sacred moments each day, though it may be a form many times . . . often becomes invested with deep sacredness in times of trouble . . . In sickness, in bereavement, in separation, the daily prayer at home has a sacred and healing power. Then we remember the scattered and wandering ones; and the scattered and wandering think tenderly of that hour when they know they are remembered.
“I know, when I was a young girl, I was often thoughtless and careless about family prayers; but now that my father and mother are gone forever, there is nothing I recall more often. I remember the great old family Bible, the hymn book, the chair where father used to sit. I see him as he looked bending over that Bible more than in any other way; and expressions and sentences in his prayers which fell unheeded on my ears in those days have often come back to me like comforting angels.
“We are not aware of the influence things are having on us till we have left them far behind in years. When we have summered and wintered them, and look back on them from changed times and other days, we find that they were making their mark upon us, though we knew it not . . .”
“The hour of family devotion,” [I said,] “should be the children’s hour—held dear as the interval when the busy father drops his business and cares, and, like Jesus of old, takes the little ones in his arms and blesses them. The child should remember it as the time when the father always seemed most accessible and loving . . . If the spirit of love rules the family hour, it may prove the source and spring of all that is good through the day.
It seems to be a solemn duty in the parents thus to make the Invisible Fatherhood real to their children, who can receive this idea at first only through outward forms and observances. The little one thus learns that his father has a Father in heaven, and that the earthly life he is living is only a sacrament and emblem—a type of the eternal life which infolds it, and of more lasting relations there.
“Home ought to be so religiously cheerful, so penetrated by the life of love and hope and Christian faith, that the other world may be made real by it . . . Our home should be so sanctified, its joys and its sorrows so baptized and hallowed, that it shall not be sacreligious to think of Heaven as a higher form of the same thing—a Father’s house in the better country, whose mansions are many, whose love is perfect, whose joy is eternal.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) is perhaps best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her portrayal of slavery in the book fired abolitionist sentiment in the decade before the Civil War. Raised in a deeply religious family, Stowe’s father, husband, and five of her brothers were ministers, and she herself wrote on a wide array of spiritual and social issues. Beginning at the age of forty, she produced thirty-one books in as many years. This excerpt is from House and Home Papers (1865), which was written as a fictional first-person narrative under the pseudonymn Christopher Crowfield.