Burkitt on Family Religion

Family Life

Regular Family Instruction

The Rev. William Burkitt, a late-Stuart rector who also saw the reign of William of Orange, was best known for his biblical commentaries (recommended by the Victorian Charles Spurgeon). But, he also wrote a number of pastoral advises anticipating the early Anglican evangelical movement. An SPCK favorite was The Poor Man’s Help enjoying more than thirty editions throughout the 18th century. Within the Help is a chapter on the ‘Glorifying God in Family Worship’, accompanied with a number of private prayers and a basic catechism for family governors. Burkitt’s work also shows the relation the early-evangelical movement had with the Lord’s Table, building off the deposit of devotional works common to the interregnum.

The preface explains Burkitt’s reasons for his book. The main motive is making the people of his charge fit for holy communion. Burkitt, like Baxter before him, draws a picture of a dutiful minister’s work. Among his obligations (besides reading prayers and sermons) were household visits, yet Burkitt admits a certain inefficiency with such, realizing each person is ultimately their own Monitors. So, to better fill the gap in his absence, he commits this good book to teach others how they may inspect themselves at home. Hence, we have the start of domestic piety:

“Besides my public advices to you in God’s House, your conferences can witness for me, that I have taken some pains, (and, if God continue my health, I resolve to take much more) in the duty of private Inspection, and ministerial Conference with you, in your own Houses, in order to your preparation for that Venerable Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, which, to the great scandal of our most Holy Religion, is so shamefully neglected by multitudes of persons professing Christianity, of all persuasions among us, exhorting you also to set up Religion and the Worship of God in your private Families, that God may dwell where you dwell… In great charity therefore to those of you who want such a help as this, and are willing to make use of it, I put this small book into your hands which I entreat you to accept, both as an instance of my duty, and as a Monitor of your own.”

Going on to his chapter about Family Religion, Burkitt explains the universal obligation of men to worship God constantly, perhaps suggesting something of a universal priesthood, but especially true under the Gospel dispensation where a Liberty is contained therein which doesn’t bind us to whitewashed Temples:

“All the creatures are servants, but Man only is a Priest unto God, they obey their Maker, he only worships him. This worship under the Law, was limited to a particular place, to wit, the Tabernacle and the Temple. But under the Gospel, Almighty God has declared thy it is his Will, that Men pray every where, lifting up pure Hands, without wrath and doubting. Almighty God therefore not only allows Christians the Liberty, but enjoins them the duty of worshiping him with their household. And accordingly we find, that religious householders have in all ages constantly and conscientiously performed this Duty.”

Thus, we have two points established toward Family Devotions: 1) men ought to worship Jehovah constantly; 2) we must learn to examine ourselves in the absence, sometimes, of the ordained clergy. Along with the brief explanation on the origins of family prayer, Burkitt now describes regular components of it:

“Take care that family worship be performed constantly and seasonably. By family worship, I mean especially Family Prayer, reading the holy scriptures, etc., Catechizing and instructing children and servants in the fundamental principles of Christianity, and praising God in singing.

Interestingly, he argues family religion from the pattern of the Jewish Temple, namely, the Levites’ ‘continual burnt-offering’ reckoned by morning and evening sacrifice. This is a bit interesting on Burkitt’s part because the Temple is often raised in contradistinction to the Home, but recall the great exception made by the Gospel and the believers’ priesthood.

“Look upon it as thy obliged duty to pray morning and evening in thy family… To convince you how reasonably Almighty God may expect from you a Morning as well as an Evening Sacrifice of Prayer and Praise, consider, (a) that under the Law, Almighty God required thus much, namely both a Morning and Evening Sacrifice, which was called the continual burnt-offering (2) That we have no reason to think or suppose that Almighty God expects less, but rather more Homage and spiritual Worship from us now, having feed us from the Burden of such Ceremonial Observances as they were obliged to them (3) That the often repeated Commands of the Gospel which require us to pray always, and to pray without ceasing, cannot reasonably be thought to signify less than praying as often as the Jews offered Sacrifice, which was Morning and Evening. And this may as properly be called praying continually, as the morning and evening sacrifices under the law were called a continual burnt-offering. So that if you do not pray Morning and Evening, you must suppose that Almighty God will accept of less service under the Gospel, than he did under the Law.

Like even some of the better Puritan commentators, Burkitt is careful to not pit the home against that of the church. Here, Burkitt gives reasons why Public Worship or Temple deserves our esteem. But his arguments seem more practical. Burkitt reasons the benefit of the the visible assembly to the larger society, testifying the veracity of Christian religion. While Burkitt does not deny a unity of the mystical body of Christ, he lays out a pragmatism based upon charity toward neighbors.

“take heed of setting up family worship in opposition to public worship, or to suffer the one to interfere with the other. We can say our prayers (say some) in the chimney-corner. What need we go to church to do it? But at this rate, all the sense of God and religion will utterly be lost in the world; and is not the communion of saints, and the fellowship of holy Christians, a privilege worth thy prizing? How does the presence of devout souls sometimes fire and inflame our cold spirits, and cause them to grow into greater ardors and transports of zeal? Thus the divine Herbert sweetly expresses it

Though private prayer be a brave design,
yet public hast more promises, more love, etc.
leave there thy six and seven
To pray with most, for where most pray, is heaven.

The quotation of the Rev. George Herbert is noteworthy. Of course, Herbert was poet and early advocate Christian private religious society. The evangelical movement was born from the growth of these private societies. And, since they were conceived in preparation for sacrament (worthy reception), they tended to be careful with their relation to the parish church. Evangelical ministers usually solved concerns by putting themselves at the helm of the local religious meeting, supplying devotional books and even hymns (poetry) by the pen of their own hand for these gatherings.

Whether beginning in the home or elsewhere (sometimes an inn), Hebert anticipated an entire genre of good books that would take-off during the interregnum when Anglican assemblies were precarious and suspect if not illegal. This supply did not end with the Restoration as Burkitt evidences. Meanwhile, their publication, like the prayer book itself, was intended to teach people how to pray as well as act as their own monitors, especially where Anglican clergy might be absent. Burkitt’s own prescription follows:

“Let not the sense of thine own weakness, or want of gifts and parts, etc., discourage thee from thy duly performance of this duty of praying in and with thy family, but in obedience to God, set about it in the best manner thou art able, and he will pardon thy weakness, and accept thy sincerity… But, if after all, the Want of suitable expressions does discourage thee from praying before others in thy Family, make use of some of those many good Books of Devotion which are amongst us. Or if you have none of them, and are so poor that you cannot purchase them, make use of the prayers at the end of this book, to express you family wants unto Almighty God, Morning and Evening.

Burkitt gives us a peek into the literary culture of private society before the outbreak of the better-known evangelical movement. The pastoral focus might be surprisingly ‘high church’ in the sense (1) no opposition is intended against the parish ministry. (2) The parish minister is the one who initiates or advances family and private prayer within his cure especially by aid of making or sharing ‘good books’. (3) the goal is worthy reception of Holy Communion (the longest chapter being on such).  (4) not only is devotional advice given but also hymns, a mid-length catechism, and written prayers provided– vital elements of family religion.

My favorite written prayer for evening leaves us with a final heavenly thought. It reminds us the emphasis on pastoral care which the evangelical movement was born upon, namely, to live holy, with a fit soul, so that we might be ready, and gain reward, at that Great Feast with the Lamb of God:

“Keep us ever mindful of our latter End, and from flattering ourselves with the Hope and expectation of a long continuance of time here in the world, but let it be our great ambition and desire, not so much to live long, as to live well, to be useful and serviceable to Almighty God in our place and generation, knowing that its nothing but a useful and well spent life that can render our death happy, and our resurrection glorious.

2 responses to “Burkitt on Family Religion

  1. Pingback: Fletcher’s Religious Society | Anglican Rose

  2. Recently discovered this discrepancy between Burkitt’s Help published before 1709 and those after the same. Burkitt’s Help and Guide was a popular SPCK good book, running more than 36 editions. A letter from Rev. Nash to Bp. Hobart in 1803 evidences ongoing use in schools and among young people. The point is somewhere within the Anglican establishment during the early 18t c authorities were uncomfortable with private societies. see tweets shared


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