In Oliver Heywood’s The Family Altar, he spends most of his time addressing the heads of household whom he presumed would institute family worship. However, not every 21st century household takes the same form as Puritan households in the 17th century. Indeed, it seems unlikely that even in that day and age every family had servants, as Heywood assumes, or that they enjoyed the presence of both a mother and father. We know that there are some households where, for any number of reasons, single mothers are left to raise the children, there are no children at all, or there is only a single person living alone. More to the point, there may be a male head of household who does not care about the things of God. What should be done in these situations?
I am not sure that Heywood can give us the answer to all of these questions, for he begins his task with the assumption that households consist of a patriarch, matriarch, children, and servants. Even so, there are some principles within the pages of The Family Altar that could be helpful for those living in situations that do not fit the norm, or at least what was perceived to be the norm in the 17th century.
Heywood does address a few words to women, encouraging them to value the worship of God in their homes more than fine decorations. “This devotional altar will be the best ornament to your houses; no pictures, stately rooms or household goods will be such neat and splendid furniture as this worship of God; the finest hanging and most beautiful paintings, are but sordid and disgusting filth to this; it is this that renders a beggar’s cottage far more honourable than a prince’s palace without it.”
When it comes to women leading family prayer, Heywood is open to the idea if they are working under the leadership of the male head of household. However, he does not come to a firm conclusion on this particular point, leaving the door open without providing a ringing endorsement.
“Some have thought, that a wife in a family, may in some cases perform family duty, and that this honour may be given to the weaker vessel to do the office of religious exercise, as well as partake in the government of the family: doubtless she is to pray: and it hath been judged by learned men that she may and must pray in the family with her husband’s leave, and in her husband’s presence, only she should cover her face with a veil, in token of her subjection. This they think is meant by a woman praying or prophesying with her head covered, not in the church where she was not to speak, but in the family when she performed that piece of worship…But I am not positive herein, and leave it to the consideration of others.”
There are few of us today who would say that women must cover their heads while praying in their own homes, but Heywood does not come to a firm conclusion here as he does in some other areas. He sees the question as one that has not been definitively settled. Perhaps we should be more impressed by the fact that he suggests women can lead in prayer at all. But what about women in homes where the men are not behaving in a godly manner? Heywood clearly teaches that heads of household are not immune from the commands of God: if anything, their responsibility is greater.
“Rule your dependants with love, and they will obey in love; if you shew good-will to their souls, with good-will they will do you service, as to the Lord; holiness creates reverence; tenderness produceth ingenuous subjection; affection maintains authority more than domineering rigour; let it appear that you rule your families under God, and for God.”
Heywood also gives instruction to women and dependents in cases where the head of household is drunk or not leading worship properly. This could also be applied to any case where they are behaving in an ungodly manner or clearly failing in their duties to the family.
“Yet if thou art convinced that the party praying speaks nonsense or blasphemy, instead of praying, thou art bound in conscience to shew thy dislike of it, lest God be dishonoured and offended with the whole family, the man hardened in sin, thy own conscience defiled, and thyself in danger of playing the hypocrite, in pretending to join with what thy soul abhors; in this case thou must withdraw, and get alone, and mourn over it…And it is also thy duty, humbly and modestly to take a proper season to speak to thy master, as Naaman’s servants did to him, when they saw him wrong, and you know it did good; and Abigail told her husband Nabal of his fault and danger, and ‘his heart died within him.’ Who can tell what good such a word in season may do?”
If all this should fail, Heywood urges dependents, “See if any other member in the family will undertake that exercise, or whether the master will give you leave to pray in the family…If all this avail not for family worship, and necessity detains you there, as you love your souls, spend more time, and take more pains in secret…” Therefore, he considers prayer so important that it must be performed even if it is forbidden, but with as much respect for the head of household as possible.