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The Reformed Home

Learning from Family Worship in Protestant England

ABSTRACT: The English Reformation of the sixteenth century not only brought about a reformation of doctrine, but it also promoted a reformation of family piety. The making of godly households happened primarily through printed prayerbooks and catechisms, authored by evangelical clergy who believed that the Reformation could be prolonged only by a spiritually literate laity. The practices reflected in these publications provide an ongoing model for how households can reform their family worship — whether in sixteenth-century England or today.

In Thomas Becon’s popular bestseller The sycke mans salve, published in 1560, the godly yet fictitious Epaphroditus lies on his deathbed, his wife and three children surrounding him to receive his final exhortations regarding his posterity. He first charges his wife to “governe thy houshold, that there may be founde in it no vice but vertue, no wickednes but godlines, no sinne but honestie and christen behavour.”1 She was to be “an example of a godly lyfe” for her children to emulate. He then addresses his only living son, whom he instructs to “order thy houshold godly and honestly.”2 As a father and spiritual leader of his home, his son would bear the responsibility to lead his children so that “they may learn to know God, even from the very cradels.”3 Lastly, he encourages his two daughters as mothers to “bring them [children] up in the glory of God in his fear and doctrin.”4

Though fictitious, Becon’s piece of ars moriendi dialogue between Epaphroditus, his minister, and Christian friends went through 22 editions between 1560 and 1631 and served as a popular example for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants to aspire to, particularly in regards to deathbed piety. Preparation for a godly death in Reformation England not only entailed confession of and repentance from sins, reaffirmations of assurance of true conversion, and eager anticipation of eternal bliss, but a formal admonition to one’s household to impress upon them the importance of deliberately transmitting a spiritual legacy for generations to follow so that the Reformation in England would endure.

“Parents should both model for and teach their children to see God in the rhythms of their daily schedule.”

It is striking, yet unsurprising, given the context of Protestantism in England in the 1560s, that a godly husband or father would be concerned with the spiritual state of his family. This particular literary example illustrates that Becon, a leading evangelical Reformer in England, one of the most vocal advocates of household piety, and an author of pious materials for households, viewed the spirituality of families as an integral component of religious devotion.5 He was certainly not alone in his vision for parents to be deliberate and faithful in instilling godliness within their children.

Investigating and determining the precise ways in which household piety was transferred from the pulpit and practiced in the household is the aim of this brief survey. It will pose three crucial questions. First, what catalysts ultimately spurred and motivated Protestant parents to propagate their faith to their children and their future posterity? Second, how did evangelical ministers guide and provide parents with texts in reforming their households in Reformation England? Third, in what specific ways did households practice piety, and how did those practices form and cultivate godliness? As will be demonstrated, the answer to these questions relates to the evangelicals’ deep-seated conviction of the primacy of the word of God and the outworking and permeating of its teaching within domestic boundaries, shaping all household members according to its standard.

‘Traine Them Up in the Law of God’

The root of evangelical household piety was the word of God. The primacy of the word of God above traditions, human notions, and even ecclesiastical hierarchy was one of the clarion calls of the Reformation, and it was no different in England’s Reformation. The English Reformers argued that all doctrines and practices, including inculcation of household piety, were to be tethered and subservient to the Scriptures. Evangelical clergy, beginning in the 1540s, insisted that the two primary ways to establish and instill godliness in households was through prayer and catechesis. Because at the outset of the English Reformation the only pious literature available in English was Catholic in its theological framework, they took upon themselves the initiative in creating the first evangelical prayerbooks and catechisms for families to intentionally implement within their domestic spheres.6

Authors of evangelical prayerbooks and catechisms were concerned that their content was inherently biblical, in contrast with late medieval Catholic household literature that contained Marian prayers and other traditional recitations. Household governance was to be strictly established “accordynge to Goddes moost holy worde.”7 “The dutie of fathers and mothers unto their children,” explained Becon, “is to traine them up in the law of God, to teach them to know God and his holy word.”8 Evangelical authors intentionally and visually communicated the primacy of the word of God on the physical pages of their texts, often including catenae of scriptural texts in addition to numerous biblical references in the margins.

Further, the theological orientation between the two confessional approaches in regards to soteriology and conversion was qualitatively different. For instance, the popular bestseller The werke for housholders by the Bridgettine monk Richard Whitford stressed that an “encrease in grace” accompanied a child’s obedience to one’s parents. The act of obedience would result in “your synnes (by your duety done unto your parentes) be wasted and clene losed and forgiven.”9 The early evangelicals in the 1540s countered that only justification by faith brought forgiveness of sins. Household duties — such as obedience, deference, and godly attitudes and virtues — were fruits of, rather than prerequisites for, justification. Because of the common theme of solifidian theology in early English evangelical literature, the correlative doctrine of evangelical conversion was the fountainhead for all evangelical household literature.

“These prayerbooks silently preached to the households a practical theology of God’s fatherly interest in his people.”

For the evangelicals, parenting and household governance involved a twofold purpose: conversion and household godliness. Evangelical clergy urged parents to view their spiritual responsibilities toward their children with gravity, aiming to “see them the children of God, and heyres of the covenant.”10 At the same time, they were to recognize the monergistic work of God in the conversion of their children, that the “strengthning and constant standing in religion of their children, is onely of God, and from God, and not of themselves.”11

Nevertheless, parents were not to be lax in leading their children to conversion, for as the Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullinger cautioned, the neglect of spiritual nurture in the household was tantamount to “helping their children and servants forward to their damnation.”12 Further, parents who were derelict in their duty to nurture their children in the Scriptures were guilty of being “murtherers of their soules, and cut-throats of their salvation.”13 Bullinger also warned that “reformation” of the household was unattainable without the “master of a household,” the father, taking extreme measures to “reform” himself first: “For as one candle cannot light another if it selfe be out: even so a master of a Household shall not reforme those of his charge, and inflame them with the love of God and godlinesse, if hee himselfe be voyd of the same.”14 Therefore, the household disciplines of prayer and catechesis were tools that were to be implemented in households to cultivate an ethos leading to conversion and household piety.

While evangelical clergy were motivated to reform household piety for the sake of the “Christian Religion,” they also encouraged their parishioners to intentionally inculcate household piety within their children in order that it would ultimately be projected upon and dispersed among the English commonwealth. They believed that well-nurtured domestic piety would permeate the public sphere, resulting in a godly “common weale.”15 They contended that godly households were to be the microcosms of a godly commonwealth so that true conversion and godliness would be normative in society.16

Given the political context of sixteenth-century England, the evangelical clergy received assistance to fulfill their vision of godly households from their partnership with the state, the Tudor monarchy, with the exception of Queen Mary I. Beginning in 1538 with the second series of royal injunctions issued by King Henry VIII, all English clergy were to “exhort all parents and house holders to teach their children and servants the same, as they are bound by the law of God and conscience to do.”17 The fourth injunction stipulated that parents instruct their children to memorize and recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Decalogue. Both Edward VI’s and Elizabeth I’s royal injunctions for the Tudor Church regarding household piety mirrored, almost verbatim, the injunctions of their father, exhorting all clergy to teach parents how to establish piety in households. Both the injunctions of 1547 and 1559 inserted an additional order for households: the removal of all “images” and “idolatry” from households, including religious tables, pictures, paintings, and monuments.18

‘Ardent Openinge of the Heart Before God’

Prayerbooks served as instruments for guiding and promoting godliness in families. They reinforced the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of believers, that all Christians had uninhibited access to approach God in prayer, a stark contrast from late medieval theology, which stressed that priests served as human mediators of God. Because prayers were individual and personal, they were to be “simple,” an “unfained, humble and ardent openinge of the heart before God.”19 Prayerbooks provided a framework for households for instilling a culture of habitual prayer through the daily routines and rhythms of domestic functions.

“They contended that godly households were to be the microcosms of a godly commonwealth.”

A variety of prayerbooks were encouraged to be used in a household, because different prayerbooks served different household and spiritual needs, and each prayerbook contained prayers for unique situations that would be either relevant or irrelevant depending on the circumstances of each household.20 The first evangelical prayerbooks in English served as channels of inculcating evangelical doctrine intermixed with defenses of the evangelical faith, subtly refuting Catholic theology.21 Of the earliest English evangelical prayerbooks, four of them — those of Thomas Becon, John Bradford, Queen Katherine Parr, and the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 — became the most popular in households, with numerous subsequent editions.22

Prayers during the English Reformation are noteworthy for two theological emphases: repentance with its corollary, mortification of sin, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Not only did prayerbooks feature formal prayers of repentance; most prayers expressed “geve me repentaunce,” an affirmation that repentance was a gift of God.23 Accompanying prayers of repentance were ubiquitous requests for grace to “mortify” specific sins. Katherine Parr, the sixth and last of the wives of Henry VIII, pleaded with God to “destroye in me all carnall desires” and to “sende forthe the hotte flames of thy love, to burne and consume the cloudie fantasies of my mynde.”24 This kind of mortification rhetoric expressed strong desires to destroy the very nature of sin with its “carnal affects” and “ragynge lusts” that “boil in oure inward members.”25

Pneumatology also permeated the prayers of Reformation England, illustrating a high esteem for the person of the Holy Spirit. In addition to requests for the Holy Spirit to mortify one’s sin, prayers frequently honed in on the Spirit’s role as illuminator and revealer of truth. Bradford, for example, petitioned God to “illuminate the eies of my minde with the light and lively knowledge of thy presence.”26 Prayers often called upon the Spirit to “enflame mine affections” and to “supresse the kingdom of sinne in myself and in others.”27 This “kindling of affections” theme in evangelical prayers highlighted the recognition that the supernatural work of the third person of the Trinity was essential to penetrate one’s affections until the Christian “may desire nothing in earth but thee.”28

Evangelical prayerbooks in Tudor England reflected the social and religious transformation of England and an increasing interest in Christian humanism, particularly in regards to household piety. One of the products of Renaissance humanism was an interest in the ordinary household activities of the day, activities such as menial jobs, meals, meditation, and rest. This interest in the mundane is reflected in evangelical prayerbooks, which communicated to the household that every activity, no matter how mundane, matters to God. Prayerbooks included prayers for the morning and evening, prayers before and after meals, and thanksgivings offered after dinner and supper. These prayers not only expressed the importance of these activities to God; they also demonstrated that laypeople, not merely the clergy, were valued by God. Unlike medieval Catholic prayerbooks, evangelical prayerbooks addressed the spiritual needs of women, children, and the social outcasts of Tudor England. There were prayers for single women, married women, pregnant women, mothers, children, the poor, servants, and the sick.

Evangelical prayerbooks also served those in different and various vocations in England. For instance, of the sixty prayers in Becon’s bestseller Flour of godly praiers, one-quarter of them were prayers for specific occupations, including the king, lawyers, magistrates, mariners, soldiers, landlords, merchants, and bishops. There were prayers for multiple situations: prayers against specific sins, prayers to be delivered from plagues, prayers to be offered before and after a sermon, prayers to be said before and after the receiving of Communion, and prayers to God in prosperity and adversity. The content of these prayerbooks silently preached to the households a practical theology of God’s fatherly interest in his people. They themselves, their vocations, their temptations, their situations, and their daily activities were sacred to God. The prayerbooks in Reformation England became a sermon in print that reinforced that all of life was sacred and there was ultimately no distinction between “secular” and “sacred.”

In addition to highlighting the sacred nature of all of life, evangelical prayerbooks were intended to be used didactically to assist in forming the prayer habits of children and to help in developing a mindset of viewing life theocentrically. An anonymous author encouraged parents to “teache hym every daye some short prayer according to the capacite of his witte or memorye. And as he dothe encrease in strength, fede hym with longer prayers.”29 Bullinger, positing the biblical models of Abraham, David, and Job, recommended that fathers deliberately “set an order in his house” so that prayers were regularly said before and after meals and throughout the day in the household in order to convey to his children that God was “the authour, not onely of all spirituall graces that belong to a better life, but also of all temporall blessings that belong to this life.”30 Moreover, the children will witness that “Gods good hand over us, that doth defend us and all our familie in the night from outward dangers, and giveth us freedome from feares and terrors, and from Sathans rage, and also giveth us rest and comfortable sleepe.” From their “cradels,” parents implemented prayerbooks to aid their children in acknowledging God throughout the day.

‘Planting God’s Religion’

The earliest English evangelical catechisms were primarily composed for children, but some were not, such as the very first evangelical catechism in English, Richard Taverner’s Catechisme, published in 1539.31 These early catechisms had a polemical flavor, stressing the doctrines of justification by faith, Christology, repentance, and the gospel in order to combat Catholic theology. Evangelical catechisms, like prayerbooks, also reinforced theological truths that were intended to be planted as seeds within the souls of household members, both adults and children alike.

In fact, Reformation evangelicals frequently employed the garden metaphor within catechisms to reiterate the calculated, measured, and repetitious approach to catechesis in English evangelical households. John Calvin, in a letter to Edward Seymour, Protector Somerset, uncle of King Edward VI and de facto head of England in 1547–1550, articulated that one of the crucial elements needed for a prolonged reformation in England was the catechesis of children. In order for the Reformation in England to be effective and lasting, the catechism was to be the “seed that multiplies from age to age.”32 With the aid of evangelical catechisms, children were exhorted to “plucke out the faultes that are in us, and in their place plant vertues.”33 Both fathers and mothers were exhorted to be active in “planting Gods religion” through catechesis, “pluck[ing] up weeds” of “vice” in their children.34 The evangelicals contended that the practice of catechesis was not merely intellectual, but in order for children to “feele and shew the power of religion in their lives.”35 The aim of catechesis was “to seeke the salvation of their [children’s] soules.”36

Unlike household prayerbooks, the Church of England specifically prescribed and regulated the use of catechisms in all English parishes. Royal injunctions and ecclesiastical visitations during the 1560s and 1570s not only regularly admonished clergy to catechize children on Sundays at the parish church, but also to persuade parents of the necessity of children learning the catechism, in order to “say [it] by heart.”37 Bullinger was particularly adamant that Protestant parents, not their ministers, had the primary responsibility to catechize their children.38 While the Prayer Book Catechism was the official catechism of the Church of England, it was not the only catechism that was used by Protestant households. Based upon the numbers of printed editions in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the most popular catechisms during the English Reformation were those of Becon, Calvin, Cranmer, Dering, and Nowell.39

English evangelical catechisms had several components that made them accessible to children. They were generally arranged in a coherent, predictable question-and-answer sequence, following Calvin’s preferred sequence of Creed, Decalogue, and Lord’s Prayer. This arrangement was intended to communicate the idea that the knowledge of God himself must precede any exposition of biblical texts.40 The first series of questions of most of the catechisms probe the “principall and chiefe ende of mans life” in order to establish the purpose of life as the knowledge of God. Authors of catechisms emphasized that their works were deliberately “playne” and “easie” so as to avoid any controversial theological nuances, including “unknown secretes.”41 Biblical prooftexts were submitted for each answer either as an entire quotation or inserted as biblical references in the margins of catechisms. Catechisms varied in length from John Ponet’s Short catechisme of 58 questions to Calvin’s massive Catechisme in English, comprising 373 questions. Whether brief or lengthy, the evangelical catechism became the primary genre and instrument for developing children’s spirituality in churches, schools, and households in England.42

Model for Today

How can the practice of evangelical household piety in Reformation England serve as a healthy model for Christian families today? First, fathers should acknowledge and embrace the God-ordained responsibility to “bring them [children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Both father and mother must recognize that “children are a heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3) and partner together in guiding their family in worshiping and serving the Lord in the rhythms of daily family life.

Second, family spirituality requires intentional planning and discretion. Crafting a family mission statement, reading the Bible and praying as a family, and memorizing a catechism, practices that were encouraged in Reformation England, are all imperative to the devotional life of a family. However, it is important to remember that while cultivating spiritual disciplines as a family is crucial in creating an ethos of spirituality, the disciplines in and of themselves do not impart saving faith. As Bullinger cautioned, conversion “is onely of God, and from God, and not of themselves [parents].”43 Yet that does not dismiss the parental obligation and biblical mandate to lead children to belief in Christ. Actively praying and seeking for the conversion of children, implementing prayerbooks, catechisms, and other Bible study tools, is essential in shepherding children for the glory of God.

“One of the crucial elements needed for a prolonged reformation in England was the catechesis of children.”

Third, parents should both model for and teach their children to see God in the rhythms of their daily schedule, no matter how mundane it might seem. Becon suggested that families make direct connections from material objects in their households to God. For instance, a door provided an opportunity for family members to meditate upon John 10:9: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”44 Daily joys, awards, bruises, fevers, accidents, meals, music, and mercies are all occasions for parents and children to see God’s grace and love intertwined in the activities of each day.

May God grant wisdom and grace to all Christian families in cultivating godliness and imbibing the spirit of the following prayer, composed in 1603:

God be in my head, and in my being.
God be in my mind, and understanding.
God be in my eyes, and in my Seeing.
God be in my Eares, and in my hearing.
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking.
God be in my harte, and in my thinking.
God keepe me from al[l] evil in my working, touching, smelling, and all my other senses.
God be at mine ending, and my departing.45

  1. Thomas Becon, The sycke mans salve (London: John Day, 1561) STC 1757, sig. O7r. 

  2. Becon, Sycke mans salve, sig. P4r. 

  3. Becon, Sycke mans salve, sig. P4r. 

  4. Becon, Sycke mans salve, sig. P5v. 

  5. Throughout this survey, I use evangelical synonymously with Protestant. I deliberately and more frequently use evangelical, because Protestant was not used in English print until 1555. Since the majority of my cited texts are pre-1555, I have selected the historically accurate term, evangelical, to reflect historical precision. 

  6. The most notable and popular example of Catholic pious literature for households available at the beginning of the English Reformation was Richard Whitford, The werke for housholders (London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1530) STC 25422. 

  7. Thomas Becon, A newe pathway unto praier (London: J. Mayler for J. Gough, 1542) STC 1734, sig. N2v. 

  8. Thomas Becon, The Principles of Christian Religion (London: John Day, 1569) STC 1753, sigs. L2r–v. 

  9. Whitford, Werke for housholders, sig. E2r; Brian L. Hanson, Reformation of the Commonwealth: Thomas Becon and the Politics of Evangelical Change in Tudor England (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019), 54–55. 

  10. Heinrich Bullinger, An exhortation to the ministers of Gods woord in the Church of Christ (London: John Allde, 1575) STC 4055.5, sig. A3v. 

  11. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. V4v. 

  12. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. A4v. 

  13. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. A4v. 

  14. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. A5r. 

  15. Thomas Becon, A Christmas Bankette (London: J. Mayler for J. Gough, 1542) STC 1713, sigs. B5v–B6r; Thomas Becon, A potacion (London: J. Mayler for J. Gough, 1542) STC 1749, sigs. A6v–A7r; “The Edwardian Injunctions, 1547,” in Documents of the English Reformation, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 249; Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. Q3v. 

  16. Hanson, Reformation of the Commonwealth, 41. 

  17. “Second Henrician Injunctions, 1538,” in Documents of the English Reformation, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 180. 

  18. “The Edwardian Injunctions, 1547,” and “The Elizabethan Injunctions, 1559,” in Documents of the English Reformation, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 249, 255, 336–37, 341, 343. See also Iniunctions exhibited by Iohn by gods sufferance Bishop of Norwich (London: John Day, 1561) STC 10286, sig. A8r. 

  19. John Bradford, Godlie meditations upon the Lordes prayer, the beleefe, and ten commaundementes with other comfortable meditations, praiers and exercises (London: Roland Hall, 1562) STC 3484, sig. A2r. 

  20. Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 220. 

  21. Chaoluan Kao, Reformation of Prayerbooks: The Humanist Transformation of Early Modern Piety in Germany and England (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018), 27. 

  22. Thomas Becon, The flour of godly praiers (London: John Day, 1550) STC 1719.5; John Bradford, Godlie meditations upon the Lordes prayer, the beleefe, and ten commaundementes with other comfortable meditations, praiers and exercises (London: Roland Hall, 1562) STC 3484; Katherine Parr, Prayers or medytacions (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1545) STC 4818.5; The boke of the common praier (London: Richard Grafton, 1549) STC 16269. 

  23. Bradford, Godlie meditations, sigs. G6r, Q1r; Becon, Flour of godly praiers, sig. P6v; The boke of common prayer (London: Edward Whitchurch, 1552), STC 16279, sig. C2r. 

  24. Katherine Parr, Prayers or medytacions (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1545) STC 4818.5, sig. C6v. 

  25. Becon, Flour of godly praiers, sig. C1v. 

  26. Bradford, Godlie meditations, sig. B4r. See also, Bradford, Godlie meditations, sigs. B6r, B8v–C1v. 

  27. Bradford, Godlie meditations, sigs. B4r, B8v. 

  28. Bradford, Godlie meditations, sig. B6r. 

  29. Anonymous, A glasse for housholders (London: Richard Grafton, 1542) STC 11917, sig. E6r. 

  30. Bullinger, Exhortation, sigs. C6r–v. 

  31. Richard Taverner, A catechisme or institution of the christen religion (London: R. Bankes, 1539) STC 23709. 

  32. The National Archives, State Papers 10/5f.23. 

  33. John Ponet, A short catechisme (London: John Day, 1553) STC 4812, sigs. K4r–v. 

  34. Bullinger, Exhortation, sigs. A4v, Q5r. 

  35. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. C7v. 

  36. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. C8r. 

  37. John Parkhurst, Iniunctions exhibited by Iohn by gods sufferance Bishop of Norwich (London: John Day, 1561) STC 10286, sig. A3r; Edwin Sandys, Articles to be enquired of in the visitation of the Dioces of London, by the reverende father in God, Edwyn Bishop of London (London: H. Denham for William Seres, 1571) STC 10250, sig. A2r. 

  38. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. R3r. 

  39. Thomas Becon, The Principles of Christian Religion (London: John Day, 1553) STC 1752.5; John Calvin, The catechisme or manner to teache children the Christian religion (Geneva: John Crespin, 1556) STC 4380; Thomas Cranmer, Catechismus, that is to say, a shorte instruction into Christian religion (London: Nicholas Hill, 1548) STC 5993; Edward Dering, Brief and necessary instruction, verye needefull to bee knowen of all housholders (London : J. Awdely, 1572) STC 6679; Alexander Nowell, Catechisme, or first instruction and learning of Christian religion (London: John Day, 1570) STC 18708. 

  40. Ian Green, The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England, c. 1530–1740 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 281–282; Hanson, Reformation of the Commonwealth, 188. 

  41. Becon, Principles, sig. A5r; Dering, Brief and necessary instruction, sig. A5v; Bullinger, Exhortation, sigs. C7v, C8r. 

  42. Green, Christian’s ABC, 93–229. 

  43. Bullinger, Exhortation, sig. V4v. 

  44. Thomas Becon, A Christmas bankette, (London: John Mayler, 1542) STC 1715, sig. A6v. 

  45. Anonymous, A Breefe collection concerning the love of God towards mankind (Doway: Laurence Kellam, 1603), STC 5554, sig. B3r.