The Why and How of Home Altars
Q: Do you know anything about Lutherans or other post-Reformation Christians having “home altars”? I first discovered this idea in Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God and recently read about them again. However, this is something I never hear about at all in current Lutheran circles. Has this practice fallen out of common usage? What would such “altars” look like and be used for? Usually we think of an altar in terms of corporate worship for celebrating the Eucharist, but this obviously would not be the use of this sort of structure.
A: I’ve also read and enjoyed The Hammer of God. And while Bishop Giertz mentioned them, home altars aren’t peculiar to Lutherans or even to Christians. Many Hindus, Buddhists, and others also have some sort of sacred place in their homes.
I occasionally see remnants of the family altar in various homes, usually those of older pastors and laity. Some of them still utilize one of the out of print editions of F. W. Herzberger’s The Family Altar. As you note, the home altar isn’t designed for the Lord’s Supper. Still, it is a place around which people may gather in order to offer prayers. Such altars aren’t to be confused with votive altars or shrines. These latter are designed to honor and, quite often, to aid in prayers to the saints. While other bodies may also set up home altars, Lutheranism will be our focus.
If we clearly understand the origins and usage of home altars, ideas for their design should follow suit. With this in mind, let’s look at a bit of our past (but not with a long, boring history lesson). I imagine that the initial emphasis of the home altar in Lutheranism came from Martin Luther himself. He encouraged “the head of the household” to teach basic doctrine and to model a life of prayer throughout his Small Catechism.
Prior to the Small Catechism, in his 1522 tract The Estate of Marriage, Luther anticipated a model environment for the Christian home: “Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal. Whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop ... how good and great is God’s work and ordinance!”
From these two sources, we can see that Luther expected the home to be a place of worship and of learning more about God’s Word. Other phenomenons of the Renaissance and Reformation also contributed to the gradual rise in family altars — first of all, the Lutherans emphasized education and literacy grew among all classes of people, from peasants to princes. This allowed people to read the Bible and other religious texts.
Coupled with literacy was the effort to translate Scripture and other texts into native tongues. The liturgy and many hymns were translated while new hymns were written in the vernacular. Once people could hear, sing, and memorize hymns in their native tongues, they could carry them with themselves at home, at work, or while traveling. Therefore, almost from its inception, the Lutheran Church was known as “the singing church.”
As printing presses became common, the cost of books dropped, making mass sales of hymnals possible. And while many Protestant bodies encouraged their members to own Bibles and bring them to church, many Lutherans owned hymnals and carried them back and forth between church and home. People learned to sing hymns and chant the psalms from their own hymnals and often used these books — in conjunction with Bible and Catechism — for home devotions and studies.
If you look through various Lutheran hymnals, you’ll see that many were designed with resources to aid home and individual devotions. These may include brief prayer services that can be spoken or sung and orderly cycles of readings designed to lead one through some or all of Scripture in a year. Hymnals may also include a complete or partial Psalmody and a number of prayers covering a variety of topics. Indeed, some even suggest different daily topics for our prayers.
In the centuries following the Reformation, the idea of home study and prayer continued to grow within Lutheranism. Prayer and devotion books were written for adults, for children, and for families. Many of these ideas carried over into other churches, as well.
With such a wealth of resources, how would individuals and families utilize them? What can we do to get people settled and focused so they benefit from their devotional time? The family altar attempts to solve this by carving out a special “sacred space” in the home to provide a place of sanctuary from the demands of everyday life.
Design, then, should complement the devotional life. Individuals have greater flexibility than do families, since so much of the home can be devoted to work and play. I agree with a recommendation from Isaac Arten in the October 2005 issue of The Lutheran magazine. He suggested that a family altar be placed in a spot that can be made quiet and worshipful while also in a busy enough area that everyone in the home sees it and ponders its use at some time during the day. I would add that if you plan to use a piano, home organ, or other music, you take that into account, as well.
Depending upon available space and existing furnishings, family altars may be temporary or permanent. Corner tables, old desks, and card tables may be pressed into service. Others may be custom designed — perhaps even hung from a wall. At the minimum, I suggest using a crucifix or another cross as a reminder that it’s only through Jesus that we have access to our heavenly Father. One or more candles may help us think of this as “God time” — and certainly their glow seems to aid in attracting and settling down younger children.
Bible, Catechism, and hymnals certainly have their places. Consider also a reading stand, icons and religious art, a white linen cover or seasonally colored fabric drapes, and other salutary additions, such as a censer for burning incense. You might include an offering plate or basket. Rather than making your home offering part of what you give on Sunday morning, you might collect for various special missions, perhaps changing beneficiaries on a regular basis. Of course, You could also include these people in your prayers. Beyond this, let Scripture, conscience, and artistic sensibilities guide you.
Now lest we overly credit (or blame) Luther as innovator of a trend that led to the family altar, it was probably his Biblical scholarship that guided him in the path we’ve covered. As one steeped int the Old Testament, he certainly knew the Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel”), the exhortation beginning in Deuteronomy 6:4. Here, the Lord spoke through Moses, saying, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
God then detailed how Israel was to receive and respond to His Word: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)”
Luther evidently believed that if the Children of Israel needed to intentionally teach and model God’s Word in their families, his German people similarly should be doing the same with their offspring. After all, while almost 3000 years separated Moses from Luther, just how different were their two peoples from each other? For that matter, how different from either of them are we today? Parents remain their children’s first and most important teachers and most believers could do a much better job of teaching and modeling the Christian faith to their young.
Furthermore, employing family altars echoes the early centuries of Christianity. In areas where there were few believers — and anywhere there was active persecution — Christians normally didn’t go about drawing attention to themselves and often dared not build special structures for their services. Their corporate worship was often held in their homes. I imagine that, similar to some of the suggestions above, these house churches often used available furnishings as altars where prayers could be offered and from which the Lord’s Supper could be distributed.
Almost all of us need some help in sustaining lives of active prayer and Scripture study away from formal worship. Using a home altar, whether alone or with family, helps us to turn away from outside influences and focus on our Savior. As I noted above, there are many devotional aids you may use in times of family worship — but whatever you choose to use, do so regularly and frequently. After all, who is honored by an altar gathering dust, whether in church or in home? And who gains a blessing when God’s Word is silent in our households?
And remember — lest you think that you need a family in order to meditate on the Word and offer prayers — the “home altar” is appropriate even for a household of one!
For more, please see The Family Altar at (the recently moved) This Side of the Pulpit. An online edition of Herzberger’s The Family Altar is available through the Daily Meditations from the Illinois Lutheran Conference.
Luther quotation from Luther’s Works Volume 45: The Christian in Society II, © 1962 by Fortress Press. Translated by Walther I. Brandt.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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