Build the Family Altar

Date: March 3, 1935

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.Joshua 24:15

ONE of the happiest trends of these lean and disappointing years, a silver lining to the lowering clouds, is the unparalleled interest in the externals of the American home. Billions of dollars have been appropriated by our Government to protect home-owners and to help solve their mortgage problems; emergency measures have created huge funds for the repair and modernization of American dwellings; far-reaching programs are outlined to assist in the construction of new homes as well as in the clearance of slum districts, by which the squalor of overcrowded, disease-­breeding tenements may be eliminated.

Besides, we are in the midst of multiplied efforts designed to make the American home more attractive and the family environment more healthful and happy. Think of the outstanding efficiency of present-day construction; the home and garden clubs; our community planting and beautification projects; our housekeeping classes and domestic-arts courses; the study of family management and family finances as well as all the other emphasis on the improvement of the physical aspects of family life, and you will agree with me when I say that all this is without parallel or approach in our own history or in any other nation of the world.

It must come as a distinct shock to realize that with all the stress on home ownership, home improvement, home direction, we are witnessing evidence of a staggering indifference toward the moral and spiritual improvement of the family. While we have erected more commodious and pretentious houses, we have by no means always built happier, spiritually stronger homes. Too often our new architecture has rejected the Christian cornerstone; our efficiency apartments frequently are too crowded for Christ; our interior decorators are too apt to remove the fireplace motto “God Bless Our Home” and to substitute motifs from pagan love scenes and heathen immoralities. The family Bible, even in many so-called Christian homes, seems to belong to the last century; for the family altar has crumbled, and we are paying a prohibitive price for this neglect: the weakening of the home ties, the breakdown of marriage morality, the desecration of parenthood. Because this collapse has resulted in destroying much of home happiness, weakened our national fiber, and retarded the work of Christ in men’s hearts and lives, I ask you this afternoon to


and to join me in pledging the resolution of Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”


American homes should be dedicated to Christ and consecrated to His service through Christian faith and Christian lives, family Bible-reading and family prayer; for His abiding presence at any hearthside is Heaven’s pledge for peace and happiness. It can be shown on the basis of cold and impartial figures that altar-building, Scripture-seeking homes are shelters of happiness and havens of abiding peace. Families in which parents and children are true members of the Christian Church do not figure in the marital tragedies that clutter the nation’s courts of domestic relations. It can be demonstrated statistically that the divorce rate among church-members has been approximately only one-tenth as great as the rate for the entire nation and that in many divorces granted in church circles either husband or wife is not a member in good standing. Again, it can be proved that children in homes pervaded by the Spirit of God and strengthened by “the Word of His grace, which is able to build” the family up, have experienced the fulfilment of Christ’s promise: “Now are ye clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you”; for these children are normally not found among the moral delinquents that crowd our juvenile courts. I do not mean to imply that there can be no unhappiness in Christian homes; for even here sin, the everlasting millstone around humanity’s neck, tries to drown men and women in the sea of selfishness and in the rip-tides of their own passions. But I do say that the Christian home (and by that I mean the home in which, despite the turmoil and haste of our complicated modem lives, the Bible, our Savior, the Church, and the kingdom of God are continually held in prayerful esteem) will have a peace which the self-indulgent world cannot know; for Jesus hallows the relation between husband and wife and would make their mutual love as deep and self-­denying as that love wherewith He “loved the Church and gave Himself for it.”

Storms of financial distress may sweep down upon that home; long sieges of sickness may isolate it; tremors of terrifying disaster may shake its foundations; the paralysis of death may take its inevitable toll; yet if every member of that household pledges the resolution of our text: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” that home will have a spiritual basis on which abiding hope and permanent comfort can be built. It will have Christ and with Him the deep, unswerving faith in the guidance of God, which accepts even the most harrowing sorrows as evidences of Heaven’s higher guidance. The Christ-conscious family will esteem marriage as the divine institution which it is, ordained by God Himself for the bestowal of multiplied benedictions and happinesses. In the Christ-exalting family there will be an intensity and continuance of pure, self-­sacrificing love, which binds husband and wife together in devoted companionship as the better or worse of life’s destiny predominates. The Christ-centered family will thank God for the precious children that His bounty bestows upon them, and these children, brought up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” will love, honor, and obey their parents in unbroken devotion. And because for all this the Christ-controlled home has a spiritual basis in the acknowledgment of eternal salvation through Jesus Christ and in the pervading presence of His sustaining Spirit, the family altar becomes the potent symbol of domestic happiness, the divinely effective insurance against permanently wounded hearts and broken promises.

Think, by contrast, of the sorrow which must ultimately prevail in homes whose members obstinately refuse to serve Christ or in which an infidel parent or a worldly-minded child destroys the spiritual unity. The foreboding specter of ultimate separation must perpetually haunt the family in which there is no united desire to “serve the Lord.” An unbelieving husband may have his religion written in his wife’s name here on earth, but in heaven his own name must be written in the Book of Life. An indifferent mother may send her children to Sunday-school, yet herself remain away from church in disdainful aloofness; but her children’s faith will not rise up to secure for her a title to the heavenly mansions. If two cannot walk together in Christian faith on their earthly pilgrimage, they cannot enter their Father’s house above together. Heart-breaking in the very extreme is the mere suggestion of the thought that homes in which unbelief, wilful neglect of the Savior’s love, and studied indifference to His grace have prevailed will not see God or that homes in which there has been a divided loyalty to Christ may be divided in eternity.

Now, there are no substitutes for these ennobling influences of spiritual blessing in Christ. College courses on home economics, infant diet, and child psychology, as helpful as they may be, cannot raise the standard of home ethics and insure the attainment of happiness; but Christ can. And because some of you who are listening in today have tried to find home happiness by disregarding Christ’s renewing grace and have failed, because without Him misunderstandings and quarrels arise with fatal frequency, the Church declares without compromise or apology: The supreme requisite for happiness in American homes is the sin-forgiving, grace-imparting love of Jesus Christ and the reverent acknowledgment of these mercies in family prayer and hearthside devotion. The appeal of the hour is for the restoration of the family altar as evidence of the family faith. Solicitously does the Church ask its members to take time for joint prayer and common worship, to find time in the crowded domestic calendar for the invocation of the sanctifying Spirit, to make room, even in the most restricted dwelling, for a spiritual altar at which the family may worship and in common faith and love “serve the Lord.”


We need Christ-endowed homes also for the support of honesty and decency and truth in this nation. Thirty-three centuries ago, when Joshua in his farewell message reaffirmed his loyalty, pledging himself and his house to the service of the Lord, his valedictory warnings showed the importance of the God-fearing home for the nation of his age. Today, in spite of the radical social changes, the basic truth remains that no country is stronger than its homes. They are the foundation upon which ultimately, under God, all hope for sound and solid progress must rest. Can you imagine what would happen if our towering sky-scrapers, instead of being pillared on bed-rock support, were to be built on swamp-lands or quicksands? what the consequences would be if the great irrigation dams of the West were not welded into the Rockies?

How short-sighted our present-day thought sometimes proves to be when we devote the overwhelming proportion of our energy and expenditure to projects that radiate no moral and spiritual influence upon the basic unit of all American improvement—the American home! What is it, after all, that our country needs? After you have enumerated the political and financial and social programs that clamor for recognition, let me ask you if, with a far greater imperativeness than all this, we do not need homes that fear God and love Christ; homes in which fathers live up to their divinely imposed responsibilities and mothers faithfully pursue their high and holy duties; homes in which children are taught to pray, to strive for pure, honest lives, to love and obey their parents, to cherish their country and its institutions, their Church and its teachings. A people may suffer financial collapse, even bankruptcy; yet if its homes preserve the golden standards of Christ’s faith and His creed, it may regain its stability. A country may be devastated by the ravages of war and starvation and epidemics; yet if its homes possess that buoyant Christian conviction, it can rebuild its ruins and recover its strength. No nation, whatever its wealth and influence in world affairs may be, has ever been able to tear the Almighty out of the hearts and homes of its people without witnessing the forebodings of approaching disaster. What, we may well ask, shall America be profited if it gain world-wide distinction in the modernization of its homes, if its people erect attractive dwelling-places, superefficient apartments, magnificent habitations,—and yet lose Christ? Israel’s greatest decline came, not when its people lived humbly in their cottages, “every man under his vine and under his fig-tree,” but when its jaded, world-worn aristocrats stretched themselves on ivory beds in their palatial chambers or when the citizens of Jerusalem pointed with pride to their ceiled houses and forgot the Temple of God, which lay in ruins. And because the domestic codes in the lavish roof-terraced apartments are no higher, and often much lower, than the morality in tenement basements, we must realize that a nation’s status before God is not gauged by its pretentious dwellings and that the moral worth of a home cannot be appraised by its location, its architecture, its size.

God does look graciously upon homes and hearts that pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and invoke His presence in the family circle. And one of the reasons why the tragedies that have engulfed our nation have not been more serious and far-reaching is that the Lord of Love, who would have spared even Sodom and Gomorrah had there been but ten God-fearing persons in these capitals of vice and depravity, has graciously looked down upon our homes from coast to coast that have raised beseeching hands and pleading voices to His high throne of mercy. Because strong homes make for strong people and happy family life for happy national life, let us strengthen the buttresses of American progress by introducing the family altar where it has never been established, restoring it where it has fallen into neglect, maintaining it where its blessings have already been experienced, and we shall have helped to advance and promote the welfare of our nation to a degree that far exceeds the sum total of all benefits accruing from widely discussed legislative and industrial projects.

Give to our homes fathers who recognize the responsibilities of precept and example in their divinely authorized leadership; mothers who are guided by the hallowed impulses of maternal love; children who, like the youthful Christ, are obedient to their parents and grow “in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” Endow their homes with the abiding presence of Christ and His unfailing counsel, invoked in family prayer, strengthened in family Scripture-reading, glorified in the hymns of family praise,—and homes that enjoy these benedictions, though they may make little appeal to the eye and in their modest dimensions attract only humble, unassuming souls, will be rich in radiant happiness.

May the Lord of the eternal mansions endow us with the faith that repeats Joshua’s resolution, with the fervor that puts this high resolve into daily practise, and with the blessings that fill our homes with heavenly radiance, the foregleam of the eternal homeland! Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.