A family abbey is a patriarchal estate with all basic functions performed by its residents. The word “abbey” comes from abba meaning “father.” Abbeys are not only made up of extended blood relatives, but those desiring to attach themselves to the manor. They are led and guided by the abba, a patriarch – the lord of the manor – who seeks to cultivate the welfare of all who reside and visit.
Modeled in ancient Celtic history – but quite different from later religious, monastic communities – family abbeys are centers of craft and trade, worship and evangelism, advice and guidance, teaching and training, hospitality and rest, love and healing, and a host of other needs and ministries – spiritual, physical, emotional, social, economic, etc. These domestic commonwealths are havens of refuge and peace, not only to family and friends, but strangers and inquirers as well.
Although there are many modern adaptations of the family abbey, for the most part they operate in obscurity – unnoticed by society. One noted example of sorts is L’Abri. Named after the French word for “shelter,” it began in Switzerland in 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer opened their home as a place where people might find satisfying answers to their questions and practical demonstration of Christian care.
The Schaeffers were assisted in their work by single people who resided with them. L’Abri’s residents looked after guests, conducted residential work, were involved in conferences, public speaking, and some were committed to book writing projects. Guests shared living accommodations on the grounds and meals with the residents. Life was informal and personal with a typical day divided between study and practical work such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, maintenance, etc. Meal times often involved lengthy discussions centered on topics of interest to guests and residents. Some evenings were given to Bible studies.
Those who came stayed for a few days or a few months. L’Abri had an extensive study library for residents and guests. Although there were no set courses of study, under the guidance of residents, guests were led through informal studies deemed most helpful to their personal situations.
An example from years gone by is the household of author and Bible teacher Arthur P. Adams (1845-1925). Built in 1905, Bethabah, which means “House of Rest,” was the Adams’ manor situated on Mackerel Cover in Beverly Harbor, on Lothrop Street in Beverly, Massachusetts.
The main building at Bethabah consisted of three stories and a tower. A large parlor, gathering hall, meeting rooms, library and printing offices were on the main floor. On the remaining two floors were light and airy hotel-like bedrooms for family members, residents, students and guests. In order to designate the many rooms in the house, and not wanting to number them, each was given a Bible name.
Adams described the extended family estate:
The thought at Bethabah is to alleviate the bondage of modern life, and give strength and leisure for the growth of the spirit. We are no religious sect or formal community; everyone is free, believing in God and the Bible. We are just one of the Lord’s family, like the Bethany home of Mary and Martha, where Jesus was always welcomed, and love ruled.
Housework and outdoor work was done by members of the family and residents, and no money is paid out for help. The three meals served daily were simple and of wholesome food.
In addition to house and grounds upkeep and meal preparations, residents were also involved in publishing Bible study materials, hosting Scripture conferences, and participating in Bible studies and discussions with guests. Bethabah provided residents and guests with an ample library filled with books, magazines, papers and games to assist in passing time.
One guest reported,
The quiet, restful atmosphere surrounding the houses and residents is contagious. This is a group of calm, quiet, reposeful people, and one leaves the premises with that delightful feeling experienced in coming in contact with a happy, peaceful and healthful mind.
Early beginnings of Pilkington Abbey have been situated at different locations over the years: Hampton, Elam, and Gladstone, VA. The current expression has been located in Paint Borough adjacent to Windber, PA since 2004.
Pilkington Abbey is presently comprised of three houses (408, 410, and 412 Bedford Street) which were built in 1895, and were formerly the complex of the Shank/Della Valla Funeral Homes, including the director’s personal home. These structures provide ample space for resident living quarters, business and office space, study and library facilities, as well as dedicated guest lodging (known as the Fellowship Inn). The Inn is not a business venture, but the hospitality ministry extension of Pilkington Abbey; there are, therefore, no guest charges.
The Abbey’s Ministries
Since abbeys are also centers of ministry as well, Pilkington Abbey is abundant with them. Ministry is simply a major thrust with the family, to which much of their attention and finances are directed. Some of the ministries include:
StudyShelf – providing thousands of important, rare and hard-to-find Bible study materials annually.
Bible Student’s Press – along with its various imprints, currently offering nearly 150 Bible study related books and over 500 leaflets and booklets.
Bible Student’s Notebook – a weekly Bible study periodical, with hundreds of electronic and print edition subscribers.
Bible Student’s Radio – a 24/7 online radio station featuring the teaching of Scripture.
Daily Email Goodies – a free daily email containing short thoughts on scriptural themes.
The Fellowship Inn – a hospitality ministry hosting hundreds of guests per year.
The Abbey’s Support
The support of Pilkington Abbey comes from the family itself and vital co-laborers.
Since abbeys are centers of craft and trade, there are a number of business ventures in which family members have been and are involved. They simply do whatever is necessary to carry on the support of themselves as well as their various ministries. Many undertakings have been utilized over the years to supply needs in which current various family members are involved: dealing in used and rare books, computer repairs, and various mercantile, including Avon products.
The endeavors of the Pilkingtons would be greatly confined were it not for the gracious assistance from many concerned co-laborers (many of whom assist and give on a monthly basis).
The family is central to all of God’s dealings with man throughout the course of time. It is His divine “institution” and “organization” on the earth. For the believer, the home is the Embassy of Heaven. An embassy is, by definition, “the residence or office of an ambassador.” Since the believer is an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:14-21), his home is thus the Divine Embassy of heavenly ministry, both internal and external.
Our word “hospital,” the root for “hospitality,” greatly helps us to understand the true meaning of the word. A hospital is a place where those in need – those who are hurting, wounded and broken – go for aid in healing and recovery. The believer’s home is for far more than the modern concept of “entertainment” – it is a place of comfort, rest and healing; a haven where weary souls are soothed, refreshed, consoled and calmed.
William Tyndale’s Bible translated “given to hospitality” as “diligently to harbor” (Romans 12:13). “Harbor” is a rich, restful word, defined as:
A place of security and comfort. – Merriam-Webster
Any shelter or safe place. – Wordsmyth
A place of refuge and comfort and security. – Mnemonic
An asylum; a shelter; a place of safety from storms or danger. – Webster’s (1828)
The believer’s home is to be a place of security, comfort, safety and refuge to those who are hurting. It is a “sane”-asylum from an insane world; a shelter from the dangers of the storms of life – a heavenly respite, a divine breath of air. Little wonder that the Bible in Basic English translates “given to hospitality” as “ready to take people into your houses.”
The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia (Strong’s Greek Lexicon, #5381), which is a compound word derived from: philos (#5384, meaning “dear” or “friendly”) and xenia (#3578 meaning “lodging” – so translated in Philemon :22). This compound word can be translated as “friendly lodging.” It is about someone in need of a friend – and not just a friend, but a PLACE of friendship – a place that is DEAR.
Hospitality is not about the giving of one’s evening to another for “entertainment;” it is about the selfless life of Christ in us, giving of our life, time, home and resources to another in need. It is becoming a vessel of mercy: a conduit of our Father’s great love to those who are hurting.
Pauline ministry finds its center in the homes of believers. This is the true sphere of the Body of Christ, and for this reason our apostle speaks of the “church in your house.” Who can forget the Divine grace-giving ministries that centered in the homes of Stephanas (I Corinthians 16:15-18), Philemon (2, 7, 22), Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2-3; Romans 16:3; I Corinthians 16:19), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) and Onesiphorus (II Timothy 1:16).
Family life in modern society is profoundly dysfunctional. There are those of you who operate the best you can without the support of biblical family in your life.
Dear ones, I want you to know that I love you and my heart is burdensome for you. I want to encourage you, too. The fact is that you are very precious to God! I encourage you to walk as best you can in the light that God has given to you. God truly understands, more than any other, the situation of circumstances that has you living alone. I know it may be a difficult burden for some of you to bear, and you may long for the missing family life.
One day, perhaps you will have your own spouse and family. Or, possibly you will find a precious family of which you can graciously become a part. Many who are alone have never considered the option of joining a godly family and making it their own. Nor have those with the precious gift of biblical household considered expanding their loving and caring to others.
Children without homes are seriously considered for “adoption,” but rarely are the needs of adults living alone considered in such a way. What a precious ministry extended family can become – something so very common in biblical days.