Last post, I shared about a rhyming Baptist catechism that I have written for us to use within our children’s ministry and church families. For those unfamiliar, I want to share, in this post, how Baptists and catechisms have always gone hand in hand. I hope you’ll see that this is tool of our past should also be part of our future.
Tom Nettles has noted that “Many contemporaries have a deep-seated suspicion of catechisms.” This seems to be particularly true among Baptists. Since the teachings of other denominations are unconvincing to us, we assume that their practices must be suspect as well. This means that the word “catechism” is often guilty by association.
Modern Baptists tend…
…to see catechisms as something that lives in a strange and unfamiliar part of town. Catechisms live next door to “liturgy” and “sacrament” which is just across the street from “confirmation.” We don’t live in that neighborhood and, for good reason, we have no plans of moving there. We even mumble to ourselves, “Catechisms may belong with Catholics and Lutherans but they certainly do not belong with Baptists.” At least, that is what we think.
In this brief history of catechisms, I want to show that this is historically and denominationally untrue. Only in the past 75-100 years have catechisms faded out of Baptist life. For centuries, Baptists have written, published, promoted, and used catechisms effectively. It is clearly documented in the pages of church history, that catechisms have not merely been a Catholic, Lutheran or Presbyterian thing; they have been a very Baptist thing as well. (I am indebted to the research and work of Tom J. Nettles and his article “An Encouragement to Use Catechisms.”)
While there is some catechism literature found among the writings of the early church, catechism use, as we know it today, blossomed during the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, the leader of this movement in Germany, produced the first known Protestant collection of catechisms in 1529. Why did he feel the need to write such a simple work for discipleship? In the preface, Luther wrote,
“The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately…has forced and urged me to [publish] this Catechism…in this small, plain, simple form…What manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians…”
Martin Luther, however, was not alone in this. Other Reformers like John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon also published and distributed catechisms for use within the church. So convinced of their necessity, Calvin once wrote:
“The Church of God shall never be conserved without catechisms…if you desire to build a work of continuance to endure long…[be sure] that the children in their young age be instructed in a good catechism.”
In the years that followed, two major collections of Protestant catechisms emerged. Not only were these works well-received in their time, but they have also had an enduring impact on the church. These collections were The Heidelberg Catechism (1562) and The Westminster Catechism (1647). While these works were, and continue to be, predominantly found in Reformed traditions, such as the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, they also inspired Baptists to begin producing their own.
In 1680, a Baptist pastor named Hercules Collins, reworded The Heidleberg Catechism. He specifically revised the work to reflect Baptist convictions about the church and the ordinances, namely baptism by immersion. His work became known as The Orthodox Catechism.
Prior to this, Henry Jessey, a Particular Baptist in England, produced what is believed to be one of the earliest known Baptist catechisms. In 1652, he published A Catechism for Babes, or Little Ones to be used among the churches. Just a few years later in 1675, the Baptist preacher and author, John Bunyan (of Pilgrim’s Progress fame) wrote his own catechism. It was designed as an evangelistic tool for children and those unfamiliar with the faith. He entitled it Instruction for the Ignorant. There is also the 109 question catechism of the Baptist preacher William Gadsby written in the early 1800’s.
The first widely-circulated Baptist catechism, however, was produced in 1693 by Benjamin Keach. Though his name is unfamiliar to most, Keach was a leading Baptist in London. Baptized at the age of 15 and preaching by age 18, Keach later pastored a church in Southwark, England for 36 years. During this time, Keach was responsible for introducing the hymnbook into Baptist life. Seeing the need for strong doctrine, he was also one of the original drafters and signers of the great Baptist document, The London Confession of Faith. As he looked at other congregations, Keach saw the success of The Westminster Catechism for training young people in Bible doctrines. Eventually, he took that work and rewrote it to reflect a distinctively Baptist theology. His collection became so well respected and embraced that it simply became known as The Baptist Catechism.
Several decades after Keach, another famous London preacher assumed the pastorate of that same Southwark congregation. The new pastor was none other than the famed Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Not only was he a graet preacher, Spurgeon was also a great pastor and disciple-maker. Spurgeon followed in Keach’s footsteps in promoting the use of catechisms among his church families. He once said,
“If we would maintain orthodoxy in our midst and see good…doctrines handed down from father to son, I think we must use the method of catechising…”
So convinced was he of this, that Spurgeon wrote his own collection of catechisms in 1855. They were entitled A Puritan’s Catechism.
Catechisms were not, merely an idea promoted by the occasional pastor. Entire Baptist associations and denominations have encouraged their use. A group of English ministers and messenger assembled, in 1777, to evaluate the state of their own Baptist churches. They noted that
“At present, blessed be God, we believe there is no apparent apostasy in our ministers and people…”
Nevertheless, they readily admitted one notable failure among their congregations.
“We must in great plainness and faithfulness tell you, that catechizing our children is most sadly neglected, both in private families and in public congregations.”
They went on, in that same letter, to encourage new editions of Baptist catechisms to be printed, distributed and encouraged in all of their churches.
The use of catechisms was not just an emphasis among British Baptists. As the Colonies were being settled, American Baptists made it a top priority to put catechisms into as many hands as possible. The Philadelphia Association, which was the very first organized group of Baptist churches in America, immediately began printing and distributing Keach’s catechism under the title, The Philadelphia Baptist Catechism. In 1813, in South Carolina the Charleston Association of Baptist churches followed suit. They began printing The Baptist Catechism as well, for their own churches and families.
Though it is rarely spoken of today, catechisms were frequently used and promoted within the early years of the Southern Baptist Convention. Once the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention was organized, in 1863, its very first publication was A Catechism of Bible Doctrine by J.P. Boyce. According to Tom Nettles, “Within a four-month period in 1864, ten-thousand of these were printed and distributed.”
Later, the need for a Baptist catechism was once again brought before Southern Baptists. In 1879, W.H. Whitsitt offered this resolution:
“Resolved, That a catechism be drawn up, containing the substance of the Christian religion, for the instruction of children and servants, and that brother Jon L. Dagg be desired to draw it up.”
This motion was discussed and passed by the convention. Even though Dagg’s health prevented him from finishing the work, it is noteworthy that the entire body of the Southern Baptist Convention saw the use of catechisms as so important that they approved this project unanimously.
Since Dagg’s work was never produced, the need for a new Southern Baptist catechism remained. When the Sunday School Board was reestablished in 1891, its first publication was A Catechism of Bible Teaching by the famed Southern Baptist preacher and theologian John Broadus. His set consisted of 15 sections of Bible doctrine. It included both simple questions for younger children and advanced questions for the older ones. A foreword was printed in this work by the Baptist publishers. It sums up well the attitudes and thoughts that Baptists have had about catechisms since the beginning:
“It is earnestly hoped that the result [of this catechism] may be a more thorough acquaintance with the doctrines of God’s Word, and a still greater unity in the faith which that Word inspires.”
Despite the hesitancy of some today, history shows that catechisms have been a helpful tool in Baptist formation and life. Wherever Baptists have instructed their children in the faith through catechisms, they have been building their lives, homes, and churches around the centrality, authority, and sufficiency of God’s Word.
Church history shows that catechisms are not just a Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian thing; they have also been a very Baptist thing as well. I hope that Christian families today, Baptists especially, will see to it that we continue the work of teaching sound doctrine to future generations.