The Religion of the Catechism

D. G. Hart

Presented at Catechism Day, the American Academy, Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, May 17, 2005.

Residents of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs may be unaware of two local items of interest that relate to our subject, which is the religion of the Catechism. The first of these has not likely escaped the notice of most folks in the Delaware Valley—that is the desire for a National League pennant. Our home team, the Philadelphia Phillies, have only been in the World Series four times and not since a painful loss in 1993 to a non-American team. The subject of major league baseball was on my mind while reflecting on catechesis because of discussions the Phillies provoke on local sports talk radio. On a recent show the hosts were arguing about whether local fans are obligated to root for the Phillies. The one who said no, himself a Red Sox fan, reasoned that people have the right to choose whatever team they prefer. The other host, a native of South Philly, said that Philadelphians had to root for the Phillies because this was the home baseball franchise. No matter how much the other host, the Red Sox fan, insisted that this made sports-rooting an accident of birth, the Phillies fan insisted that an individual choosing the team of his fancy was completely arbitrary and unnatural.

Buried within this argument was a point with profound theological significance, especially about predestination, providence, and the degree to which men and women can change the circumstances into which they are born. Americans love freedom and have even fought wars to prove their affection. But Americans have also found that certain accidents of history, such as a person's sex, race, family and language, are aspects of the human condition not so easily changed by free choice. As members of modern society we have, of course, changed our view of inheriting the class and vocation of our parents. A boy whose father is an investment banker will not have to grow up and do what his father does for a living, and women today also enjoy more choices than their mothers did who were often restricted by the duties of the home. But when it comes to sports many Americans seem to be comfortable with the notion that you inherit the team to which you were born. If you grow up in Buffalo and move to Philadelphia, you still have an obligation to root for the Bills. And don't bring up the wayward Dallas Cowboys fan living in the Delaware Valley. If he or she actually grew up in Texas, then that's okay as long as they don't wear their jerseys around and flaunt their team at the Eagles' expense. But if someone is caught having grown up in Bucks County or Center City and rooting for the Cowboys they will endure the sort of ridicule Protestants used to reserve for Roman Catholics.

Now some may well be wondering what on earth does rooting for the Phillies or Eagles as residents of this area have to do with the Westminster Shorter Catechism? The short answer is: a lot. The Shorter Catechism, as you probably know, was designed by the ministers and elders who attended the Westminster Assembly during the 1640s in London to be an educational guide for children—the Larger Catechism—and boy, is it large!—was intended for adults. Children at a very young age in Puritan and Presbyterian families would be expected to know and recite from memory the answers to the Catechism. I've heard the story but cannot verify it that Benjamin Warfield, arguably the greatest Presbyterian theologian in American history, knew the Shorter Catechism backwards and forwards AT THE AGE OF SIX! In other words, the Catechism was the way of passing on religion and faith from parents to children, the way that dads today pass on the rooting interests of the family by taking their sons out to Citizens Park to watch the Phillies.

But as you may be aware, just as I heard that debate on the radio about whether Philadelphians are required by being born here to give their allegiance to the Phillies, Eagles and Sixers, American Protestants have argued about whether children are required to adopt the faith of their parents, or whether children should be reared so that when they mature they can choose, like good Americans, their own religious identity which may or may not be the one of their parents. This is a very difficult question to answer and will likely continue to spark debates among Protestants. But it is one worth considering in order to put this whole process of memorizing the Shorter Catechism into wider perspective.

Catechisms have been a device used throughout the history of the church to teach would-be church members the basic doctrines of the Christian religion. As such, catechisms generally included three basic sections: explanations of the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. The basic idea behind catechesis was for young people or converts—persons coming into the church—to master the teachings of the communion they were about to join, and implicitly to follow in the footsteps of those older in the faith, both living and dead. The catechism was a way for older Christians to pass on the faith to the next generation of saints. Protestants relied on catechesis as much as Roman Catholics. The Reformed churches of Europe, the German, Dutch, and Hungarian ones, all used the Heidelberg Catechism for passing on their faith to children; Presbyterians have used the Shorter Catechism.

The use of catechisms by Protestants began to change in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The reason was a new form of Protestantism that relied less upon inheriting the faith of one's parents and congregation, and stressed the need for the individual to choose what his or her faith would be. This new form of Protestantism in the British colonies was called revivalism. Most Protestants today regard revivalism as a good thing, not something that could in any way be detrimental. I do not mean to suggest that revivalism is without its assets. Clearly the evangelistic zeal of revivalists has been a considerable factor in the growth of Christianity since the eighteenth century. At the same time, the revivalists' call for converts to lead holy lives has injected much godliness into both the church and the public arena (though again the particular mixture of religion and politics in recent years by evangelicals has not always been a blessing). But whatever its positive contribution, revivalism undercut the religion of the catechism.

How did revivalism do this? Go back to the spring of 1721, when the young Jonathan Edwards, who would become the greatest Calvinist theologian in American history, was a student at Yale College, and in the midst of some spiritual discomfort. He had grown up the son of a pastor, he had probably been catechized, and yet he still didn't feel saved. He wanted to believe but had not yet encountered God in a real, direct or memorable way. Then sometime during that spring, Edwards encountered God and the truth of the gospel in a powerful manner. He was reading 1 Timothy 1:17, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen," when the experience occurred. According to Edwards, this was "the first instance" when he remembered "that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things." He would later write:

As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never had any words of scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up in him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! ... From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them.[1]

This conversion experience became for Edwards and for all revivalists who followed in his wake, the defining mark of genuine faith.

What does this have to do with catechism? That is the $64,000 question. The new evangelical religion of the eighteenth century so stressed the conversion experience as the way into salvation that the catechism became irrelevant if not a hindrance. Edwards even said that the "sight and taste of the divinity and divine excellency of the things of the Gospel," that is, experience, was more convincing "than the readings of hundreds of volumes of arguments."[2]

No catechism in the history of the church has been one hundred volumes long—though if you've seen the current Roman Catholic catechism you might think it's a tad lengthy. The point in Edwards' remark is that experience matters more than thought, heart more than head, conversion more than catechesis.

This was a major turning point in the history of western Christianity because it undermined the plausibility of the catechism. First, the shift from catechism to conversion exalted the individual over the family and the community of faith. From now on it would be the individual's decision that would be decisive for establishing the reliability of his faith, not the degree to which his beliefs and practices conformed to those of his parents or the church in which he was reared. Second, the shift from catechism to conversion made the individual convert's own words the most important account of his faith, not whether he had memorized the catechism, the doctrinal statements of his church and family.

Think about this for a second. When I was a Baptist and wanted to become a member of my parent's church, I had to go before the trustees and eventually the whole congregation and tell about when I walked down the aisle and accepted Jesus into my heart. But when I was received into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I was asked a series of questions, all of which required me only to say yes or no, whether in front of the elders or before the congregation. This is obviously different from reciting the catechism in order to become a member of a church. But it does show how a church that uses the Shorter Catechism views an individual Christian's own words. For churches that continue to rely on the religion of the catechism, words matter, and the words that matter are the ones used by the entire community, either the catechism or answering yes or no to set questions, not the person's own account of their own experience.

One reason why conversion triumphed over the catechism was because memorizing the catechism is easy to abuse. As many of you know, you can memorize all the answers, and even the questions, and not really mean them. This is what Edwards was driving at. He wanted Christians to have a genuine faith. Merely reciting the words written by others, then, was not good enough because the student of the catechism could merely go through the motions, pass the test, but still not be a serious Christian. But someone who had had an amazing experience of divine ecstasy was much harder to find, and such experience became a more reliable guide to a credible profession of faith.

What Edwards had no way of foreseeing, though, was that even conversion experiences can be faked, or that a person can go through the motions of speaking in tongues, one of the most experiential forms of revivalist Christianity. I have friends who are Pentecostal who have admitted that they pretended to speak in tongues, just as I remember kids in my home church who walked the aisle but didn't mean it. The conversion experience appeared to be more reliable gauge than the catechism for measuring genuine faith. But it didn't turn out that way. That is because, as the Bible says, the human heart is only known to God. All that we have to evaluate other people's profession of faith is words and actions. No church official, not even the pope, can see the true state of someone's soul.

This way of looking at the religion of conversion, as something out of sync with the religion of the catechism, is not typical among American Protestants. Especially in the press with the recent attention to religion in American politics, the assumption has been that evangelicalism, with its revivalistic ways, is conservative both theologically and politically. Red state Protestants may be very conservative, but the number of those who voted for George Bush and know their Shorter Catechism is likely very small.

But one Reformed theologian, a Pennsylvanian to boot, did see what few American Protestants have noticed, that is, the tension between conversion and the catechism. John Williamson Nevin was born and reared in central Pennsylvania, trained at Princeton Theological Seminary, taught at Pittsburgh Seminary for ten years before relocating to his ancestral region and teaching at Mercersburg Theological Seminary, an institution of the German Reformed Church. Nevin is not a household name in Reformed circles, but his analysis of revivalism and conversion has never been rivaled. Interestingly enough, Nevin actually used the words "religion of the catechism" to describe the process by which children of Christian parents grow up and inherit the faith of their mothers and fathers, pastors and elders.

Nevin diagnosed the differences between catechism and conversion in a little book, published in 1843, called The Anxious Bench. This bench was a famous device used by Charles Grandison Finney, the most influential revivalist of the nineteenth century, to generate greater and more intense conversions. It was literally a bench at the front of the church designated for listeners who were under conviction, where they could go to sit and receive counsel and where leaders in the church would pray for them.

In his book, Nevin contrasted the anxious bench with the catechism. He did not mean narrowly the Heidelberg Catechism, which the German Reformed Church used to rear her children in the faith. Instead, by the religion of the catechism Nevin was referring to a complete system of inherited religion which included preaching, baptism, the Lord's Supper, weekly observance of the Lord's day (as in refraining from work and recreation on Sunday), visits to families by the pastor, family worship in the home led by parents, and the memorization of the catechism. This entire package of religious influences, Nevin believed, was the God-ordained means of bringing up Christian children, not some contrived service where converts might be manipulated in the blink of an eye to walk the aisle, sit in the "anxious bench," and decide to choose Christ.

Nevin was particularly sensitive to the differences between the religion of the bench and the religion of the catechism because he had had first-hand experience with both. At the fairly ripe age of seventy, Nevin sat down to write about his youth and in his memoirs he described the religion of the catechism that had sustained him as a boy. You need to keep in mind that Nevin was Scotch-Irish, not German-American, and so the church of his early years was Presbyterian. Here is how he described the devotion of his home and congregation:

Being of what is called Scotch-Irish extraction, I was by birth and blood also, a Presbyterian; and as my parents were both conscientious and exemplary professors of religion, I was, as a matter of course, carefully brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, according to the Presbyterian faith as it then stood ... the old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God's holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord's table ... The system was churchly, as holding the Church in her visible character to be the medium of salvation for her baptized children, in the sense of that memorable declaration of Calvin (Institutes 4.1.4), where, speaking of her title, Mother, he says: "There is no other entrance into life, save as she may conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us from her breasts, and embrace us in her loving care to the end."[3]

So far so good. But when Nevin left home for college at the age of fourteen, a fairly common occurrence in the nineteenth century, he was in for a rude awakening. He enrolled at Union College in upstate New York, an institution that was more New England Puritan than Presbyterian. And there Nevin discovered that the religion of the catechism was in short supply. This is how he described the difficulty he faced at college:

We had no religion in college, so far at least as morning and evening prayers went; and we were required, on Sundays, to attend the different churches in town. But there was no real church life, as such, in the institution itself... I had come to college, a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, never doubting but that I was in some way a Christian, though it had not come with me yet (unfortunately) to what is called a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on me indirectly by this unchurchly system, was that all this must pass for nothing, and that I must learn to look upon myself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God, before I could come to be in either in the right way. Such, especially, was the instruction I came under, when a "revival of religion," as it was called, made its appearance among us, and brought all to a practical point... It was based throughout on the principle, that regeneration and conversion lay outside of the Church, had nothing to do with baptism and Christian education, required rather a looking away from all this as more a bar than a help to the process... [4]

Are baptism, worship, and catechesis means to help lead a child to church membership and participating in the Lord's Supper, or are these practices and instruction barriers that got in the way of an intense religious experience known as conversion? What Nevin saw, perhaps because of firsthand experience, was that the religion of conversion had made memorizing the catechism, sitting attentively in worship on Sundays, and participating in family worship with parents at home irrelevant and unnecessary. The religion of conversion had replaced the religion of the catechism. For Nevin—and I think he was right—this shift was a watershed in the history of western Christianity, perhaps as significant as the thirteenth century when the Roman Catholic church began to teach that the elements of the Lord's Supper, the bread and wine, literally turned into the body and blood of Christ.

Despite Nevin's efforts, the religion of conversion eventually beat the religion of the catechism. An important factor in this victory was the American ideal of self-determination, the individual's freedom, even right to choose for him or herself, especially in such personal matters as religion. Whether it is the make of a car, a brand of mustard, place of residence, or boyfriend or girlfriend, Americans believe something is wrong if they don't get to choose what they own, identify with, or love. For most Americans, it is as objectionable to be stuck with the religion of your parents as to be stuck with your parents' choice for your date or spouse. But learning the catechism is similar to your parents choosing your dates or spouse; it is learning a set of teachings, passed on from many previous generations, that are supposed to become one's own. Some might even say that that memorizing the Catechism is un-American because it denies an individual's freedom to choose his own religion.

Consequently, learning the Shorter Catechism is a situation similar to that of the residents of Philadelphia who are stuck with the Phillies as their home team. You may think that your predicament is entirely unfair. If you had grown up only fifty miles to the south you could have been an Orioles fan. Or if you had gone to an Episcopal school you would not be stuck learning some 107 questions and answers from the seventeenth century.

In conclusion, let me say a few words about the apparent unfairness of the religion of the catechism, of the difficulty of being stuck with the faith of your parents. On the one hand, the Westminster Assembly that wrote the catechism believed in conversion. In other words, they believed in evangelizing those who weren't Presbyterian, and persuading those who may have been reared with a different faith to abandon the faith of their parents and become Presbyterian. Please do not misunderstand. The religion of the catechism is not always and everywhere against conversion. It is only so when conversion becomes the model for those who are born into Presbyterian and Reformed homes. One way to put this difference biblically is to say that Isaac, the son of Abraham, is the model child for the religion of the catechism. He grew up never having known otherwise than that he was a child of God. Why would you ever want to put him in a situation where he had to think about whether he was a child of God, whether he might choose the god of the Philistines or the Chaldeans over the God of Abraham? On the other side, you have the conversion experience of the apostle Paul, which was clearly a good thing. Some conversions are good when they bring people out of darkness into light. But it would not have been suitable for Isaac to undergo what Paul did on the road to Damascus.

This example gets a little complicated because of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. So let me end where I began, with a baseball analogy. What happens if you get stuck with the Shorter Catechism the way you, by virtue of living near Philadelphia, are stuck with the Phillies? Shouldn't you be able to choose to leave the religion or baseball team of your home or school? Well, the last time I checked it was still a free country and you will likely have lots of opportunity to find a different catechism and a different baseball team. But imagine if you were Charles Hodge. Hodge was a famous nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian who taught at Princeton Seminary, just north of Trenton, New Jersey. If you know much about the baseball geography of the Garden State, you know that everything north of Trenton is Yankee country, everything below is Phillies territory. Now why would Hodge, who lived where folks would eventually root for the Yankees, have to reach a point in his life where he needed to choose between the Yankees and the Phillies? How smart would that be? Why even think about abandoning a superior team for an inferior one?

Well, those who are memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism are learning the equivalent in the theological world of rooting for the Yankees in the world of sports. It is the top shelf of catechisms, not simply because it is Presbyterian, but because it is the one most faithful to the Word of God. If you grow up with it, you will never need to outgrow it. Like this year's version of the Phillies, the Shorter Catechism may not seem like lots of fun. But unlike the Phillies, the Catechism will never disappoint you. And some day, God willing, you will remember back to the drudgery of learning the Catechism and actually thank God that parents and teachers exposed you to a system of truth that has sustained Christians for generations and can sustain you for the rest of your life.


[1] Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections (New York: American Book Company, 1935), 59.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 4: The Great Awakening, ed., C. C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), "Benjamin Colman's Abridgement, November 1736," 125.

[3] John W. Nevin, My Own Life: The Earlier Years (Lancaster, Pa.: Historical Society of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, 1964), 2.

[4] Nevin, My Own Life, 9.

D. G. Hart is the author of John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist. He is also a ruling elders at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Mr. Hart is the director of fellowship programs and scholar-in-residence at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He serves on the Committee on Christian Education. Ordained Servant, February 2007.

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Ordained Servant: February 2007

Catechism: Our Doctrinal Map

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Editorial: The Necessity of a Doctrinal Road Map

Pilgrimage in the Mode of Hope: Thoughts on the Usefulness of Catechism

Review: Truths We Confess

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