“Catechisms! Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” I had gotten used to this response. In fact, I understood this response. Growing up in a Southern Baptist Church, the catechism was about as foreign as kimchi or vegemite. I do not remember the first time I heard the term or concept of catechism, but I do remember thinking it was not a Baptist thing. It was a Catholic thing. Maybe even a Lutheran or Methodist thing; but it was definitely not a Baptist thing. And that was my view of the catechism until about thirteen years ago.
Just as I do not remember when I first became aware of the catechism, I do not remember the first time I became aware that it was not just a Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist thing, but it was a historically Christian thing. I do remember it was a time in my life when I was realizing both the importance and the beauty of Christian doctrine. As I discovered the catechism, I found a new passion. Not a passion for the catechism itself, but a passion for using the catechism to help parents learn and teach their children sound doctrine.
Fast-forward a few years and our church began to encourage our members to use the catechism to both learn and teach sound Christian doctrine. As I began to talk about the catechism with those inside and outside of our church, I often received the same initial response, “Catechisms! Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”
Like I said earlier, I understand this response. It was my first response. But what I have learned over the past decade is the catechism is not just a Catholic thing, it has historically been Baptist thing too.
The Origins of the Catechism
The origin of the catechism begins in the New Testament. The Greek word katecheo is found eight times in the New Testament and means ‘to teach’ or ‘to train’. The early church took the teaching of its members very seriously because many of the members were new converts. With so many new converts, church leaders needed to ensure each member knew the truths of the Christian faith. Throughout the first centuries of the church, pastors used the process of catechizing to both instruct and examine new converts to Christianity before they could be baptized into the faith. Over the next millennium, the process of catechizing would wax and wane as the culture of Christianity evolved.
The Golden Age of Catechisms
A renewed emphasis of catechizing emerged during the Reformation, forming what many consider to be the Golden Age of Catechisms. As the reformers left the Catholic church and established protestant churches, they needed a way to teach those in their churches the doctrinal differences between themselves and the Catholic church. Many of the reformers reintroduced the process of catechizing to conduct this teaching. But the reformers also began to systematize the process of catechizing by writing structured catechisms consisting of set questions and answers. The process proved so successful that the Catholic church renewed their emphasis on catechizing and made catechisms the primary curriculum for instructing children and new converts for the next five hundred years, which is why many associate the catechism with the Catholic church today.
Early Baptist Catechisms
As the Baptist tradition began in the seventeenth century, the founders saw the success of the catechism in other traditions of protestant Christianity and began to utilize catechisms as well.
The first known Baptist catechism, A Catechism for Babes, or Little Ones, was written in 1652 by Henry Jesse. Jesse wanted to write an instruction manual for Baptist beliefs so simple that even a young child could easily understand. Two decades later, John Bunyan (the famed writer of Pilgrim’s Progress) wrote his own catechism, Instruction for the Ignorant, to help people understand how they could be saved.
In-between Jesse and Bunyan’s catechisms, Benjamin Keach wrote a catechism entitled The Child’s Instructor to advocate for the practice of believer’s baptism. Because of this advocacy, Keach was arrested and his catechism was burned. As a result, Keach was selected to write a catechism based on the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. The Baptist Catechism (also referred to Keach’s Catechism) was designed to help people commit a Baptist understanding of Christian doctrine to memory.
A century later, the most well-known Baptist pastor in history, Charles Spurgeon, took up the cause of catechisms because they were the “safeguard” against doctrinal ignorance and error. Spurgeon compiled his own catechism which was a mix of the Westminster Catechism and The Baptist Catechism, known as Spurgeon’s Catechism. Spurgeon’s strong advocacy for catechisms renewed interest and Baptists once again began using catechism to teach doctrine.
Southern Baptist Catechisms
In the early days of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), pastors and churches widely used catechisms to educate children. The founder of the first Southern Baptist seminary, James Boyce, was a passionate advocate for teaching the doctrines of grace to all believers. To accomplish this purpose, Boyce wrote A Brief Catechism of Bible Doctrine and encouraged families to use this catechism to teach Christian doctrine.
Thirty years later, John Broadus was commissioned by the official publisher of the SBC – The Sunday School Board, now known as Lifeway Christian Resources – to write a catechism. This catechism was one of the first documents commissioned by the newly formed publishing arm of the SBC. Broadus’ A Catechism of Bible Teaching provided questions and answers for both younger and older children.
The Decline of the Catechism
The catechism was a significant method of Baptist instruction through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In fact, over thirty Baptist catechisms were written during this period. But as the 20th century dawned, newer forms of education began to replace the catechism. The rise of Sunday School, the Baptist Training Union, and an emphasis on evangelism over doctrine began to make the catechism obsolete. Over the next century, the catechism would be largely ignored by Southern Baptists.
A Resurgence of the Catechism
The dawn of the 21st century has seen a renewed interest in the catechism as a tool to teach Christian doctrine, especially through the family. Many Southern Baptist churches across the United States have dusted off the catechisms of the past and placed them in the hands of small group leaders, Sunday School teachers, and parents.
As the brief sketch of history above shows, the catechism has been historically utilized in the Baptist tradition in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, to teach the great and beautiful doctrines of the Christian faith. May the Baptists of today continue to wisely use this tool to help instruct and train the next generation to know God and make Him known.
If you are interested in learning more about catechisms, let me offer these three suggestions. The first is written from a distinctly Baptist perspective. The second and third focus on the process of catechizing from a more general perspective.
Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: A Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life by Thomas J. Nettles
Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashion Way by J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett
Rediscovering Catechism: The Art of Equipping Covenant Children by Donald Van Dyken
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