Keeping with Catechizing

Dear Timothy,

The Puritans show us the importance of catechizing your own church people and your neighbors. Like the Reformers, the Puritans were catechists. They believed that pulpit messages should be reinforced by personalized ministry through catechesis—the instruction in the doctrines of Scripture using catechisms.

Puritan catechizing was important in many ways. Here are five:

1. The Basics

Scores of Puritans reached out to children and young people by writing catechism books, explaining fundamental Christian doctrines via questions and answers supported by Scripture.[1] For example, John Cotton titled his catechism, Milk for Babes, drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments.[2] Other Puritans included in the titles of their catechisms such expressions as “the main and fundamental points,” “the sum of the Christian religion,” the “several heads” or “first principles” of religion, and “the ABC of Christianity.” Ian Green shows the high level of continuity that exists in Puritan catechism books in their recurring formulae and topics, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. He goes on to suggest that there was no substantial discrepancy even between the simple message of many elementary works and the more demanding content of more sophisticated catechisms.[3] At various levels in both the church and the homes of their parishioners, Puritan ministers catechized in order to...

  • ...explain the fundamental teachings of the Bible,
  • young people commit the Bible to memory,
  • ...make sermons and the sacraments more understandable,
  • ...prepare covenant children for confession of faith,
  • ...teach them how to defend their faith against error,
  • parents teach their own children.[4]

2. The Sacraments

Catechizing was related to both sacraments. When the Westminster Larger Catechism speaks of “improving” one’s baptism, it refers to a task of lifelong instruction in which catechisms such as the Shorter Catechism play an important role.[5] William Perkins said that the ignorant should memorize his catechism, The Foundation of Christian Religion, so they would be “fit to receive the Lord’s Supper with comfort.” And William Hopkinson wrote in the preface to A Preparation into the Waie of Life, that he labored to lead his catechumens “into the right use of the Lord’s Supper, a special confirmation of God’s promises in Christ.”[6]

3. The Family

Catechizing enhanced family worship. The more their public efforts to purify the church were crushed, the more the Puritans turned to the home as a bastion for religious instruction and influence. They wrote books on family worship and the “godly order of family government.” Robert Openshawe prefaced his catechism with an appeal “to those who were wont to ask how you should spend the long winter evenings, [to] turn to singing of psalms and teaching your household and praying with them.”[7] By the time the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s, the Puritans considered a lack of family worship and catechizing to be an evidence of an unconverted life.[8]

4. The Witness

Catechizing was a follow-up to sermons and a way to reach neighbors with the gospel. Joseph Alleine reportedly followed up his work on Sunday five days a week by catechizing church members as well as reaching out with the gospel to people he met on the streets.[9] Richard Baxter, whose vision for catechizing is expounded in The Reformed Pastor, said that he came to the painful conclusion that “some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close disclosure, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.”[10] Baxter thus invited people in his home every Thursday evening to discuss and pray for blessing upon the sermons of the previous Sabbath.

5. The Gauge

Catechizing was helpful for purposes of examining people’s spiritual condition, and for encouraging and admonishing them to flee to Christ. Baxter and his two assistants spent two full days each week catechizing parishioners in their homes. Packer concludes:

“To upgrade the practice of personal catechising from a preliminary discipline for children to a permanent ingredient in evangelism and pastoral care for all ages was Baxter’s main contribution to the development of Puritan ideals for the ministry.”[11]

Puritan churches and schools considered catechism instruction so important that some even offered official catechists. At Cambridge University, William Perkins served as catechist at Christ’s College and John Preston at Emanuel College. The Puritan ideal, according to Thomas Gataker, was that a school be a “little church” and its teachers “private catechists.”[12]

The Puritan ministry, carried on by preaching, pastoral admonition, and catechizing, took time and skill.[13] The Puritans were not looking for quick and easy conversions; they were committed to building up lifelong believers whose hearts, minds, wills, and affections were won to the service of Christ.[14]

The hard work of the Puritan catechist was greatly rewarded. Richard Greenham claimed that catechism teaching built up the Reformed church and did serious damage to Roman Catholicism.[15] When Baxter was installed at Kidderminster in Worcestershire, perhaps one family in each street honored God in family worship; at the end of his ministry there, there were streets where every family did so. He could say that of the six hundred converts that were brought to faith under his preaching, he could not name one that had backslidden to the ways of the world.

Persevere in catechizing, Timothy, even when you cannot find fruit. “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Eccl. 11:1).

Previous articles in the "Learn from the Puritans" series:

Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

Related Links

Confessing the Faith by Chad Van Dixhoorn

Thomas Watson: Living By the Shorter Catechism by William Barker

The Westminster Confession of Faith Study Book by Joseph Pipa

An Introduction to the Death of Death in the Death of Christ by J.I. Packer

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson


Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke


[1] See George Edward Brown, “Catechists and Catechisms of Early New England” (D.R.E. dissertation, Boston University, 1934); R.M.E. Paterson, “A Study in Catechisms of the Reformation and Post-Reformation Period” (M.A. thesis, Durham University, 1981); P. Hutchinson, “Religious Change: The Case of the English Catechism, 1560-1640” (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1984); Ian Green, The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c. 1530-1740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[2] London, 1646.

[3] The Christian’s ABC, pp. 557-70.

[4] Cf. W.G.T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (1867; reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), pp. 356-75.

[5] The Westminster Assembly desired to establish one catechism and one confession of faith for both England and Scotland, but a spate of catechisms continued to be written after the Westminster standards were drafted (J. Lewis Wilson, “Catechisms, and Their Use Among the Puritans,” in One Steadfast High Intent [London: Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1966], pp. 41-42).

[6] A Preparation into the Waie of Life, with a Direction into the righte use of the Lordes Supper (London, 1583), sig. A.3.

[7] Short Questions and Answeares (London, 1580), p. A.4.

[8] Wilson, “Catechisms, and Their Use Among the Puritans,” pp. 38-39.

[9] C. Stanford, Joseph Alleine: His Companions and Times (London, 1861).

[10] Richard Baxter, Gidlas Salvianus: The Reformed Pastor: Shewing the Nature of the Pastoral Work (1656; reprint New York: Robert Carter, 1860), pp. 341-468.

[11] A Quest for Godliness, p. 305.

[12] David’s Instructor (London, 1620), p. 18; see also B. Simon, “Leicestershire Schools 1635-40,” British Journal of Educational Studies (Nov. 1954):47-51.

[13] Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing: A Puritan’s View of Evangelism, intro. J.I. Packer (reprint Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 1998), pp. 14-15.

[14] Thomas Hooker, The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn to Christ (1635; reprint Worthington, Penn.: Maranatha, 1977).

[15] A Short Forme of Catechising (London: Richard Bradocke, 1599).

Joel Beeke