“Written for Children”: The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s Unhelpful Reputation

Randall Greenwald
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida

A Hidden Lamp

As a young twenty-something Christian warming up to a Reformed faith I had once rejected, I was introduced to the Westminster Shorter Catechism in J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God. That book ushered me into an understanding of God as one “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”[1] That majestic vision was transformative and provided for me a foundation on which the rest of my life was built. The Catechism which articulates that vision is a clear and timeless unfolding of the Christian gospel by which the church can introduce the lost to life and the unsettled to security, as it did for me.

I’m concerned though that we have unhappily prejudiced its use by embracing uncritically the assumption that the Catechism was written primarily for children. We have churches full of hungry adults, twenty-somethings like I once was, in need of a useable framework such as the Catechism provides upon which to build their core theological commitments. Resources aimed at bringing adults and the Catechism into healthy engagement, however, are rare. Instead we relegate the Catechism to the children’s curriculum of our churches and by so doing we put it psychologically and practically out of reach of the hungry adult. We have so stigmatized the Catechism that we hide this lamp, so needed by adults, under a basket labeled “for children.”

The conviction that the Shorter Catechism exists now and was created primarily for children not only denies to adults a valuable theological diet, it as well causes many of us to look with unnecessary dismay upon our own children. We observe the complexity and language of the Catechism and conclude that if this were written for children, what children they must have been! It may be harmless for us to puzzle over what must be wrong with our children. It may not be harmless if this leads us to impose a catechism upon children for which they are developmentally not ready.

Certainly the Catechism was written with an eye on that twelve year old[2] in the back pew. But it was also written for rootless and untrained twenty-somethings and others new to the faith. It is critical that we who teach make a concerted effort to change its public perception. My concern is that our uncritical acceptance and perpetuation of the idea that it is a child’s artifact puts it out of sight of the hungry adult.

An Elusive Goal

I. M. Green, Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, in his comprehensive work on Reformation era catechesis, The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c.1530-1740, gives us some helpful background on the Catechism’s origin. He notes the difficulty writers of catechisms had in striking a balance between depth and simplicity. When a published catechism seemed to sacrifice depth on the altar of brevity, dozens of follow-up catechisms would be produced in its wake to address points where the original was deemed deficient. When the published catechism was judged to be too complex, the follow-up works would aim at helping ordinary readers, including younger catechumens, to comprehend it. Writers of catechisms wanted students to understand truth, not just commit incomprehensible language to memory. Theological complexity introduces abstractions that are difficult if not impossible to convey to a child’s concrete mental landscape. Simpler versions would be attempted to overcome that barrier.

Though the right balance where children were concerned seemed to be hopelessly elusive, many tried. Thomas Cranmer issued a work in 1548 titled “Catechismus, that is to say a shorte instruction into Christian religion for the synguler commoditie and profyte of children and yong people.” Calvin’s 1556 catechism was published in London in 1560 and titled “The catechisme or manner to teach children the Christian religion.”[3] Early in his ministry John Owen wrote catechisms for his congregation[4] in which, he noted, “The Lesser Catechism may be so learned of the younger sort, that they may be ready to answer to every question thereof.”[5]  None of these found the balance that was sought, but the presence of these attempts reveals an ongoing desire to provide a resource for the catechizing of children.

Since Owen’s catechism for “the younger sort” was published in 1640, just prior to the convening of the Westminster Assembly, the idea that the Assembly would write a catechism for children is plausible. It is worth noting, however, that when others wrote catechisms for children they said so. As Green outlines the Assembly’s work, there is no direct mention of children having been in view at all, much less primarily in view. This suggests that their vision may have been more broad than just children.

When the Assembly’s work was complete, and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland acted in 1648 to approve the use of the Shorter Catechism in its churches, they made no mention of it being specifically for children. They found it “agreeable to the Word of God, and in nothing contrary to the received doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of this Kirk.” As such they approved the Catechism “to be a Directory for catechising such as are of weaker capacitie.” In a subsequent act the same General Assembly rejected another catechism which, they noted, had been written for children. But of that catechism “agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines sitting at Westminster, with assistance of Commissioners from this Kirk” there is no mention of children at all.[6] No doubt those of “weaker capacitie” included children. But there is no reason to suppose that it was adopted with children as its primary audience.

We make a mistake in assuming that even if the Catechism had been aimed primarily at children that it hit that target. Clearly it was not uncommon to write catechisms for children. Equally clear is that success was hard to come by. With all due respect to those godly men gathered at Westminster, it’s hard to imagine that such a gathering of academics and divines would be those best equipped to produce a successful catechism for children. To speak to children in a way they can comprehend is a gift that there is no reason to believe the Assembly necessarily possessed. Green notes how many efforts were made to produce supplements to the Shorter Catechism for the very purpose of making it accessible to children. “The debt of the Shorter Catechism to the phrases of the Confession of Faith gave it authority but often at the expense of simplicity or clarity. Those catechists who used it found that its answers needed explaining or subdividing to make them digestible to the young or ignorant, and soon a growing number of expositions, explanations, paraphrases, and modified versions of the original began to appear.”[7] If it is true that the Assembly wrote the Catechism mainly for children, it is perhaps accurate then also to say that they were not completely successful in their effort.

Success eluded all until in 1840 a former grammar school teacher, Joseph P. Engles, found the sweet spot with his “Catechism for Young Children Being an Introduction to the Shorter Catechism”[8] published by the American Presbyterian Board of Publications.  This work alongside of the Shorter Catechism itself has endured. Both were successful in their diverse intentions. But only one was written with only children in mind.

A Broader Audience

To say that the Catechism was written for children is technically correct but functionally misleading. We need to embrace and promote a broader understanding of the Catechism’s origin. Originally the Westminster Assembly envisioned a single catechism to accompany the Confession of Faith. It was later judged impossible to write one catechism that contained the meaty theological detail deemed necessary that would still be accessible to those lacking in theological years and experience. So the decision was made to create two catechisms. Green notes that according to the minutes of the Assembly, the one, eventually known as the Larger, was to be “more exact and comprehensive.” The other, the one known as the Shorter, was to be “more easy and short for beginners” or in another place in the minutes “for the more rude and ignorant.”[9] Given this background, it is no surprise that the Shorter feels like the Larger improved by the hand of a careful and judicious editor. The Shorter is as true as the Larger, and, in many respects, arguably just as comprehensive. But its power and beauty, and its endurance, come from its compactness.

By all accounts the Assembly succeeded in producing a catechism useful for and accessible to those who are beginners in theological conversation. In fact, and perhaps inadvertently, they so improved the Larger that they created a resource that all who engage in theological thought and discourse find indispensable. As Green says, though the Shorter was much humbler in size “it was to prove to be the most important” and that “the face of English catechizing was changed permanently” by its appearance.[10]

When we say without nuance that the Catechism was “written for children” our hearers will think of the small child. When we look at church curricula on the Catechism we think perhaps of the twelve year old. But the Assembly’s category of the “rude and ignorant” was broader than both, and we who teach can help others realize that.

In the United States, ordinary life is suspended every fourth Thursday of November for a holiday known as Thanksgiving. On that day, families gather to feast, traditionally on roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Those who labor in the kitchen to produce this special meal do so for all who are hungry, all who need to be fed. Some of those hungry and needing to be fed are children, of course. But to step back and declare what a wonderful meal had been prepared for the children would be a misstatement which not only would be an offense to the cooks, it might send the adults elsewhere.

The Catechism was written to give essential instruction in sound doctrine to those hungry for it and in need of it. As such it succeeds admirably. It is a rich feast. But have we, by perpetuating the popular idea that is a feast intended for children, caused those hungry to miss the meal because they don’t see a spot for them at the kids’ table? That is my concern. I want none to miss the feast.

A Needed Recovery

Yes, the Catechism was written for children. But it was also written for people like Charlie Mora. When Charlie was about thirty Charlie met Marge, the woman who would one day become his wife. She dragged him to her Orthodox Presbyterian Church where he heard the gospel and was genuinely converted. He longed to learn more, but his church had no class or other resources for people like him. In desperation this thirty-year old man attended a class with twelve-year olds where he was given the grounding he needed through the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This set Charlie on a trajectory which later led him to become one of the finest elders with whom I was ever privileged to serve. But few adult men or women will have the kind of humility that moved Charlie to sit at the kids’ table. It should be unnecessary to ask them to do so.

Theological ignorance in our churches is well documented, heightened with ready digital access to theological error. The Catechism is a powerful resource with which to fend off error and ignorance. It needs to be unshackled from its unfortunate and unhelpful reputation to make it accessible for people like Charlie.

The Westminster Assembly put great stock in the training up of children as a path by which the “kingdom of grace may be advanced” (WSC 102). But covenant faithfulness is not the only path by which the church advances. By producing a catechism that was for all those unlearned in the Christian faith, they acknowledged and valued those who would enter the church from outside the covenant family. They positioned the church with resources by which the nations themselves, and not just their children, could be discipled.

By God’s grace, our churches will continue to be full of young twenty-somethings, those “rude and ignorant”, as I once was, and hungry to be taught “the way of God more accurately.” (Acts 18:26) The Catechism stands ready to serve this end. We need to let it.

[1] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 4, quoted by J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 16.

[2] I personally doubt that even the divines of the seventeenth century would have defined the audience of the catechism as a child as young as six or seven, as I find some do today.

[3] I. M. Green, The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c.1530-1740 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 61.

[4] John Owen, Works of John Owen (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), I: 465–46.  Owen introduces this catechism to his congregation with these sweet words: “Now, in all this, as the pains hath been mine, so I pray that the benefit may be yours, and the praise His . . .”

[5] I am indebted to Kelly Kapic for making me aware of both Owen’s catechisms and of Green’s history.

[6] https://www.british-history.ac.uk/church-scotland-records/acts/1638-1842/pp166-200#h2-0010

[7] Green, The Christian’s ABC, 82.

[8] It is worth noting that Engles, at least, distinguished between children in general and “young” children in particular. The idea of children covers a broad developmental range.

[9] Green, The Christian’s ABC, 80.

[10] Green, The Christian’s ABC, 81.