Are Catechisms a Baptist Thing?
Our 10-year-old son recently made a profession of faith in Jesus. One of our neighbors, upon learning of his conversion, asked me about our next step with him.
“We’re considering baptizing him,” I told her, “but before we do that, we want to watch him for a while and thoroughly catechize him in sound doctrine to make sure he understands the gospel and the commitment he’s made to Christ.” She looked confused. “I didn’t realize you all were Roman Catholic. I thought you were Baptists. Are catechisms a Baptist thing?”
Her reaction threw me for a few seconds. Then it hit me: my mention of catechisms gave her the impression we are Roman Catholics. “Actually, Baptists have always catechized their children. It’s not just a Roman Catholic thing.”
I’ve had a similar reaction over the years when discussing catechisms with other Christians. To the thinking of many, “Baptist” and “catechism” aren’t allies. But historically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth.
BAPTISTS & CATECHESIS
The Reformation was a golden age for catechisms among Protestants. Luther and Calvin placed high priorities on catechizing both children and adults, and each wrote catechisms for that purpose. The Heidelberg Catechism (1562) and The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) are the two best-known and most influential catechisms to emerge from the Reformed tradition.
It’s not as well known, but Baptists also have a rich tradition of writing and using catechisms. They’ve used catechisms virtually since their appearance in the seventeenth century. Both Particular Baptists and General Baptists in England used them. The unforgettably named Hercules Collins (1646–1702), a Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist pastor in seventeenth-century England, adapted The Heidelberg Catechism as the basis for his Orthodox Catechism, published in 1680. One of the most influential catechisms to emerge from Baptists was The Baptist Catechism, published by Benjamin Keach (1640–1704). It’s often called “Keach’s Catechism,” and it’s based on The Shorter Catechism, which also served as the basis for Spurgeon’s catechism in the nineteenth century.
Leading divines among the General (Arminian) Baptists in England, Thomas Grantham (1634–1692) and Dan Taylor (1738–1816) also published catechisms in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries.
Baptists in America used catechesis as a fundamental pedagogical tool. America’s first Baptist association, the Philadelphia Association, and the South’s first Baptist association, the Charleston Association, published duplicates of Keach’s catechism. Dozens of churches in both associations faithfully used catechesis, producing different versions according to age and learning level. The Shorter Catechism would be suitable for younger children, while The Larger Catechism was written for older children and adults. Henry Jessey (1603–1663), a leader among early Particular Baptists, produced three catechisms bound together, including one with only four questions titled A Catechism for Babes, or, Little Ones.
Though Baptists haven’t produced a new catechism in many decades, they did so until well into the nineteenth century, as demonstrated by James Pettigru Boyce’s Catechism of Bible Doctrine (1864) and John Broadus’s catechism commissioned by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (1891).
But that’s more than 100 years ago. So I want to call my Baptist brothers and sisters to recover this time-honored method of teaching children (and adults) biblical doctrine. Over the years, my children and many friends have benefitted from this practice.
Here are four reasons this excellent teaching method should be recovered.
1. Children’s minds cling to memorized facts like glue.
Dozens of verses remain lodged in my mind in Elizabethan English. Why? Because I grew up in church and memorized Scripture in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, mostly from the King James Bible.
Children will amaze you by how much information they can memorize. Two of my kids knew the children’s version of The Baptist Catechism by age 10. They would often good-naturedly taunt me by asking, “Dad, let me have the book so I can see if you know it.” Their minds held the answers far better than mine. That’s not because my children are unusually brilliant—it’s because they’re children and most kids can memorize far better than adults.
2. Teaching children biblical truth doesn’t save them, but it puts them in the realm of grace.
No, Baptists don’t have confirmation classes for their children, but memorized biblical truths will remain into adulthood and can serve as a tool in God’s hand.
3. Catechizing children gives them a framework for interpreting life.
Teach your children The Baptist Catechism, The New City Catechism, The Heidelberg Catechism, or any number of other classic evangelical catechisms. As you do, you provide them with a well-rounded Christian worldview. You introduce them to the One who created the world, to how the world went wrong, and to what God has done to repair it. Catechesis introduces children to all the vital doctrines of Scripture, and it equips them with answers when the world begins to pound away at the door of their faith, particularly during the college years.
John Newton—the old slaveholder whom God saved and made a preacher, the man who wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace”—was converted in part because his mother catechized him as a child. When Newton wandered far from the fold of God, he knew he was living a life of sin because of the biblical truth hidden in his heart. He knew God was watching, that Christ had come, and that those who rejected him would face an awful eternity. One fateful night during a storm, Newton thought his ship was sinking. Those realities frightened him and caused his heart to yearn for salvation. He later attributed all this, at least in part, to his mother’s catechetical efforts.
4. Seeds of truth planted now may bloom into a harvest of grace.
Spiritual formation requires discipline. Teaching your children the great truths of Christianity requires both diligence and patience. Jesus’ parable of the growing seed in Mark 4:26–28 encourages such endeavors:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
Brothers and sisters, get a copy of a catechism and start scattering seeds in the young hearts in your home and church. They’re fruitful for Baptists—and all Christians. Here are a few recommended resources to get you started:
- Teaching Truth and Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life by Tom J. Nettles. Most comprehensive work ever written on Baptist catechisms.
- Keach’s Catechism in its entirety. Aka The Baptist Catechism.
- The New City Catechism Curriculum. Newly published by Crossway. Includes everything you need to get started.
- Truth and Grace Memory Books: 3-Book Set by Tom Ascol from Founders Ministries. A great place to start, especially with younger children.