Shorter Catechism

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Our time is short today, and we find sufficient reason to remind ourselves of a post well worth reviewing:

Birth of a Giant.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was born on this day, November 5th, in 1851.

warfield_1864For God-fearing parents, every birth must bring some small trepidation, along with great hope and promise. We trust the Lord, we seek to live exemplary lives and strive to diligently do our part to raise our children, that they might never know a time when they did not trust in Christ Jesus for their salvation and rely upon Him completely. Child-rearing truly is a humbling thing, casting us upon the Lord, praying for His grace and mercy.

At the same time, some children, even from a young age, show great maturity and promise.  You can see it in their face. Such a child, I think, was Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. 

All of the Warfield children were patiently led to memorize both the Shorter and Larger Catechisms, as well as the associated Scripture proof texts. Benjamin’s brother Ethelbert recounted that in their home “the shorter catechism was ordinarily completed in the sixth year, followed at once by the proofs from the Scriptures, and then by the larger catechism, with an appropriate amount of Scripture memorized in regular course each Sabbath afternoon.” In 1867, at the age of 16, he became a member of the Second Presbyterian church in Lexington, KY.

In 1868, he began the Sophomore year at Princeton College, graduating in 1871, with a strong interest in the sciences and a desire to pursue further studies in Scotland and Germany. But it was not until he returned home in 1872 that he announced his intention to explore a call to the ministry. That had long been his mother’s prayer for her sons, that they would become ministers of the Gospel. In 1873, he began his preparation for the ministry at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

Years later, Warfield wrote a brief article on the value of the Shorter Catechism. Warfield writes:

What is ‘the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism’? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ On receiving the countersign, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ — ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!’ ‘Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,’ was the rejoinder.

It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.’

[B.B. Warfield, “Is the Shorter Catechism Worth While?” in The Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 1 (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), 1970), pp. 381ff.]

[Note: It is tempting to think that Warfield may have come by this anecdote through his own extended family. There were a number of men in the Breckinridge family who were military officers. Of these, Ethelbert Ludlow Dudley Breckinridge, an 1898 graduate of Princeton University and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1906, seems the most likely candidate to fit the details of the story. Moreover, the San Francisco earthquake would appear to be the most probable setting of the story.]

warfield1867b_75Words to live by: God bless faithful parents! May He equip, encourage, sustain, and support those loving parents who know that they must daily rely completely upon the Lord in the raising of their children. Child-rearing is entirely a matter of trusting prayerfully in the grace of God. Patiently love them, spend sacrificial time with them, live exemplary lives in front of them. But above all, pray daily for them, that God by His grace would save them to the uttermost. You never know when a child will grow up to be greatly used in the advance of the Lord’s kingdom.

Image sources : Original photographs preserved at the PCA Historical Center. Scans prepared by the Center’s staff. Photo 1, Benjamin B. Warfield, 1864, age 13. Photo 2, B.B. Warfield, 1867, age 16.

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The following plaintive appeared on the pages of a Presbyterian newspaper in October of 1879, exhorting both pastors and parents to pay better attention to the spiritual nurture of the children of the Church. The account is interesting in itself, but also for the vignette provided on the ministry of Rev. Daniel Baker, so noted for his children’s sermons.

The Christian Observer and Commonwealth, 58.41 (8 October 1879): 1, col. 4.

Presbyterianism is a family religion. Every baptized child is a member of the Church. The children are the lambs of the flock. They must be fed, but they cannot receive and digest the food suitable for veterans in the faith.

Surely they should not be left at home in idleness and spiritual starvation, while the parents are receiving the bread of life; yet, does it benefit the poor little lambs to be thrust into starchy clothes and imprisoned “bolt upright,” in an uncomfortable pew for an hour and a half, staring in idiotic vacancy at the preacher, who utters not a word within the ken of childhood? Nay! many a disappointed little heart is carried home, having been denied, from sheer oversight, a single crumb from the Master’s table. Some faithful parents still marshal their children to church? But what do they go for? Are not the majority of shepherds forgetting to feed the lambs; forgetting that these little boys are the future elders and deacons, nay, the future ministers in the Church of Christ?

Not a quarter of a century ago the “family pew” was an institution. The usual Sabbath morning scene was that of whole families going together to Church. The father and mother each leading a toddling little one; and respectfully walking behind the fresh, clean boys and girls, some half dozen or more, even those old enough for beaux and sweethearts, deeming it out of the question to be absent from the family pew Sunday mornings.

Every little fellow had his “Sunday clothes,” instead of his “evening dress,” and the Sabbath was to him the white day of the seven, when “brand new,” he turned over a clean leaf in life, and started over again. The mother then knew that her boy was not on the church steps in doubtful company, or one of the disorderly occupants of the back pew. Parents ruled their households then; now the children have the supremacy. They go to church or not, as they like, and sit where they please when they go.. Sabbath evening drills in the Shorter Catechism are old-fashioned; memorizing the Psalms and hymns, a fogy notion, and the main idea is to make the Sabbath a pleasant day. When the minister calls, the children go tumbling out of the back door as if some frightful apparition had made its appearance.

Rev. Dr. Daniel Baker [17 August 1791 - 10 December 1857]How many of the readers of the OBSERVER remember Rev. Daniel Baker, that blessed old patriarch, embalmed in the memory of every one who, as a child, heard his children’s sermons–literally the milk for babes. How often have many of us sat in a crowded house of children, and heard him talk right to our hearts about “coals of fire;” and the songs he would sing, in the midst of his sermons, to bring into wakeful surprise some nodding head or drooping pair of eyes; such as “Let dogs delight to bark and bite;” and the swearing word he gave the boys, “Pot hooks and hangers!” as a cure for swearing.

The children must be looked after. The world is carrying on its interests, and so is the Evil One, upon the very wings of lightning. The boys can hardly wait to get into their “teens,” or to show a shady upper lip before they are hurried into the battle of life.

An immense energy must, on the other hand, be thrown into the religion of the present day, and children must be enlisted before the world has filled up their hearts, as it will, and that right early.

Words to Live By:
When children are baptized in a Presbyterian church, the pastor typically asks the congregation if they will covenant to pray for that child. Sad to say, but most of us probably thereafter forget to ever again pray for that child. Brothers and sisters! Take this occasion to stop and pray for the children in your church, that the Lord would be at work in their hearts, leading them to saving faith in Christ Jesus as their Savior, drawing them near to a lifetime of discipleship, striving to walk closely with Him.

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From a small collection of juvenile literature at the PCA Historical Center, the following artwork is from a Scottish publication titled THE MORNING WATCH, dated 1910. The caption reads:

“These young Scottish theologians are settling the point as to whether the Shorter Catechism says the Sum of the Ten Commandments is . . .  to love our NEIGHBOR, or, our NEIGHBORS. The upper boy says it’s the plural, the under says it’s the singular, each of them, especially the upper one, forgetting that the important thing in the sentence is not the letter S, but the word LOVE. But so did their fathers before them!


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Here was a case of a child raised without regard to religion. His parents were decent enough by the world’s standards, but they were not Christians. Nonetheless, God called him.

Ichabod Smith Spencer was born on February 23, 1798, in Suffield, Connecticut. His father’s death, when he was just seventeen, had a profound effect upon him, eventually prompting him to leave home a year later. Shifting around on his own, he took common labor jobs and came to reside in Granville, New York about 1816. In God’s providence, a revival was underway in that town, and Ichabod Spencer made a profession of faith as he joined the Congregational church there. His gifts soon drew attention and he was urged to pursue the ministry. By late 1826 he was licensed to preach and two years later he was ordained. Then in 1832, he accepted a call to serve the Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, New York, where he remained until his death in 1854.

In Sprague’s Annals of the American Pulpit, the Rev. Gardiner Spring wrote of Rev. Spencer’s preaching:

“It is characteristic of the best ministers that they are best at home, and most distinguished in their own pulpits. There was no ‘flourish of trumpets’ with Dr. Spencer, when he went abroad. He was not demonstrative in his nature, nor eager for the praise of men. He was emulous, but it was mainly to magnify the truths of God, and do good to the souls of men. No man was less desirous than he to ‘create a sensation’ and set the world aghast by his preaching. Yet was he exclusively devoted to his work. His heart, his thoughts, his studies and attainments, his time, his interests, his influence and his life, were given to the ministry. Few ministers of the Everlasting Gospel, if any, were more industrious; and few had less occasion to lamen misspent and wasted hours. The result was that he became one of the best and most effective preachers of the age.

“Few habitually spake like him in discourses of such instructiveness, such attractive persuasion, such withering rebuke of wickedness, or such happy effects upon the minds of men. He spake ‘the things which became sound doctrine,’ and declared ‘the whole counsel of God.’ He was cautious and wise, but he was urgent and in earnest. He was often tender to weeping, yet was he a most fearless preacher. There was a large commingling of the ‘Son of Consolation’ with the ‘Son of Thunder’ in his character. I have heard him say that he did not know what it was to be ensnared or embarrassed in preaching God’s truth, and that the thought of being afraid to utter it, because it was unpopular, never once entered his mind. There was something of nature in this, and more of grace; he was fearless of men, because he feared God. There was great variety in his preaching; he was not confined to a few thread-bare topics; his mind and heart took a wide range, and brought out of his treasure ‘things both new and old.’ Nor was he given to crude and imperfect preparations for the pulpit : a volume of sermons might be selected from his manuscripts, which would be a beautiful model for the youthful ministry, and a great comfort to the Church of God. His Sabbath Evening Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, as well as portions of his Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, will not easily be forgotten by those who heard them.”

Words to Live By:
Concerning Gardiner Spring’s observation, that “It is characteristic of the best ministers that they are best at home, and most distinguished in their own pulpits.”—why do you think that might be so? Perhaps it is because at home they are most comfortable? No, I would rather think that it is because at home, a pastor has the greatest, most sincere concern for his hearers. They are his own congregation whom he loves and sacrifices himself for daily. Yet another reason to pray for your pastor.

For Further Study:
I do not know if Rev. Spencer’s lectures on the Catechism or on the Book of Romans were ever published, but two volumes of his sermons were. The first of those two volumes is currently in print. Another his works apparently has the greater fame–A Pastor’s Sketches: Conversations with Anxious Souls Concerning the Way of Salvation. A new edition of this latter title is pending. For more information, click here. [we have no financial incentive or connection with the publisher]

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“The ripest fruit of the Assembly’s thought and experience.”

It was on this day, November 25th, a Thursday in 1647, that the British House of Commons ordered the printing of the Shorter Catechism, composed by the Westminster Assembly.

WSC_order_to_printThe Westminster Assembly of Divines had first met on July 1, 1643, having been summoned by the two Houses of the British Parliament to advise as to a further and more perfect reformation in the liturgy, discipline, and government of the Church of England. They immediately set about working on a revision of the Thirty-nine Articles. When the Commissioners sent by the Church of Scotland arrived to be seated as part of the Assembly, the work then began to take on a wider scope. The Assembly was now required to prepare creeds and directories, not for the Church of England alone, but for the Churches of Christ in the three kingdoms, so as to bring all of them into the nearest possible uniformity in doctrine and practice.

The documents which are today the authoritative secondary standards of so many Presbyterian Churches throughout the world (and not just English-speaking churches), were prepared by an Assembly of English Divines, men who were episcopally ordained clergymen of the Church of England. That Church was as yet undivided at that time. The members of the Assembly represented the different views of doctrine and order that were entertained within it. Many of the prelatic party who were nominated by Parliament declined to attend the Assembly, but others of them took the required oath, and assisted in the deliberations of the Assembly, at least for a time. The Independents [or Congregationalists, by another term] were represented by seven men who came to be known as the “dissenting brethren” in the Assembly.

The great majority of the members of this Assembly held Presbyterian views of Church polity, and were the successors of the Puritans, who formed a considerable body in the Church of England from the time of the Reformation. They had all along been working for a more primitive organization of the Church, and a freedom from the practices and priestly robes borrowed from the corrupt Roman Church. In the days of Elizabeth they had instituted a voluntary Presbyterian organization of the Church, and they had often suffered in her days, and during the reigns of James and Charles, for refusing to carry out the practices or wear the robes enjoined by the prelates [or high-Church Anglicans].

To this Assembly were added three ministers of the Reformed Church of France, and four learned divines of the Church of Scotland, who were seated as non-voting members, but whose voice carried great weight in the deliberations of the Assembly.

WSC_coverThe committee first charged with the work of preparing a Catechism never managed to complete its work. Some time later, the Assembly directed that both larger and a briefer catechisms should be produced, both works keeping an eye to the content of the Confession of Faith. Work then proceeded, first on the Larger Catechism, and only as that work was nearing completion did the Assembly turn its attention again to a Shorter Catechism. A new committee was named and by most accounts, the successful completion of the work is due to the efforts of just four men, and in particular the work of Antony Tuckney, Minister of St. Michael’s, London, and Master of Emanuel College, Cambridge.

Completing their work, the committee presented its report to the Assembly. After some revision of the Catechism, the addition of the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed were considered. A vocal minority opposed the addition of the Apostles’ Creed, and to settle the matter, the Assembly determined that an explanation of the words “he descended into hell” would be added as a marginal notation. That postscript is typically not found in the American editions.

The work now finished, a message was prepared by a committee to be addressed to the Houses of Parliament when the Catechism was carried up. On Thursday, 25th of November, 1647, the House of Commons was informed that divers divines of the Assembly were at the door. They were called in, and the Prolocutor [moderator of the Assembly] delivered the Catechism and addressed the House. On the following day (November 26th) the Catechism was carried to the Lords. Each House thanked the Assembly for its care and pains in this matter. It was ordered that 600 copies be printed under the care of Mr. Byfield, for the use of the Members of Parliament and of Assembly, and that Scripture proofs be affixed in the margin of the Catechism.

Words to Live By:

One characteristic of the Shorter Catechism has not been sufficiently recognized in the past. It is a statement of personal religion. It appeals to the individual sinner, and helps the individual believer.

One anecdote serves to illustrate:

The Rev. Thomas Doolittle, a famous catechist, took great delight in catechizing and urged ministers to that work, as an effective way of establishing young people in the truth, and preparing them to read and hear sermons with advantage. Accordingly, every Lord’s day, he catechized the youth and adults of his congregation, and this part of his work bore great fruit. Once, when he had come to the question “What is effectual calling,” after some explanation, Rev. Doolittle proposed that the question should be answered by changing the words us and ourto me and my. The congregation, hearing this suggestion, a long and solemn silence followed. Many felt the weight of the idea, but none had the courage to answer. At length, one young man stood up, and with every mark of a broken and contrite heart, was able to say, “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing me of my sin and misery, enlightening my mind to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to me in the Gospel.”

The scene was truly affecting. The proposal of the question had commanded unusual solemnity. The rising up of the young man had created high expectations; and, the answer being accompanied with proofs of sincere piety and modesty, the congregation was bathed in tears. This young man had been converted by being catechized, and, to his honor, Rev. Doolittle says, “Of an ignorant and wicked youth, he had become a knowing and serious believer to God’s glory and my much comfort.”

There was an old expression, particularly among the Scottish Presbyterians, who would say, “I own the Confession.” By that, they meant that they had made its doctrine their own; they had taken the content to heart, and saw that indeed it was an accurate reflection of the teaching of Scripture. So too the Catechism, though briefer.

Reader, do you own the Catechism? Have you made it your own? Clearly it is not Scripture; no such claim is made, and that is why we speak of it as part of thesecondary standards of the Church. But it is worthwhile reading, and a great help in understanding what the Bible teaches.

[The bulk of the above was based on and freely edited from an historical account written by William Carruthers [1830-1922], which is found bound with a facsimile reproduction of an original printing of the Shorter Catechism. A digital edition of that work is available here.


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