So, you’re considering the children’s catechism. Good! But I’m sure you’ve got some questions about it: where does it come from? Which version should I use? Why do catechism and not just sheer bible memorization? Never fear! This is your guide to the children’s catechism. In this post I will attempt to summarize this history of catechesis in the Church, the development of the children’s catechism in Presbyterian branches of the Church, and the current state of the catechism. In the end I will also include a number of resources for studying the catechism this year, and in the future.
The History of the Catechism
Catechesis means “instruction”. Teaching, or instruction, has been a vital part of the Church since the inception of the Church. To prove this point, I first have to prove that the Church has existed since the beginning of the world.
Adam and Eve
Bluntly put, the Church began not in 30ish AD, but with Adam. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God makes promises to save humanity by means of a serpent-crusher (Gn. 3:15). Those who believe in this promise, and their children, are constituted the Church! But each Believer necessary feels compelled to teach their children the promise that God has given to them: one is coming who will crush the serpent who tempted us, hates us, and causes us to be guilty before God. If you believe in Him, God will cover over you, just as He covered over us with the animal-skins (Gn. 3:21). Obviously, I infer this thought, as opposed to seeing it explicitly taught in Scripture, however there must have been a normal means of passing on information about God’s work prior to the written Word, and that means was catechesis (teaching).
Cain v. Abel
The distinction between the plural seed of the woman (the Church), and the plural seed of the serpent (the World) begins to be manifest within the very first family. While Abel believes the promises of God (Heb. 11:4), and enjoys worshipping God, Cain gives offerings out of lip-service, and never comes to believe the promises of God. In fact, he shows that he is “of his father the devil” by murdering his brother, “for the devil was a murderer from the beginning” (Gn. 4:10; Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:15).
Seth to Noah
The distinction between the Church and the world is picked up again in the line of Seth, which is eventually corrupted when his descendants begin intermarrying with unbelievers (Gn. 6:1-3). Rather than resisting temptation by calling to mind the promises of God (hopefully taught to them by their parents), they apostatize from the faith. Meanwhile, God graciously chooses to save and covenant with Noah, a descendant of Seth, as well as his family (Gn. 6:8, 18). Now there are at least two additional promises for parents in the Church to teach their children: 1. The Savior will be God’s chosen way of salvation in the midst of a greater flood (Heb. 11:7). 2. God won’t bring destruction upon the entire world by means of a flood ever again. Even with these new promises, Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, ends up getting covenant curses called down upon his son, Canaan, for being wicked (Gn. 9:22, 25). Meanwhile, Noah’s other sons, Japheth and Ham, are given blessings: Japheth is given penultimate blessings, and Shem is given ultimate blessings (Gn. 9:27).
Shem to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Shem’s lineage is then traced all the way to Terah, who we know to be an unbeliever. Abram, his son, becomes a follower of the LORD when God reveals himself to Abram, and calls him out of his unbelieving household (Heb. 11:8). God then makes more promises: the promise of an inheritance of land, of a child who will be a blessing to the whole world, and of innumerable descendants. While Abraham yearns for these promises to be taught to his child, Ishmael, the Lord says that these covenant blessings rightly belong only to Isaac’s lineage (Gn. 17:18-21). As such, Abraham doubtlessly instructs Isaac as to the promises inherited from their forefathers, as well as the promises God had directly given their family (Gn. 22:7-8). Isaac then ought to have taught his child, Jacob, about how the covenant promises have passed on to his family (Gn. 25:23). It appears, however, that Isaac ignored much of this, and wanted the blessings to go to his other son, Esau, instead. Nonetheless, it is apparent that it was the duty of Isaac and Rachel to teach their children about God’s promises. The lack of instruction may have contributed to Jacob and Esau’s serious brotherly disputes about the inheritance, the birthright, and the promises of God.
From Jacob/Israel to the nation, Israel
After arriving in Egypt during a famine, Jacob (whose name is also Israel), and his family settle down and grow. They are eventually enslaved by the government of Egypt, and spend four-hundred years as slaves. By the time of the exodus from Egypt, the large family of Israel has grown into a large nation with roughly 600,000 men alone (Ex. 12:37-38). God now extends the covenant to the entire nation at Sinai, adding extended laws and regulations for a variety of reasons. For one, God now has a new promise: to dwell in the midst of His people (Ex. 25:8). Because God is holy, and the people are born in Adam as sinners, therefore the people must have a yearly reminder of their need of a Savior from sin (Heb. 10:3). Secondly, God intends to give the people of Israel temporary and additional promises of land (Gal. 3:1-4:9) as they await the coming Savior and new heavens and earth (Is. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pt. 3:13). Because of this they need to have a regulated and ordered society. Last, God gives the people of Israel additional laws because it will show the nations around them how just and righteous the LORD is, and will stand as both a condemnation of wicked practices as well as a call to follow the God of Israel.
It is no wonder, then, that God’s first explicit demand for catechesis comes during this period of time (Deut. 6:6-9)! The number and quality of God’s promises have increased greatly, and so have the stipulations required of God’s people. Further, it’s not surprising that it is with the nation of Israel that we receive commandments about the manner in which to teach our children. After all, prior to this point God’s Word had not been written down. Instruction about God was dependent upon an oral history about His mighty deeds. Now that we have the Holy Scriptures, however, catechesis is based in the Bible. With the composition of the Pentateuch, we are told to instruct children from the written Word of God. As such, catechesis is a summary of important doctrines and ideas in the Bible. It has never held equal authority to the Scriptures, but has always derived its authority from the Bible as it seeks to explain and apply the main points of the Bible.
Within Israel: King David
Moses predicts that the nation of Israel will grow restless with having the LORD alone as King. He argues that Israel will appoint a human monarch, and therefore gives commands for how to regulate the Kingship (Deut. 17:14-20). When the second monarch of Israel, David, desires to replace the LORD’s tent with a permanent home, the LORD responds by making additional covenant promises to David (2 Sam. 7:12, 16). Along with these promises, the LORD himself promises to teach David’s descendant like a father teaches a son (2 Sam. 7:14-15). It is vital for David to teach his children both the Kingship laws and the promises of God, and so catechesis is obviously important to him. This is clearly vital to David in one major way: he develops the manner of tabernacle-worship. Prior to the work of David, we don’t know if singing is a regular aspect of tabernacle-worship, though we do know that Moses writes a Psalm (Ps. 90), and was taught a song by God, which are both meant to be sung (Deut. 31-32). But with David, singing becomes an organized and regular activity that accompanies the worship at the tabernacle. This is significant because if one examines the content of the Psalms that Israel sings at the temple, you see that they are catechetical! This is especially true of a “genre” of Psalm called Remembrance or Historical Psalms, which recount the mighty deeds of God, and call future generations to serve the Lord instead of rebel. I include in this genre the Psalms that refer specifically to events in David’s life (Ps. 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142), but it extends to prior events in Israel’s history as well (Ps. 78, 105, 106, 135, 136).
Exile, the Return, and the Second Temple
Moses not only predicts Israel’s desire for a human king, he also predicts their rebellious attitude and coming exile from their temporary promised land (Deut. 10:16; 30:1-10; 31:20-21; 32:15-30). During the Southern Kingdom’s seventy-year exile to Babylon, the people of Israel continue to teach their children the Scriptures. But the Scriptures have grown! By this point we have the books of Moses, a number of historical books, many of the prophetic writings, and a large number of Psalms. It’s possible that during this time Israel develops the synagogue (Greek for “assembly”) as a means of praying, studying, singing, and teaching these Scriptures among multiple families. Without a temple or central location of worship, Israel relies on pragmatic means to assemble and teach the words of God (Ps. 74:8). After the Medo-Persian conquest of Babylon (539BC), God’s people are allowed to return to the land, and to rebuild the temple. But the synagogue tradition likely continues at this point under the work of Ezra and Nehemiah. Both of them assemble all of the people (about 42,000) to study God’s word (Neh. 8:2, 17-18). During this time the remaining historical books, and arrangement of the canon, are likely completed by the scribes established by Ezra. The Persian Empire is conquered by Alexander (330ish BC). After Alexander’s death (323 BC), his Kingdom is split into four smaller Kingdoms, ruled by four kings named Cassander, Seleucus, Antigonus, Ptolemy. The Seleucid Empire controls the interests of the people of God until it is conquered by the Roman Empire (63BC). In all likelihood, during these times the people of God continue to worship by teaching their children at home as Moses instructed, as well as assembling regularly at the synagogues, and visiting the temple in Jerusalem at least once a year.
Jesus, the Christ
Prior to the birth of Jesus, and for a number of years following his birth, Mary and Joseph are given special revelation concerning His identity and mission. This information is necessary for them to teach to their son, along with the prior revelation of God in the Scriptures. Consider all of the information they need to teach Jesus: An angel tells them that Jesus’ paternal lineage is not from man, by but the work of the Holy Ghost (Mt. 1:20). They are told that they are to name their child “Jesus” (Yahweh is Salvation) because, “He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, says that the child in her womb is “blessed” because, “When the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy” (Lk. 1:44). After the birth of Jesus, an angelic chorus appears before shepherds, heralding the birth of Jesus, calling him “A Savior, Christ, the Lord” (Lk. 2:11). Mary and Joseph depart from Bethlehem for Jerusalem after the time of Mary’s purification (33 days). When they enter the temple to offer the redemption price for a son, Simeon declares, “My eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk. 2:30, 32). Even though they have already been informed about Jesus’ identity, they still marvel at Simeon’s words (Lk. 2:33)! They return to Nazareth. They then travel back to Jerusalem, and perhaps turn aside in Bethlehem to visit family. Wise men arrive from the east to offer tribute to the King of the Jews (Mt. 2:2). After Herod’s murderous campaign to destroy all the male infants in the region, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt after God’s direct revelation to them. Undoubtedly they would need to teach Jesus that He is the prophet like Moses, who was spared from the intent of a wicked king by hiding in Egypt, as well as True Israel, who was called out of Egypt into the promised land (Dt. 18:15; Hos. 11:1; Mt. 2:13-23). Surely, if Jesus was taught these things by his human parents, shouldn’t we teach our children about the mighty works of God?
The Church in the New Covenant: Apostolic
Jesus Himself commissions His disciples,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mt. 28:18-20).
There are two vital things for the nature of catechesis contained within this commission. First, because Jesus has all authority, we therefore ought to and are capable of making disciples of all nations. We ought to view ourselves as raiders of hell, who plunder it of its victims by means of disciple-making (Mt. 16:18). This means that catechesis is evangelistic. We catechize our children, summarizing the Scriptures, because they teach our children a simple but thorough explanation of the gospel! In prior times in the Church, catechesis was still evangelistic, but in seed form only. Now that Jesus has risen from the dead, teaching our children about God’s promises is crystal-clear: you may be saved by faith in Jesus. Secondly, though, Jesus’ commission also shows us that disciple-making involves two things: baptizing and teaching…observance. If you want your child to be a disciple of Jesus then these two things are necessary. Is it any wonder, then, that after Peter’s initial speech after Pentecost the earliest believers in Jesus’ resurrection are baptized, and then “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:38, 42)?
The Church in the New Covenant: Patristic and Medieval
After the death of the apostles, the Church continues to carry on Jesus’ commission. Written catechisms are drawn up, which mainly consist of things like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and instruction in sacraments. These catechisms are mainly given to new converts, as they prepare to be baptized. The time-period required to prepare for baptism eventually increases, however, as the Church begins to require catechetical lessons or sermons, as well as various other rites. At this point, though, preaching falls into great disuse or abuse in various areas, and catechesis stops as well. Eventually, catechesis is revived, but is applied to children who have already been baptized.
The Church in the New Covenant: Renaissance, Reformation, and Post-Reformation
At the advent of the printing press we see a continued concern for the catechesis of children. Hughes Old (link to his book above) points out that Jean Gerson, Basel Christoph von Utenheim, and Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg are three vivid examples of catechizers worth considering. This concern for catechesis is taken up by Luther, Calvin, and various other reformers, and is reflected in their particular catechisms. Following these men, the concern for catechizing our children has continued. See this article and this article for a much more detailed explanation of Reformation and Post-Reformation catechetical work. The point here, however, is that by this point in the history of the Church, the work of catechesis is viewed as primarily the work of parents for their children. During and after the Reformation, many ministers draw up their own catechisms, and hand them out to church members for memorization. Other ministers believe it is helpful to preach catechetical sermons (summaries or explanation of the catechism), assuming that the children have already memorized one version of catechism.
The Catechism Today
Why should I go through a catechism with my child and not just do Bible memorization? In short, because a catechism is both a form of Bible memorization (especially the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer) as well as a way of categorizing/summarizing important doctrines that sheer Bible passage memorization won’t categorize for your child. A good solution is to use a catechism, and include passages of Scripture to memorize as well.
But which catechism should I use? There are a significant number of catechisms in existence today. Not only do we have new catechisms, but we have the option of choosing between old catechisms, or of choosing between updated versions of old catechisms! The number of options is truly dizzying. Instead of listing out all of the options here (which I’ll do later), I’ll just say that our congregation has traditionally used the Catechism for Young Children, which was composed in 1840. This catechism is a summary of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Historically, children memorized the WSC as a summary of the Westminster Larger Catechism. I suppose that around 1840 the shorter catechism was deemed too wordy or difficult for children. Indeed, as this article notes, the use of the catechism in Presbyterianism has significantly diminished throughout the years. This is likely true throughout all churches in the United States of America, but I’m just guessing. Surprisingly, I’ve noticed a revival of concern for catechism-memorization among pastors, especially among those who would consider themselves part of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. I think this is because after an intense introduction to Calvinism, along with an ardent zeal for the doctrines of grace, they have calmed down slightly, and have looked for scholarly, historic, and deep-rooted means of sharing their faith. Anyway, I generally recommend that children memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism or some children’s catechism version based off of the WSC. Often, once a family has finished memorizing the children’s version, they’ll move on to memorize the Shorter Catechism, or to memorize the Heidelberg Catechism.
There are a number of resources that are helpful to parents who want to teach their children a catechism. For one, I’ll include information on the various catechisms that are in use today (among Presbyterians). Second, I’ll also add a pdf of the 1840 Catechism for Young Children, and a schedule for memorizing it. Third, I will make sure to include some audio and links to works on teaching our children.
While I do recommend some version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism for children, there are plenty in existence! The Westminster Shorter catechism is available here, and as an app here. The first simplification of this catechism is the 1840 Catechism for Young Children. I have personally typed up and formatted the 1840 edition of the Catechism for Young Children, and am posting it here for all to use: Catechism for Young Children, Questions and Answers. It is also available online here. In addition, here is a 2-year, weekly schedule (starting 2017) for memorizing the catechism: Family Catechism Schedule. Even the children’s catechism is theologically structured! Check it out: Children’s Catechism Structure Imaged.
The last printing of an unrevised Catechism for Young Children is by Christian Education and Publications, and is available here. But the Catechism for Young Children has gone through a variety of updates and revisions through the years. Great Commission Publications has a 1996 edition, some of which is available here, as well as its most recent 2003 edition, available here or here. Most of the churches I’ve interacted with currently use the 2003 edition, which has been retitled as First Catechism: Teaching Children Bible Truths.
In addition to these catechisms, there is also the Heidelberg Catechism, which you can find here, or here as an app. Last, several members of TGC edited a mixed Catechism from the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms, which is located here. If you, kind reader, should know of any additional catechisms in the Reformed tradition, do tell me, and I’ll attempt to add them!
In addition to these, I’ve found that listening to song versions of the catechism really improves my memorization. I memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism using Holly Dutton‘s and Bruce Benedict‘s recordings. For the children’s catechism, there are excellent songs by Diana Beach Batersah from the new 2003 edition, which you can listen to or purchase here. She also has page that includes all of the words, as well as the Bible verses that they quote at the end of each song here. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any songs for the original edition of the Catechism for Young Children. If any of you find one, let me know! Also, if you want an interactive catechism, this website allows you to order the Catechism for Young Children with cartoons or as a coloring book! Last, I’ve added a comparsion of catechism differences between the 1840 Catechism for Young Children with the 2003 First Truths updated version, in case you are thinking about singing along to the new one, but still want to memorize the old one.
Sermons, Books, Etc.
I highly recommend at least two books. The first is JC Ryle’s, Duties of Parents, which is available as a pdf here, or for purchase here. Second, I recommend Don Whitney’s Family Worship, a brief yet excellent explanation of why we ought to, and how to do, family worship. Family Worship is available for purchase here. There are countless other books that I could recommend about the nature of the family, the importance of catechism, etc., but these two are at the top of the list. Last, how many sermons have you heard about the responsibilities of parents? Well, here is an excellent sermon by Hensworth Jones on the responsibility of parents to teach their children. In addition, there are numerous catechetical sermons that I think are useful expositions. William Still has a whole series here. You’ll get to the right sermons more quickly if you hit command+f and type “Westminster”. Last, here is a resource for a number of catechetical sermons, which I recommend investigating if you’re interested in listening to catechetical sermons.
If any more information is desired, or if you think I ought to include something that I didn’t mention, feel free to comment below. I hope this is helpful for us all as we desire to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.