“First, In this confused and divided state of Christendom, I judge it useful that there should be public testimonies, whereby churches which, though widely separated by space, agree in the doctrine of Christ, may mutually recognize each other. For besides that this. tends not a little to mutual confirmation, what is more to be desired than that mutual congratulations should pass between them, and that they should devoutly commend each other to the Lord? With this view, bishops were wont in old time, when as yet consent in faith existed and flourished among all, to send Synodal Epistles beyond sea, by which, as a kind of badges, they might maintain sacred communion among the churches. How much more necessary is it now, in this fearful devastation of the Christian world, that the few churches which duly worship God, and they too scattered and hedged round on all sides by the profane synagogues of Antichrist, should mutually give and receive this token of holy union, that they may thereby be incited to that fraternal embrace of which I have spoken?”
Archive for the ‘Catechesis’ Category
In the second visit which Mr. Eliot made to the Indians at Nonantum, he began to catechise the younger children. He framed three questions only, that their memories might not be overloaded. The questions and answers were these :
1. Who made you and all the world. Ans. God.
2. Who do you think should save you and redeem you from sin and hell ? Ans. Jesus Christ.
3. How many commandments hath God given you to keep. Ans. Ten.
By the time that the questions reached the smaller children, they had learned the answers perfectly, from hearing the others repeat them, and the parents had become familiar with them, and they were requested to use this Shorter Catechism of three questions, in teaching their children, against the next visit.
An old man rose up after Mr. Eliot had finished his sermon, and asked whether it was not too late for such an old man as he, who was near death, to repent or seek after God.
This question affected Mr. Eliot and his companions with compassion. They told him what is said in the Bible about those who were hired at the eleventh hour, and drew a parallel to his case by describing a son who had for very many years been disobedient, and afterwards penitent, and the feelings of his father towards him.
Question. How came the English to differ so much from the Indians in the knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, seeing they all had at first one father?
Question. How may we come to serve God?
Question. How comes it to pass that the sea water is salt and the land water fresh?
Answer. This is one of the wonderful works of God. As strawberries are sweet and cranberries sour, by the appointment of God, so was it in this case. To this was added some account of natural causes and effects in connection with this subject, which they less understood, yet did understand somewhat, as appeared by their usual signs of approving what they understand.”
Question. If the water is higher than the earth, how comes it to pass that it doth not overflow all the earth?
The missionary took an apple and illustrated the shape of the earth, the motion on its axis, and round the sun; then showed them how God made a great hollow ditch for the waters, which was so deep as to hold the waters by the attraction of gravitation, so that notwithstanding their convexity, they could not overflow the earth.
During a recess in this interview, the Indians were busily employed in discussing these several subjects among themselves, their minds being evidently excited by them, through the effect of new ideas upon subjects which were new or had always been incomprehensible to them. Being afterwards asked if they wished to propose any further questions, one asked,
If a man has committed some great sins, (stolen goods, &c.,) and the Sachem does not punish him, and he is not punished, but he restores the goods, what then? is not all well now? meaning to ask whether restoration made sufficient amends to the law of God.
He was told that though men be not offended at such sins, yet God is angry. The holiness of God was here illustrated. Such a sinner should seek forgiveness as much as any other sinner through the blood of Christ.
Upon hearing this answer, the Indian who proposed the question drew back and hung down his head, with an appearance of great sorrow and confusion, and finally broke out saying, “Me little know Jesus Christ, or me should seek him better.” Mr. Eliot comforted him by telling him that as it is early dawn at first when there is but little light, but the sun rises to perfect day, so it would be with him and his people with regard to a knowledge of the favor of God if they would seek Him.
One of the Indians who had received religious impressions in his acquaintance with the colonists, said he would propose this question. A little while since he said he was praying in his wigwam to God and Jesus Christ, that God would give him a good heart; that in his prayer another Indian interrupted him and told him that he prayed in vain, because that Jesus Christ could not understand what Indians speak in prayer; he had been used to hear Englishmen pray, and so could well enough understand them, but Indian language in prayer he was not acquainted with. His question therefore was, “Whether God and Jesus Christ did understand Indian prayers?”
At the close of one interview, Mr. Eliot prayed for above fifteen minutes in the Indian tongue, that they might feel that Christ understood such prayers. The Indians stood about him in grotesque figures, some of them lifting up their eyes and their hands to accompany the prayer, and one of them holding a rag to his eyes and weeping violently, and after prayer retiring to a corner of the wigwam to weep in secret; which one of Mr. Eliot’s companions observed and spoke with him, and found him to be deeply affected with a sense of his guilt.
…. At the fourth meeting with the Indians, the children having been catechised, and the vision of the dry bones, which seems to have impressed Mr. Eliot from the first in speaking to the Indians, being explained, they offered all their children to the English to be educated by them.
At this time one of them being asked, What is sin? he answered, A naughty heart. He did not seem to feel that sin consists only in outward acts.
… The son of a sachem, 14 or 15 years old, had been intoxicated; and being reproved by his father and mother for disobedient and rebellious conduct, he despised their admonition. Before Mr. E. heard of it, he had observed that on being catechised, the fifth commandment being required of him, he reluctantly said, “Honor thy father,” but left out “mother.”
George, the Indian, who asked, in a public meeting, “Who made sack?” killed a cow, and sold it at the college for a moose. President Dunster was unwilling that he should be directly charged with it, but wished Mr. Eliot to inquire of him as to the crime. But being brought before the assembly, he freely confessed his sin.
The Indians were never weary of asking questions in the public meetings. An old Powaw once demanded, Why, seeing the English had been in the land twenty-seven years, they had never taught the Indians to know God till now? He added, many of us have grown old in sin, whereas had you begun with us earlier, we might have been good.
The answer was that the English did repent that they were not more earnest at the first to seek their salvation, but the Indians were never willing to hear till now, and as God has now inclined their hearts to hear, the English were striving to redeem the time.
Another question was of deep interest. One of them said, That before he knew God, he thought he was well, but since, he had found his heart to be full of sin, and more sinful than it ever was before; and that this had been a great trouble to him; that at that day his heart was but little better than it was at first, and he was afraid it would be as bad as it was before, and therefore he sometimes wished that he might die before he should be so bad again! Now, said he, my question is, Is this wish a sin? Mr. E. says this question was evidently the result of his own experience and seemed to be sincere.
Another question was this:
Whither do our little children go when they die, seeing they have not sinned?
This led to an exposition of the depravity of man’s nature, and of the part which it is hoped dying infants have in the redemption made by Christ, and the covenant relation of the children of believers, which last doctrine Mr. Eliot says, “was exceedingly grateful unto them.”
The whole assembly at one time united and sent a question to Mr. Eliot by his man, as their united question, viz:
“Whether any of them should go to heaven, seeing they found their hearts full of sin, and especially full of the sin of lust?” At the next lecture held at “Dorchester mill,” occasion was taken to preach to them from Matt. 11: 28, 29, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden,” &c., when the justifying grace of Christ to all who are weary and sick of sin was fully and earnestly set forth. But at this time they repeated their fearful apprehension that “none of them would go to heaven.”
A question which uniformly troubled all who began to think of embracing religion was this:
“If we leave off Powawing and pray to God, what shall we do when we are sick?” For though they had some knowledge of the medicinal qualities in certain roots and herbs, they of course had no knowledge of the human system, and hence no skill in applying their remedies, but relied on the antics and unearthly gestures and incantations of their Powaws to make the medicines take effect. Mr. Eliot expressed the desire that the Lord would stir up the hearts of some people in England to give some maintenance towards a school or academy, wherein there should be “Anatomies, and other instructions that way.” Mr. E. had himself showed them an anatomy, the only one he says the English had ever had in the country. By a course of instruction in medicine Mr. E. believed that he could most effectually, and perhaps, in the only way, “root out their Powaws.”
The Indians proposed this question to Mr. Eliot:
“What shall we say to some Indians who say to us, What do you get by praying to God, and believing in Jesus Christ? You go naked still, and are as poor as we. Our corn is as good as yours; and we take more pleasure than you; if we saw that you got any thing by praying to God, we would do so.”
Mr. E. answered to them on this point as follows : “First, God gives two sorts of good things; 1. little things, which he showed by his little finger, (‘for they use and delight in demonstrations ;’) 2. great things, (holding up his thumb). The little mercies he said are riches, clothes, food, sack, houses, cattle, and pleasures, all which serve the body for a little while, and in this life only. The great mercies are wisdom, the knowledge of God, Christ, eternal life, repentance and faith; these are for the soul, and eternity. Though God did not give them so many little things, through the knowledge of the Gospel, he gave them the greater things which are better. This he proved by an illustration: when Foxun, the Mohegan Counselor, who is counted the wisest Indian in the country, was in the Bay, I did on purpose bring him unto you; and when he was here, you saw he was a fool in comparison of you, for you could speak of God, and Christ, and heaven, &c.; but he sat and had not one word to say unless you talked of such poor things as hunting, wars, &c.”
He also told them that they had some more clothes than the wicked Indians; and the reason why they had so few, was because they had so little wisdom; but if they were wise to obey God’s commands, for example, “Six days shall thou labor,” they would have clothes, houses, cattle, and riches, as the English have.
Many questions and cases of dispute arose out of their old practice of gaming, to which they were greatly addicted. The irreligious Indians demanded the old stakes of some who had been convinced of the sin of gaming, and had declined to pay their forfeits. The winners however, insisted on being payed. Mr. Eliot had no little trouble in settling the matters of casuistry and conscience which thus occurred. But he took this method in many cases. He prevailed on the creditor to accept one half of his demand, having first showed him the sinfulness of gaming. He then told the debtor in private that God requires us to fulfill our promises though to our hurt, and then asked him if he would pay half. In this way such cases were many of them settled, for the creditors refused Mr. Eliot’s proposition, that whoever challenged a debt incurred by gaming should go before the Governor with his demand.
The following are anecdotes from the labors of Puritan missionary John Eliot (1604-1690) among the Native Americans of early Massachusetts. The extract is drawn from The Life of John Eliot by Nehemiah Adams (1847).
Specifically, we witness Eliot and company catechizing the heathen, ushering them into the holy knowledge of the faith and so into the bosom of the Church. Obviously, our Puritan forbears entertained a broad view of this discipline. It was not simply for those in the Church seeking to deepen their understanding of but also for those laying hold of the skirt of a Jew and begging for guidance to Zion’s God.
After one or two more posts, I’ll conclude with some reflections on Eliot’s evangelistic catechesis.
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An hour and a quarter was occupied in the discourse. Mr. Eliot gave the Indians first a brief exposition of the ten commandments, showing the wrath and curse of God against those who break the least one of them. The subject was then applied, and the law having been brought to do its work in their hearts, and their sins being pointed out to them, as Mr. Eliot says, with much sweet affection, Jesus Christ was preached to them as the only Saviour. He told them who Christ was, and what he did, and whither he had gone, and how he will come again to judge the wicked and burn the world. The creation and fall of man, the greatness of God, heaven and hell, the pleasures of religion and the miseries of sin were then explained in language and with illustrations suited to their capacity.
The sermon being finished, Mr. Eliot proposed some questions to them, and first inquired whether they understood what had been said, and whether all or only some of them understood it ? A multitude of voices exclaimed that they all understood every thing which had been spoken. Leave was then granted them to put questions, and it is interesting to notice the first questions which these children of the wilderness proposed. The first questions were, “What is the cause of thunder?” “What makes the sea ebb and flow?” “What makes the wind blow?”
But there were some questions proposed by them which Mr. Eliot says some special wisdom of God directed them to ask, as, for example, How may we come to know Jesus Christ?
Mr. Eliot told them that if they could read the Bible they would see clearly who Jesus Christ is, but inasmuch as they could not then read, he desired them to remember what he had told them out of the Bible, and to think much and often upon it, when they lay down on their mats in their wigwams and when they rose up, and to go alone in the fields, and woods, and muse on it, and so God would teach them.
He told them that if they would have help from God in this thing, they must begin to pray, and though they could not make long prayers as the English did, yet if they did but sigh and groan, saying, “Lord, make me to know Jesus Christ for I know him not,” and if with all their hearts they persisted in such prayers, they might hope that God would help them. But they were especially to remember that they must confess their sins and ignorance to God and mourn over them and acknowledge how just it would be in God to withhold from them any knowledge of Christ, on account of their sins.
One of them asked, whether Englishmen were ever at any time so ignorant of God and Jesus Christ as they themselves?
Another put this question: Whether if the father be naughty and the child good, will God be offended with that child ? because in the second commandment it is said that he visits the sins of the fathers upon the children. They were told in reply to this that every child who is good will not be punished for the sins of his father, but if the child be bad, God would then visit his father’s sins upon him, and they were bid to notice that part of the second commandment which contains a promise to the thousands of them that love God and keep his commandments.
One of them asked, How is all the world now become so full of people, if they were all once drowned in the flood? This led to the story of the ark and the preservation of Noah.
Mr. Eliot then proposed some questions to them, for example, Whether they did not desire to see God, and were not tempted to think there is no God because they could not see him? Some of them answered, They did desire to see Him if it could be, but they had heard from Mr. Eliot that he could not be seen, and they did believe that though their eyes could not see him, he was to be seen with their soul within. Mr. Eliot endeavored to confirm them in this impression, and asked them if they saw a great wigwam or a great house, would they think that raccoons or foxes built it? or would they think that it made itself? or that no wise builder made it, because they could not see him who made it?
Knowing that the doctrine of one God was a great stumbling block to them, Mr. Eliot asked them if they did not think it strange that there should be but one God, and yet this God be in Massachusetts, and in Connecticut, in Old England, in this wigwam, and the next, and every where at the same time? One of the most sober of them replied that it was indeed strange, as every thing else they had heard preached was strange, and they were wonderful things which they never heard of before, but yet they thought “It might be true, and that God was so big every where.” Mr. Eliot illustrated the truth by the light of the sun, which, though it was but a creature of God, shed its light into that wigwam, and the next, in Massachusetts and Old England, at once.
He inquired of them if they did not find something troubling them within after the commission of murder, theft, adultery, lying; and what would comfort them, and remove that trouble of conscience when they should die and appear before God? They replied that they were thus troubled, but they could not tell what they should say about it, or what would remove this trouble of mind, whereupon Mr. Eliot enlarged upon the evil of sin and the condition of the soul which is cast out of the favor of God.
Having spent three hours in this interview, Mr. Eliot asked them if they were not weary, and they said, no. But thinking it best to leave them with an appetite, Mr. Eliot concluded the meeting with prayer.
[From the United Presbyterian Magazine, Scotland, 1851.]
Of all the periods of human life, youth is the most favourable for religious impression. At first the judgment, though weak, is not pre-occupied; the heart, though depraved, is not yet hardened; and the conscience, though evil, is not yet seared as with a hot iron. Then, like the young sapling, the mind will take any bend you are pleased to give it. But when it has long been inured to sin, it becomes stubborn as the sturdy tree that resists our pressure. We are told, on the best authority, it is as unlikely for one to do good who has been accustomed to do evil, as for the Ethiopian to change his skin, or the leopard his spots. Hence it is that so little can be done with the aged, and many think that few are converted after their twentieth year. It is true we must not limit the Holy One of Israel, and we know he can save even at the eleventh hour. But though a man may be born again when he is old, few, we fear, are changed at this time of life, and most of the aged who are coming to the grave like a shock of corn in its season, are those of whom God says, “I remember the kindness of thy youth.”
Since these things are so, can too much attention be paid to the training of the young? And should not every expedient be resorted to for improving the precious season of youth? In what follows, we intend to confine our remarks to one branch of the subject—family catechising. Of the importance of this department of parental duty, we cannot form too high an estimate. A family thus instructed, becomes a little nursery for the church and for heaven. The advantages of the practice have been seen in the lives and in the deaths of multitudes, and yet the day of judgment alone can reveal them fully.
But this practice, so invaluable to the young, has sadly declined in these degenerate days. The time has been, when no head of a family, who pretended to the name of a Christian would have dared to neglect it; but, as with family worship, what was once the rule has, we fear, become the exception. Nay, there is too much reason to doubt, that rare as is the worship of the family, the family catechising is still more rare; and some who observe the former duty have no relish for the latter. The chief cause of this is, no doubt, the decline of vital religion; but there are particular circumstances at the present day, which cannot be held as evincing such a decline, and yet have had their influence in producing the result we are deploring. Since Sabbath-schools have become so numerous, many parents think the work of family catechising is taken out of their hands. Now this is a great mistake. Sabbath-schools are a blessing, and a great blessing, to the country. But they are at the best but a remedy for a prevalent disease, and if every father could, and would, instruct his own household, Sabbath-schools would be quite uncalled for. No Christian parent is at liberty to devolve on a proxy the religious training of his offspring. And what instruction can be compared to that of a father? The school teacher may be very kind, and deeply concerned for the salvation of his pupils. But the child knows that his parent has far more interest in him than any stranger can have; and if the lessons of the school are not seconded by home tuition, they will in general be in vain. The neglect of this duty we believe to be one great reason of a fact which all Christians deplore, that while Sabbath-schools were never more numerous, juvenile wickedness was never more prevalent.
The frequency of preaching on the Sabbath evenings, especially in towns, may be another cause which has led to this evil. These sermons are extensively placarded and earnestly pressed on attention. The names of the preachers and their particular subjects are diligently advertised and intimated from every pulpit, as if it were some performance where men go to be entertained. Parents think they are well employed when they are hearing the word; and, as this is felt to be much easier than doing their more appropriate work at home, it is often preferred. Now, no head of a family should ever think, in ordinary circumstances, of going to these evening discourses. He is the priest in his own household, and his work at home is far more important than hearing the most popular preacher, on the most exciting theme he can bring before them.
The neglect of the good old way has been most disastrous. It is owing to this that such ignorance now prevails among the members of churches, and that the attainments of most professors are so very circumscribed. None who examine candidates for communion, or parents who are seeking baptism to their children, but must be pained at this. Many people can make but little of sermons, as preachers cannot be always dwelling on first principles; and as church examinations, either from the neglect of the pastor, or the pride of the people, are now almost entirely obsolote, unless the examination be practised in the family, ignorance must increase. And is it not owing to the same neglect that the grossest errors and wildest views on religious subjects are so rampant in the present day? Though the age be distinguished for shrewdness and acuteness in detecting flaws in science and literature, what monstrous opinions are entertained on religion!
Now, if in early life a systematic view of Christian doctrine were obtained, and digested and stored in the memory, the analogy of faith would be seen; the bearing of one doctrine on another would be apparent, and the pernicious dogmas, which gain assent so easily, would be at once rejected. In times of change like the present, when a respect for all that is sacred is sneered at by many as weakness and superstition, when the march of intellect, as they call it, is the pretext for so much change, and when all the foundations have gone out of their course, how important for the young especially to be rooted and grounded in the truth, that they may not be the dupes of every impostor, and be tossed about by every wind of doctrine!
In catechising a family, much will depend on the mode of procedure. To be efficient, it must be done frequently, seriously, intelligently, affectionately, attractively, and prayerfully.
It must be done frequently. Not at rare intervals, as before a communion, or when about to ask admission into the church, or when the visit of the pastor is expected. It must be very regular, and often repeated. For many years it was the custom to require an answer to a question every morning, and the greater part of Saturday was devoted to a revisal of the Catechism. But in this age of bustle and business, when even the day of God is encroached on, and there is time for everything but religion, such important seasons may not be convenient. Yet once in the week is surely not too often, and the evening of the Sabbath may be employed by all.
It must be done seriously,—not like some secular exercise, but as a work involving eternal interests. The subjects of examination are all of the most solemn and tremendous moment. And yet how often are the questions repeated with scarcely a solemn sound, and by a thoughtless tongue! Now this is not only hateful to God, but hurtful to the young. On such occasions all levity must be banished from the mind. They must be taught, when examined, that they have now to do with God, and that the place they occupy is like the “holy ground.”
It must be done intelligently; without this it will be labour in vain. Many have the form of sound words to which they can attach no meaning. They can repeat the questions with the greatest accuracy; but if you vary the language and ask what is meant by the thing expressed, there is no reply but the stare of ignorance. In this matter an improvement has taken place in recent editions of the Catechism. But still there is need for more explanation, that milk may be given to babes as well as meat to the stronger man.
It must be done affectionately, in the spirit of the father when he said, “O my son, if thine heart be wise my heart shall rejoice, even mine;” or of the mother who, leaning over the darling of her heart, exclaims, “O my son, and the son of my womb, and the son of my vows, and the son of my prayers.” The young must be drawn with the cords of love as the bands of a man. We cannot compel them to be religious. We may force them to read the Bible, and to repeat the questions, but we cannot compel them to love the Redeemer. In conducting this duty, the father must try to convince his child that he loves him as his own soul, and travails as in birth that Christ may be formed in his heart.
It must be done attractively,—not in a scolding, scowling manner, which would discourage children, and beget an aversion to the exercise; not as a task or piece of drudgery, so many questions inflicted as a kind of punishment. Unless the duty is made a delight, it will be little relished. The pious Philip Henry, as his son tells us, made the work of catechising so delightful to himself and his household, that he would sometimes say, at its close on the Sabbath evening, “Well, if this is not heaven, it must be the gate to it.”
And it must be done prayerfully. The parent who knows anything of true religion, is well aware that all his efforts will be useless without the Spirit of God. He may succeed in imparting theoretical knowledge; his child may be able to answer with promptitude and precision every question he is pleased to put to him; but without the grace of God, it is all like the sounding brass or the tinkling cymbal. The knowledge which is all intellectual may exist in the memory or the head, but it has no communication with the heart. Polish the marble as you please, it may display its spots and its veins, but it is marble still. No father can convert his son. Flesh and blood cannot do this; none but the Father in heaven. While, therefore, the parent questions, he must also pray; and while in the morning he sows the seed, he must look up for the early and the latter rains.
Were the exercise so conducted, might we not expect the most happy results? We know it is corruption and not grace that runs in the blood; and that many a pious father has had a wicked Absalom. But this is the exception and not the rule, and for such exceptions reasons may often be assigned, as in the case of David and Eli. Manasseh had a good father who would take care to instruct him in the things of God; and yet for a while he gave no evidence of profiting from his pious education. But see him caught among the thorns; carried captive to Babylon; lying in the dungeon, and there making supplication to the God of his father. It was his early impressions which were then revived. It was the seed sown into his mind when a child, that then sprung up and produced such a blessed harvest. And such cases are by no means rare. Parents may sometimes think they have laboured in vain. Their instructions may be buried long under the clods of corruption, but their words may be remembered when they are sleeping in the dust, and when their souls are in heaven. They may have occasion to say on hearing of the conversion of their poor prodigal, “It is meet to make merry, and be glad, for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
If a parent, then, is reading these lines, we would say—for your own sake, for your children’s sake, and for the sake of the Lord Jesus, early instruct your offspring in the things of God. If your children perish through neglect of this, how can you meet them in the other world? “O father! O mother!” they might say, “if you had taught me the Catechism, if you had taken pains to instruct me in the things that belong to my peace, I might not have come to this place of torment. You took care, indeed, to cultivate my mind, and refine my manners; you sent me to every school but the school of Christ; you were careful that I should learn everything but the way of salvation. You often examined me on questions of science, but you had no anxiety to know my attainments in religion. You were proud when you saw me excelling others in branches of literature, but you thought no shame though you saw me ignorant of religion as the wild ass’s colt. The things that belonged to my peace you hid from mine eyes, and now I cannot but curse you for ever as the cause of my misery.”
But O, how different the meeting when by instructing your children in religion you have not only kept them from error, but become the means of their eternal salvation! Then how will they hail you, as, under God, the parents not of their first only, but of their second birth! And how transported will you be when called to account for your charge, you can say, Lord, here are we, and the children thou hast given to us—given to us first by nature, and then by grace! Happy family in heaven! Here you enjoyed your domestic gatherings, but they were soon over. But now your Sabbath’s sun never goes down—your meetings never break up! The Catechism is left behind you, and also the Bible, for now you know even as you are known. But being pious and happy in your lives, in your deaths you are not divided; for they who are a family in Christ are for ever with each other and for ever with the Lord!
The following comes from Anecdotes: Religious, Moral & Entertaining, by Charles Buck (1832).
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Catechising is an excellent mean of informing the mind and impressing the heart, and should be attended to by all who wish well to their children. No Minister of the Gospel, who has opportunity, should neglect this part of his work. The late Mr. Hervey’s method of instructing young people was such, that while it afforded profit to them, it was a mean of reproof to others.
Some of his parishioners having laid in bed on a Sunday morning longer than he approved, and others having been busy in foddering their cattle when he was coming to church, and several having frequented the ale-house, he thus catechised one of the children before the congregation. “Repeat me the fourth commandment.”—”Now, little man, do you understand the meaning of this commandment?” ” Yes, Sir.”—”Then if you do, you will be able to answer me these questions: Do those keep holy the Sabbath-day who lay in bed till eight or nine o’clock in the morning, instead of rising to say their prayers and read the Bible?” “No Sir.”—”Do those keep the sabbath who fodder their cattle when other people are going to church?” ” No, Sir.”—”Does God Almighty bless such people as go to ale-houses, and don’t mind the instruction of their minister?” — “No, Sir.”—”Don’t those who love God read the Bible to their families, particularly on Sunday evenings, and have prayers every morning and night in their houses?” — “Yes, Sir.” A great variety of such pertinent and familiar questions he would frequently ask, in the most engaging manner, on every part of the Catechism as he thought most conducive to the improvement and edification of his parish.
Here’s a selection from the first chapter of one of my all-time favorite books, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides. These two passages are some of the more memorable ones to me, holding out the beautiful example of a New Covenant Abraham, leading his family to the throne of grace and giving a foretaste of heavenly glory.
This book is well worth the reading. If you don’t read the book, read the first chapter. But I dare you not to continue reading after that. Read it to your family on a quiet Lord’s Day afternoon and develop your own memories of hallowing the day with your children. Oh, and make sure to read the poem at the end …
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Besides his independent choice of a Church for himself, there was one other mark and fruit of his early religious decision, which looks even fairer through all these years. Family Worship had heretofore been held only on Sabbath day in his father’s house; but the young Christian, entering into conference with his sympathising mother, managed to get the household persuaded that there ought to be daily morning and evening prayer and reading of the Bible and holy singing. This the more readily, as he himself agreed to take part regularly in the same and so relieve the old warrior of what might have proved for him too arduous spiritual toils. And so began in his seventeenth year that blessed custom of Family Prayer, morning and evening, which my father practised probably without one single omission till he lay on his deathbed, seventy-seven years of age; when, even to the last day of his life, a portion of Scripture was read, and his voice was heard softly joining in the Psalm, and his lips breathed the morning and evening Prayer,—falling in sweet benediction on the heads of all his children, far away many of them over all the earth, but all meeting him there at the Throne of Grace. None of us can remember that any day ever passed unhallowed thus; no hurry for market, no rush to business, no arrival of friends or guests, no trouble or sorrow, no joy or excitement, ever prevented at least our kneeling around the family altar, while the High Priest led our prayers to God, and offered himself and his children there. And blessed to others, as well as to ourselves, was the light of such example! I have heard that, in long after years, the worst woman in the village of Torthorwald, then leading an immoral life, but since changed by the grace of God, was known to declare, that the only thing that kept her from despair and from the hell of the suicide, was when in the dark winter nights she crept close up underneath my father’s window, and heard him pleading in family worship that God would convert “the sinner from the error of wicked ways and polish him as a jewel for the Redeemer’s crown.” “I felt,” said she, “that I was a burden on that good man’s heart, and I knew that God would not disappoint him. That thought kept me out of Hell, and at last led me to the only Saviour” . . . .
We had, too, special Bible Readings on the Lord’s Day evening,—mother and children and visitors reading in turns, with fresh and interesting question, answer, and exposition, all tending to impress us with the infinite grace of a God of love and mercy in the great gift of His dear Son Jesus, our Saviour. The Shorter Catechism was gone through regularly, each answering the question asked, till the whole had been explained, and its foundation in Scripture shown by the proof-texts adduced. It has been an amazing thing to me, occasionally to meet with men who blamed this “catechizing” for giving them a distaste to religion; every one in all our circle thinks and feels exactly the opposite. It laid the solid rock foundations of our religious life. After-years have given to these questions and their answers a deeper or a modified meaning, but none of us have ever once even dreamed of wishing that we had been otherwise trained. Of course, if the parents are not devout, sincere, and affectionate,—if the whole affair on both sides is taskwork, or worse, hypocritical and false,—results must be very different indeed! Oh, I can remember those happy Sabbath evenings; no blinds drawn, and shutters up, to keep out the sun from us, as some scandalously affirm; but a holy, happy, entirely human day, for a Christian father, mother, and children to spend. How my father would parade across and across our flag-floor, telling over the substance of the day’s sermons to our dear mother, who, because of the great distance and because of her many living “encumbrances,” got very seldom indeed to the church, but gladly embraced every chance, when there was prospect or promise of a “lift ” either way from some friendly gig! How he would entice us to help him to recall some idea or other, rewarding us when we got the length of “taking notes” and reading them over on our return; how he would turn the talk ever so naturally to some Bible story, or some martyr reminiscence, or some happy allusion to the “Pilgrim’s Progress”! And then it was quite a contest, which of us would get reading aloud, while all the rest listened, and father added here and there a happy thought, or illustration, or anecdote. Others must write and say what they will, and as they feel; but so must I. There were eleven of us brought up in a home like that; and never one of the eleven, boy or girl, man or woman, has been heard, or ever will be heard, saying that Sabbath was dull or wearisome for us, or suggesting that we have heard of or seen any way more likely than that for making the Day of the Lord bright and blessed alike for parents and for children. But God help the homes where these things are done by force and not by love! The very discipline through which our father passed us was a kind of religion in itself. If anything really serious required to be punished, he retired first to his closet for prayer, and we boys got to understand that he was laying the whole matter before God; and that was the severest part of the punishment for me to bear! I could have defied any amount of mere penalty, but this spoke to my conscience as a message from God. We loved him all the more, when we saw how much it cost him to punish us; and, in truth, he had never very much of that kind of work to do upon any one of all the eleven—we were ruled by love far more than by fear.
A powerful plea from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) for a return to meaningful pre-membership instruction to recall the “paper currency” back to a “gold standard.” This extract comes from his work, What is Faith?
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At this point, a question may perhaps be asked. We have said that saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as He is offered to us in the gospel. How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian? That is a question which, in one form or another, I am often asked; but it is also a question which I have never answered, and which I have not the slightest intention of answering now. Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man’s soul; who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not? This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.
There is indeed a certain reason why it is natural to ask the question to which we have just referred; it is natural because of the existence of a visible Church. The visible Church should strive to receive, into a communion for prayer and fellowship and labor, as many as possible of those who are united to Christ in saving faith, and it should strive to exclude as many as possible of those who are not so united to Him. If it does not practise exclusion as well as inclusion, it will soon come to stand for nothing at all, but will be merged in the life of the world; it will soon become like salt that has lost its savour, fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.
In order, therefore, that the purity of the Church may be preserved, a confession of faith in Christ must be required of all those who would become Church members. But what kind of confession must it be? I for my part think that it ought to be not merely a verbal confession, but a credible confession. One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.
To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed.
After all, however, such inquiries into the state of the souls of men and women and children who desire to enter into the Church must be regarded as at the best very rough and altogether provisional. Certainly requirements for Church membership should be distinguished in the sharpest possible way from requirements for the ministry. The confusion of these two things in the ecclesiastical discussions of the past few years has resulted in great injustice to us who are called conservatives in the Church. We have been represented sometimes as though we were requiring an acceptance of the infallibility of Scripture or of the confession of faith of our Church from those who desire to become Church members, whereas in point of fact we have been requiring these things only from candidates for ordination. Surely there is a very important distinction here. Many persons — to take a secular example — can be admitted to an educational institution as students who yet are not qualified for a position in the faculty. Similarly many persons can be admitted to Church membership who yet ought not to be admitted to the ministry; they are qualified to learn, but not qualified to teach; they should not be allowed to stand forth as accredited teachers with the official endorsement of the Church. This analogy, it is true, does not by any means altogether hold: the Church is not, we think, merely an educational institution, but the visible representative in the world of the body of Christ; and its members are not merely seekers after God, but those who have already found; they are not merely interested in Christ, but are united to Christ by the regenerating act of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, although the analogy does not fully hold, it does hold far enough to illustrate what we mean. There is a wide margin of difference between qualifications for Church membership and qualifications for office — especially the teaching office that we call the ministry. Many a man, with feeble, struggling belief, torn by many doubts, may be admitted into the fellowship of the Church and of the sacraments; it would be heartless to deprive him of the comfort which such fellowship affords; to such persons the Church freely extends its nurture to the end that they may be led into ever fuller knowledge and ever firmer faith. But to admit such persons to the ministry would be a crime against Christ’s little ones, who look to the ministry for an assured word as to the way by which they shall be saved. It is not, however, even such persons to whom chiefly we have reference when we advocate today a greater care in admitting men to the ministry. It is not men who are struggling with doubts and difficulties about the gospel to whose admission we chiefly object, but men who are perfectly satisfied with another gospel; it is not men of ill-assured faith, but men of assured unbelief.
Even with regard to Church membership, as distinguished from the ministry, there is, as we have seen, a limit beyond which exclusion must certainly be practised; not only a desire to enter the Church should be required but also some knowledge of what entering the Church means, not only a confession of faith but a reasonably credible confession. But the point that we are now making is that such requirements ought clearly to be recognized as provisional; they do not determine a man’s standing before God, but they only determine, with the best judgment that God has given to feeble and ignorant men, a man’s standing in the visible Church. That is one reason why we must refuse to answer, in any definite and formal way, the question as to the minimum doctrinal requirements that are necessary in order that a man may be a Christian.
There is, however, also another reason. The other reason is that the very asking of the question often betokens an unfortunate attitude with regard to Christian truth. For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. For our part, we regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. We ought to search the Scriptures reverently and thoughtfully and pray God that he may lead us into an ever fuller understanding of the truth that can make us wise unto salvation. There is no virtue whatever in ignorance, but much virtue in a knowledge of what God has revealed.