This article is about the background, history, and influence of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Source: The Monthly Record, 2000. 6 pages.

The Shorter Catechism: Its Production and Influence

When I was minister at Burghead, one of my elders, an old fisherman, told me about the time when, as a young man, he was seeking baptism for his first child, and when, with much fear and trembling, he went to the Manse to be interviewed by my redoubtable predecessor, the Rev. David Waters. Mr. Waters put him through a pretty severe examination to test his knowledge of Scripture truth. The young father emerged from that ordeal, not too badly mauled and scarred, and at length rose to leave the room. Just as he was about to turn the knob of the door, Mr. Waters called after him:

I forgot to mention that the best statement of Bible truth you can find anywhere is the Shorter Catechism, and you can get it for a ha'penny.

It costs a little more than that nowa­days, in the coin of the realm, but, after being tested for three hundred years, it has been proved to possess an intrinsic value which it would be very difficult to estimate.

The Reformation in the sixteenth century witnessed a rich inflow of spiritual life and spiritual power into many of the nations of Europe and, wherever that mighty movement exercised its vitalising influence, there arose in the souls of men a hunger for instruction in sound theological truth. The paramount importance of securing such instruc­tion for young people was specially felt, and so, in different lands, Catechisms appeared. In Germany there was Martin Luther's Cat­echism, of which an ardent admirer said that "it might be bought for sixpence, but six thousand worlds would not pay for it." In Geneva there was John Calvin's Catechism, which was used in Scotland in the days of John Knox, this injunction being given in the First Book of Discipline:

After noon must the young children be publicly exam­ined in their Catechism, in the audience of the people ... which Catechism is the most perfect that ever yet was used in the Kirk.

Scotland in those days got a Cat­echism of native production in that of John Craig, John Knox's valiant co-worker, that man of many es­capes and hairbreadth adventures. Many other native-born Catechisms must have appeared in Scotland in those days, for King James VI, "the wisest fool in Christendom," said at the Hampton Court Conference: "Every son of a good woman in Scotland thinks he can write a Catechism." Much interesting information about these Catechisms will be found in Dr Horatius Bonar's book, Catechisms of the Scottish Reformation.

The best of the Reformation Catechisms is the Heidelberg Cat­echism, which appeared in 1563, and which is still one of the authoritative documents of the Dutch Reformed Church. Its first question and answer have often been quoted.

What is thy only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that, without the Will of my Father in heaven, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

There are other answers in this Catechism which "come over our ears like the sweet South that breathes upon a bank of violets." This Catechism is a very valuable Reformation document, and it deserves to be studied for the music and fragrance that often surround its words, and, most of all, for the warmth of the devo­tional glow that burns in many of its answers. But, on the whole, we prefer our own Shorter Catechism, because its answers are more easily learned and are more concise and pointed.

The Shorter Catechism is, of course, one of the main achieve­ments of the famous Assembly of Divines which began its sittings at Westminster in July 1643. Of these divines at least twelve had prepared and published Catechisms of their own years before that Assembly met; some of these Puritan precursors of the Shorter Catechism will be found in Dr A. F. Mitchell's valuable book, Catechisms of the Second Reformation. It is not known for certain to which members of the Westminster Assembly we owe the Shorter Catechism. A curious fact is that, while the Shorted Catechism became so popular in Scotland, displacing all other Cat­echisms that had ever been used there, it is the one Westminster document with which the Scottish Commissioners had least to do. It was, however, very heartily adopted by the Scottish Church, which on 28th July 1648 passed an Act which declared:

The General Assembly, having seriously considered the Shorter Catechism ... do find, upon due examination thereof, that the said Catechism is agreeable to the Word of God, and in nothing con­trary to the received doctrine, wor­ship, discipline and government of the Kirk: And therefore approve the said Shorter Catechism, as a part of the intended uniformity, to be a directory for catechising such as be of weaker capacity.

So this admira­ble compendium of theology was launched on its fruitful career in Scottish Presbyterianism.

Innumerable are the testimonies which have been given to the value of the Shorter Catechism and the undeniable influence for good which it exercised over Scottish Church life in the past. In The Instructor for July and August 1907, Emeritus-Principal Macleod dealt faithfully with The New Catechism which made its inglorious appearance in Scotland that year. Inglorious indeed, for it was soon discovered to be a still-born freak, and it very swiftly vanished from view into the blackness of darkness forever. The Shorter Catechism, on the other hand, in spite of widespread neglect of it in Scotland today, still shines aloft as a guiding light to many.

Dr Macleod said in 1907 that the Shorter Catechism possessed the crowning merit of presenting Scrip­ture in order and proportion, and "succeeding generations of our countrymen drilled in its doctrines have profited early or late by the order in which these are arranged, and by the proportion and balance that characterise their statement." "Next to the Scriptures themselves," he said, "it has helped to form the national character; and the evangeli­cal faith of our Scottish Churches owes a debt it can never repay to the worthies from whose hands it came."

As Dr A. F, Mitchell says, in the book already referred to: "The Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, and especially their Shorter Catechism, may be regarded as, in several respects, the most remarkable of their symbolical books, the matured fruit of all their consultations and debates, the quintessence of that system of truth in which they desired to train English-speaking youth, and faithful training in which, I believe, has done more on both sides of the Atlantic to keep alive reverence for the old theology than all other human instrumentalities whatever."

Alongside such testimonies place some words written by a Scottish Churchman of a very different school. Dr John Cunningham, in his Church History of Scotland, says:

Of all the compilations of the Westminster Divines, the Shorter Catechism is undoubtedly the best. Its admirable method; the manner in which every question grows out of the answer which preceded it; its union of simplicity in statement with depth of doctrine, make it one of the most perfect of catechetical compositions. It has exerted a prodigious influence in moulding not merely the religious but the mental character of Scot­land.

Some have ventured to assert that the Shorter Catechism has done something to give to Scotsmen that flair for subtle metaphysical analysis and theologi­cal hair-splitting which many of them have exhibited. John Stuart Mill, in his Essay on Liberty, has a footnote to the effect that the Shorter Catechism and the study of the Bible have so sharpened the wits of Scotsmen as to make them stand foremost in the ranks of mental philosophers. Whatever truth there may be in that, far more important is the potent influence which the Shorter Catechism exercised of old in Scotland in the deepest things of the soul, by getting the fundamental truths contained in God's self-revelation firmly lodged in the Scottish mind, in the days when religion was a living reality among us.

Some have, for various rea­sons, criticised the Shorter Cat­echism and have questioned the wisdom of imposing the repetition of it as a task on young people. Some soft-hearted people, whose heads, one fears, were as soft as their hearts, have shed copious tears over the inhuman cruelty involved in hardening with such theological lumber the tender minds of young folk, hapless victims like the herd laddie of whom Charles Murray tells us, who, even in Aberdeen­shire, "The Dead Sea of Moderatism," did not escape such torture.

He couldna sough the catechis, nor pipe the rule o' three, He was keepit in an' lickit, when the ither loons got free.

Robert Louis Stevenson, describing in one of his essays his boyhood days in Edinburgh, in the middle of last century, alluded to "the hum of metaphysical divinity" which could be heard even about his cradle. That might be better than the hide­ous cacophony of B.B.C. jazz bands or the asinine patter of B.B.C. comedians, and it seems to have produced men of more robust and virile personality than the men of to­day, though, of course, Stevenson is not to be taken as a shining example of the religion of the past. The hum referred to led on, in many cases, to the "new song," as the truths learned by rote at a mother's knee or on the hard seats of a Sabbath School class, or, it may be, in the day school, became facts of personal experience, as "hearing by the ear " passed into the directness of per­sonal, spiritual vision of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ.

Many who have been drilled in youth in the Shorter Catechism have testified to the fact that its sentences continued to haunt them through their later years, and in not a few of them God may have wrought the miracle of grace which He wrought for "Rabbi" Duncan. Who that has read it can forget the account which that strange and eccentric genius gave of his conversion?

As I sat down to study, and took my pen in hand, I became suddenly the passive recipient of all the truths which I had heard and been taught in my childhood. I sat there unmoving for hours, and they came and preached themselves to me.

They came and preached themselves to me. There may be boys and girls in the Sabbath Schools of our Church who are going to have some day an experience like that.

Mr. G.W.E. Russell, when describing the Evangelical Church of England in which he was brought up, tells us that he was never taught the Church of England Catechism. Then, he has this sly dig:

By way of an easier exercise I was constrained to learn the 'Shorter Catechism of the General Assembly of Divines at Westminster — Admittedly, there are things in the Shorter Catechism that are rather beyond the capacities of young and immature minds, but is that really a valid objection to its use? At the Sixth General Council of the Presbyterian Alliance, held at Glasgow in 1896, Dr John Hall of New York mentioned the fact that he had been brought up in the North of Ireland, where he had been well grounded in the Shorter Catechism. His minister, he said, made regular visits to the district in which his home was when the children were gathered together and catechised, and, said Dr Hall, "I remember the absolute astonishment with which I noticed that the venerable man was able to ask the questions of the Shorter Catechism without the book." Dr Hall went on to say: "When I was put to the day school, I had to commit to memory important rules of grammar, one of which was, 'A noun of multitude or a collective noun, according as it signifies unity or plurality of idea, is attended by a verb in the singular or the plural number.' I declare to you that when I had memorised that rule, if I had been asked to define unity or plurality, I could not have done it; but was it therefore useless? No. There is not a newspaper that I read, there is not a speech I hear, in which that rule is not brought back to me by its practical disregard.

That is an analogy which may be applied in connection with the memorising of the Catechism by boys and girls, who, perhaps, understand very imperfectly at the time what they learn. As Dr John Macleod said, "early or late" those who are drilled in these questions and answers profit by such discipline. Sir James Barrie said that the Shorter Catechism was "one of the noblest of books, which Scottish children learn by heart, not understanding it at the time, but its meaning comes long afterwards, and suddenly, when you have most need of it." In what respects Barrie found he had need of the Shorter Catechism and what amount of good it did to him we have no means of knowing. Our own Professor Duncan Blair leaves us in no doubt as to the inestimable good which the Shorter Catechism did to him. Its words, he said, meant very little to him when he first learned them, "but often in later years problems faith have disappeared as an appropriate answer from the Catechism has come into mind." "It is," said he, "a marvellous compendium of theology, treating, with the stark strength of language stripped of every redundant word, of God and man and the relations between the two by nature and by grace. It braces, like an iron tonic."

When Dr Alexander Whyte published in 1883 his Bible Class Handbook on the Shorter Catechism, which, incidentally, is perhaps the best thing he ever did, he sent a copy of it to Robert Louis Stevenson, who was then away from Scotland in search of that improvement of health which ever eluded him. Stevenson wrote a letter of acknowledgement and thanks, in which he bestowed on the Shorter Catechism mingled blessing and cursing.

What we all owe to the Shorter Catechism," he wrote, "it were hard to limit. We must have learned more philosophy, perhaps above all more style, than we or our teachers dreamed of: a more eloquent book, with so much method in the eloquence, being difficult to find. I am partly its obliged admirer, partly its conscientious enemy. The first question and answer – I wish the whole were in that strain – are purely sublime. Thenceforward it is apt too much to dwell among cobwebs and split hairs, to forget the soul and its strong affections, to address itself captious enemies rather than to young minds desiring guidance and requiring trumpet notes of encouragement. Not in this correct and somewhat leaden manner, but with more communicating and engaging ardour, should religion, philosophy, and morals be presented.

The book which Professor Blair described as a bracing tonic Stevenson described as characterised for the most part by a "somewhat leaden manner," and as sadly lacking in "trumpet notes." It might be interesting to recall a few of the utterances of the Shorter Catechism in which the trumpet note can surely be heard pealing forth very clearly and in which the element of "engaging ardour" is by no means wanting.

About the sublimity of the first question and answer everybody is agreed. Stevenson, in the Essay already referred to, contrasts the Presbyterian Church of Scotland with the Anglican Church, and observed that "the whole of the two Divergent systems is summed up, not merely speciously, in the two first answers of the rival Catechisms, the English tritely inquiring, 'What is your name?'; the Scottish striking at the very roots of life with, 'What is the chief end of man?' and answering nobly, if obscurely, 'To glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever." He continues:

I do not wish to make an idol of the Shorter Catechism; but the fact of such a question opens to us Scotch the great field of speculation and the fact that it is asked of all of us, from the peer to the ploughboy, binds us more closely together.

It is not asked today to anything like that extent, unfortunately, and so, perhaps, we have lost one bond of union which formerly helped to make us one, and the cranks who fulminate at Scottish National Conventions and other political quacks search in vain for other bonds of union.

Thomas Carlyle's words about that first answer have often been quoted. In 1876, near the end of his life, he said:

The older I grow (and I now stand on the brink of eternity) the more comes back to me the first sentence in the Catechism, which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper its meaning becomes: 'What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.'

The ethical discipline of life," says Dr James Moffat in his book, The Presbyterian Churches, "is here regarded as obedience to the will of God in every sphere. That is fundamental to Calvinism. Hence the supreme interest in religion is conceived to be, not the human soul in relation to its destiny, but the glory or the will of God, by which the destinies of mankind as a whole and as individuals are determined.

In that first answer the thought is emphasised that to make the glory of God the supreme end of life is to ensure true joy, real blessedness. And it is arresting, surely, to have that note of joy sounded in the very first words which the Scottish Church makes her young people learn, that Church which so many ignorant critics have perversely alleged to be a collection of sour-faced fanatics, who frown upon all things lovely and pleasant.

Referring to that first answer, Dr T. R. Glover said: "is it possible to enjoy God? Or does the Catechism, perhaps, not intend us to begin till we reach heaven?" "Let us take the larger view," he went on to say, "the more evangelical view, and believe that God is enjoyable both now and hereafter."

It is undoubtedly that view which the Shorter Catechism takes, for in a later answer it tells us that among the blessings which in this life do either accompany or flow from Justification, Adoption and Sanctification are "assurance of God's love, peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Ghost." The joy suggested there is the only thing worth calling joy, the joy that no man taketh away from us, the joy that is everlasting.

Other "trumpet notes" which linger for ever on the ears and in the hearts of those who really listen to them are to be found in the definitions of Effectual Calling, of Faith in Jesus Christ, of Repentance unto Life – that last mentioned definition being one of the richest and grandest in the Catechism. There is no time at our disposal to dwell upon these definitions. Let us go on listening to them all our days. I would like just to quote what Dr James Begg once said about one of the statements in the practical section of the Catechism. He was a leader in the movement for collecting money and promoting legislation for the better housing of the poor of Scotland. He was met with the criticism that this was not spiritual work, and he met that criticism by quoting from the Shorter Catechism. Did not the eighth commandment require "the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others?"

In these days when there is in Scotland an abysmal ignorance of the very ABC of Christian truth, we cannot afford to scrap the Shorter Catechism. Let all our Sabbath School teachers dedicate themselves afresh to the task, the worthwhile task, of instilling its words into the minds of the boys and girls of our Church, so that in days to come these may know where they stand theologically and may be firmly established in the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints. If they be well grounded in the Shorter Catechism, they will know, not obscurely but with crystal clearness, what is meant by glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. Finally – and this is something of most vital importance today – they will know something which is strangely ignored by many modern instructors of youth, namely, that instruction in ethics is utterly futile unless these ethics are deeply rooted in theology, the theology which centres around the Christ who is Very God of Very God, the Christ of the Cross and of the Throne.

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