The Catechetical Books

In the Primitive Church the Ministry of the Word was the Liturgy of the Catechumens in which faith and life is imparted to new members as an essential part of church life. The need to impart such faith and life has not diminished, but today some methods are questionable when the Liturgy of the Word is reduced to experiments in methods of instruction. An intrusion of classroom models and ‘technology’, a teaching method academic in character reduces the understanding of the Word to the purely ‘verbal’ level. Little effort is made to find a way of spiritually reading the reality the liturgy expresses and communicates, a way of discovering its spirit, its eternal meaning, the essence and spirit of what liturgical action is.

Taste and see

Liturgical catechesis is an ancient way of imparting Christian doctrine and life, the primary aim being to bring the individual into the life of the Church rather than merely communicate ‘religious knowledge’ on a cerebral level. Its aim is edification, the ‘building-up’ of a member of the Body of Christ, introducing people into the life of the Church, rather than into an enfolding of its meaning, contents and purpose. This can only be by participation in the liturgical services and their explanation. ‘O taste and see how good the Lord is.’ First taste, then see, that is, understand.

Seventeenth century Anglicanism understood and accepted this. Instruction in the meaning of church membership was through preaching, catechism and personal spiritual counselling. Jeremy Taylor told his clergy, ‘Let every minister teach his people the use, practice, methods and benefits of meditation or mental prayer. Let every minister exhort his people to a frequent confession of their sins, and a declaration of the state of their souls … for by preaching and catechizing, and private intercourse, all the needs of souls can best be served; but by preaching alone they cannot’(Episcopal Charge 1661).

George Herbert in The Country Parson devotes a chapter to the catechism ‘to which all divinity may easily be reduced’; ‘The Country Parson values catechizing highly … He exacts of all the Doctrine of the Catechism … He requires all to be present at Catechizing.’ Catechesis is a doctrine-devotion synthesis, ‘For there being three points of his duty; the one, to infuse a competent knowledge of salvation in every one of his flock; the other, to multiply and build up this knowledge to a spiritual temple; the third, to influence this knowledge, to press and drive it to practice, turning it to reformation of life, by pithy and lively exhortations; Catechizing is the first point, and but by Catechizing, the other cannot be attained’. (Unum Necessarium, Ch.II, Sect 4)

Practical Divinity

Catechesis translates devotion and doctrine into Christian living, into practical divinity. The authors of the catechetical books who called them ‘sums of divinity’ understood this. Here doctrine, devotion and moral theology are inseparable, forming a synthesis, a combination of each element in a complex whole. In The Catechising of Families (vol XIX. p54) ‘The Christian religion, as doctrinal, is the revelation of God’s will concerning his kingdom, as our Redeemer; or the redeeming and saving sinful, miserable man by Jesus Christ. And the Christian religion as it is in us is the true conformity of our understanding, will, and practice, to this doctrine.’


Lancelot Andrewes’ Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine (1630) is the earliest work. Parts I and II deal with doctrine, Part III, develops the law of Christ from the Decalogue. The familiar threefold structure of the duties, ‘piously, soberly and justly’ includes faith, hope and love, humility, zeal and perseverance, prayer and the use of the liturgy. The root sins and their causes and consequences are analyzed. Discipline and the details of the duties proper to different callings are examined. Two-thirds is about Christian behaviour or moral theology. Root sins are examined, what follows from them and what gives rise to them. Discipline and the duties of different callings are analyzed. Suicide and sabbatarianism is discussed, Aquinas on the sense of Scripture and Bernard on the theological virtues.

Henry Hammond’s Practical Catechism (1644)

For Hammond practical divinity must be reasonable. Gnosticism is the fundamental error of Christianity in his time. He writes, ‘Christianity hath been taken, if not with the Atheist for an art or trick, yet with the scholastic for a science, a matter of speculation; and so, that he that knows most, that believes most, is the only sanctified person.’ Salvation is by knowledge rather than grace. Hooker identified this heresy in those who exalted preaching over sacraments, which was common in Hammond’s day and which he countered with the catechetical method, rooted in the Fathers and liturgical in character. Establishing a firm intellectual foundation for the faith is not to be done by speculative methods but by bringing the individual into the life of the visible church. Its aim is edification, the building up of a member of the Body of Christ.

The aim of Christian teaching is ‘in effect the reformation of lives and the heightening of Christian Practice to the most elevated pitch.’ Catechizing had declined in parish churches being displaced by speculative discourses. In The Golden Grove Jeremy Taylor offers an alternative to the view of those who had destroyed the Church by reducing it to ‘all religion is a sermon’. John Evelyn recorded in his diary that, ‘there was now nothing practical preached, or that pressed for reformation of life, but high and speculative points and straines … which left people very ignorant and of no steady principles.’ ‘On Sunday afternoon, I frequently staid at home to catechize and instruct my family, those exercises universally ceasing in the parish churches, so that people had no principles, and grew very ignorant of even the common points of Christianity; all devotion being now placed in hearing sermons and discourses of speculative and national things.’ Hammond’s Practical Catechism was profoundly valuable for such instruction and its use continued long after the Restoration, as William Whiston remembered from what his father told him.

Hammond’s Catechism accepted the Church Catechism as its basis and built an edifice of doctrine that would contribute much to the re-establishment of the Church of England in 1660. His Practical Catechism (1644), following the traditional lines of such books – creed, commandments, prayer and sacraments – draws a picture of the Christian life in faith, hope and love, with an accent on self-denial essential in the frugal and disciplined life of this priest. ‘Self-denial’, he writes, ‘is the abnegation or renouncing of all his own holds, and interest and trusts, of all that man is most apt to depend upon, that he may the more expeditely follow Christ.’ When even lawful things ‘come into competition with Christ’, they must be renounced.

This handbook on Christian thought and life reached its twelfth edition in forty years. Charles I gave it to his son. It was necessary in a time of subjective individualism, when introspective illuminism in Hammond’s view undermined not only the basis of historicity and reason, but also the implications of the visible Church. The visibility of the Church was a later controversy, and the concern of Hammond and his circle was to establish a reasoned defence of the Church of England against the Roman claims and Puritan teachings, by appealing to Reason, Scripture and the Fathers.

William Nicholson’s Plain and Full Exposition of the Catechism (1655)

William Nicholson, Richard Sherlock, and William Beveridge all comment adversely on the predominance of preaching over catechizing. Nicholson claimed that ‘ever since sermonizing hath jostled out this necessary instruction enjoined on the Lord’s Day … our people have been possessed with strange errors in religion, and hurried on by the spirit of giddiness, of faction, of rebellion.’

Nicholson’s Catechism is an exegesis of creed, Decalogue, prayer and sacraments. In dealing with the Decalogue, he explains the nature of the perfection, which God’s law requires of us: ‘There is one perfection of this life, another of the life to come. Now the law of God expects from us in this life, not absolute perfection, but such perfection as is to be had in this life, which the School calls perfectio Viatorum, the perfection of wayfaring men. A definition of this is “when the will of man habitually entertains nothing that is contrary to the love of God”. To attain to this, nature is too weak, and there is required what the Catechism calls ‘the special grace of God’ which we receive through prayer and sacrament. This grace applies ‘to those who are born again, sanctified by the spirit of God, cleansed by Christ’s blood, engrafted and made partakers of the Divine Nature’. In this life, it never raises man to ‘an unsinning obedience, but it makes him “a new creature”, creates in him a sincere obedience to the whole Gospel.’

His survey of Eucharistic teaching contains a clear definition of the real spiritual presence and his description of the consecrated elements is ‘They remain in substance what they were; but in relation to Him are more.’

These books substantially contributed to the Anglican heritage of theology and devotion. At the Restoration such handbooks of faith and practice were still needed. The objective was to create a generation ‘steadfast in the Faith and sincere in their obedience’, through instruction in the apostolic doctrine, through the breaking of bread and the prayers, through character building by grace in a workaday world where men and women are called to ‘the new life’. This was done by appeal to Reason, Scripture and the Fathers.

Bishop Beveridge encouraged his clergy to instruct the children ‘in all the duties which they owe to Almighty God, to their sovereign, to their parents, and to all their other relations, as well as to themselves and to one another’ in addition to grounding them ‘in all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith’. Let every parson do this each Sunday and the constant inculcation of these truths and duties will produce a generation ‘steadfast in the Faith and sincere in their obedience to Him.’

These ‘sums of divinity’, as they were described, were of considerable importance for practical teaching on the good life and on devotion as well as for instruction in Christian doctrine. Indeed Hammond’s Practical Catechism (1644), which speaks of the duty of ‘a great superlative Strictness in the ways of Godliness’, covers much of the ground included in the Holy Living type of book, as well as following along the usual lines of the catechetical book.

A School of Catechetics

Other works include Richard Sherlock’s The Catechism of the Church of England Explained (1656), which grew out of the author’s regular catechizing and teaching in his parish. Beveridge, a long time parish priest, in the The Church Catechism Explained (1704) emphasizes with Nicholson the need for grace to keep the moral law or following Sherlock’s example in reminding Christians of the promises of their baptism. Thomas Ken’s Exposition of the Church Catechism (1685), with its rich Eucharistic piety, was translated into French and Italian. The anxieties of Anglican writers about adult ignorance of the Catechism resulting from the Cromwellian interregnum, indicates that they fully grasped its importance in the doctrinal and practical sphere. The spirit of the Catechism impregnates the seventeenth century and Caroline piety.

These works are not chance collections of books by a number of seventeenth-century authors, but the work of men unified by their theological presuppositions and their view of the nature and purpose of spiritual direction. They constitute a well-constructed instrument to bring people to Heaven. They are not mere opinion on ‘spirituality’, a word they do not use. They constitute a spiritual way with a clearly drawn doctrinal background, a Christian piety with the rich ingredients of moral theology and devotion. Here is a deep devotion that is strongly moral and properly spiritual, with its sense of eternity conditioning all our actions in time. It is an abiding testimony to the power and worth of seventeenth-century Anglicanism and a warning bell for today’s Church that no longer mentions the Catechism.

Arthur Middleton, an Emeritus Canon, is Tutor at St. Chad’s College, a writer and a lecturer.