Baptists Can Use Catechisms, Too

Several summers ago, I was serving as the youth minister in a little country church. Our small youth group had piled into a fifteen-passenger van and were on our way to church camp. I was driving the van while one of our adult volunteers, a middle-aged woman, was riding shotgun. During the drive, she shared with me her conversion testimony. She had been raised in a theologically liberal Lutheran congregation. She remembered being forced to memorize a catechism as a young child, but claimed she never heard the gospel until she was in her twenties. As she concluded her testimony, she exclaimed, “I sure am glad that Baptists don’t do catechisms!” I cringed.

Over the years, I have met many other Baptists who feel this way about catechisms. Around Southeastern Seminary, there is a great story about a former church history professor who was asked by a student how parents can help their kids to memorize basic doctrine while avoiding “the dangers” of catechism. I have also heard a few folks argue that it is legalistic to teach children to memorize doctrine before they understand the gospel (of course, these folks rarely make the same argument about children memorizing Scripture, even “legal” passages like the Ten Commandments). Some simply identify catechisms with pedobaptists; catechesis is the sort of thing that Presbyterians and Lutherans do. We Baptists stick with Bible Drill and Vacation Bible School.

You might be interested to know that there was a time when Baptists did, in fact, “do” catechisms. In fact, Baptists have written numerous influential catechisms over the years, including many Southern Baptists from bygone days. Though Baptists have often had an awkward relationship with other Protestants because of our fusion of both radical and reformational tendencies, the latter traditions bequeathed to the earliest Baptists an emphasis on catechesis. In fact, perhaps more consistently than at least some of our pedobaptist friends, earlier generations of Baptists embraced a dual commitment to both catechesis and conversion. Baptist children often learned basic doctrine and ethics via catechisms, though as they grew into their teenaged years they were also urged to personally trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, submit to believer’s baptism, and become a member of the church. Sometimes pastors catechized the church’s children in what was an early version of “youth group” (Richard Furman is one noteworthy example). More often, parents taught their children the catechism. It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that catechesis began to wane among Baptists.

Thankfully, Baptists have begun to recover an emphasis on catechisms over the past generation or so. Many noteworthy Baptist catechisms have been compiled in edited volumes by authors such as Tom NettlesTimothy George, Jim Renihan, and Tom AscolFirst Baptist Church Tallassee, Alabama has published a catechism based upon the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. My friend Steve Weaver is working on a new edition of the Orthodox Catechism, a Baptist revision of the Heidelberg Catechism first published in 1680. John Piper published an updated version of the famous Baptist Catechism of 1693. Solid Ground Christian Books has reprinted Benjamin Beddome’s Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism, first published in 1752. Jim Scott Orrick has recorded an album that puts the 1693 catechism to music. Greg Nichols has edited a Baptist revision to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648). No doubt there are others of which I’m not aware. The texts of many Baptist catechisms can also be found on the internet at such websites (let Google be your guide).

If you want to know more about the importance of catechesis in general, check out Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Baker, 2010), written by Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer. Even if you aren’t convinced that using catechisms are a helpful way to teach your children the basics of the faith, consider purchasing this book, which is more about the importance of deliberately forming young people and new believers in the faith than it is an apologetic for using formal catechisms. If you want a more sustained Baptist apology for the use of catechisms, Tom Nettles has written two articles for Founders Journal: “An Encouragement to Use Catechisms” and “An Encouragement to Use Catechisms, Part 2,” both of which are available online.

(Note: This post is cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)