The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England C.1530-1740

By Ian Green | Go to book overview
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12 Sacraments

IT was not easy to explain sacraments to catechumens. Although ministers performing the sacraments used commonplace materials, such as water, bread, and wine, and although they used everyday terms like 'signs' and 'seals' to describe their meaning, the fact remained that at the heart of baptism and the Lord's Supper lay deep spiritual mysteries. Further problems were posed by the fact that the theology of sacraments was particularly difficult--it even caused headaches for a master like Calvin--and that in England doctrine did not remain static, but shifted subtly from one generation to the next. Another tension arose because catechists, especially in the sixteenth century, wished to wean their charges away from the old attachment to the mass and 'popish' sacraments such as confession and extreme unction and from any mistaken views that sacraments automatically produced benefits for the participant; but at the same time they did not wish their flocks to undervalue the two ordinances which Protestant leaders judged to have been instituted by God for the spiritual benefit of the faithful. It is true that some authors, such as Keach and Watts, seem to have thought that young children were either not capable of understanding such mysteries, or that, since they were too young to receive communion, it was not necessary to teach them about the sacraments until they were older. In addition some authors who were seeking to break away from accepted catechetical structures in order to get the essential message across, such as Cartwright and Hieron, decided that it was not necessary to devote more than a few lines to the sacraments.1 But such men were in a very small minority: as we saw in an earlier chapter, many authors were at least in part prompted to write a catechism by concern for what they saw as the inadequate knowledge of potential communicants about their faith in general and the sacraments in particular. In practice, the typical catechism of early modern England had a substantial section--rarely less than a couple of pages, even in the shortest forms, and often more--on the purpose and function of the sacraments and how they should be approached by the faithful. In the Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, seventeen of the hundred and ninety-six questions were devoted to the sacraments; as a comparison, the Lord's Prayer merited only eleven

Cartwright, 'Catechisme', sig. Aa7v; Hieron, Doctrine, 579. Keach did not tackle the sacraments in 'Little child', and 'Child', only in 'Youth', 98-112; there is a two-line reference to the sacraments in Watts, 'Children's catechism', but none in 'First catechism'.


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