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

By Ian Green | Go to book overview

2
The Emergence of the English Catechetical Tradition

IN 1589 a Somerset minister, Thomas Watts, ended his Entrie to Christianitie with a carefully chosen and graded list of works 'extant in our English tongue' suitable for use by English catechists. The list began with the Prayer Book catechism, then listed eight other forms by English authors before finishing with general expositions like Bullinger's Decades, the Commonplaces of Musculus and Peter Martyr, Calvin's Institutes, and Jewel's defence of his Apology--the origin of most of these larger works reminds us that England may have started to produce catechists but had not yet produced many systematic theologians.1 When Immanuel Bourne published his larger catechism in 1646, he prefaced it with an account of catechizing through the ages in which 'Our English, Mr Nowell, Mr Perkins, Mr Egerton . . . Mr Baal [recte Ball] . . . and many other laborious workmen in the Lord's vineyard' were proudly paraded in the same company as a number of famous teachers of the early Church and the Continental Reformation.2 In the reign of Charles II, the anonymous author of Eniautos: or a course of catechizing was able to recommend by name over three dozen English writers, mostly authors of printed catechisms which he had found useful and hoped other catechists would too; similarly, when John Lewis was asked to write a catechism for use in Charity Schools, he tells us in his autobiography that he looked through the thirty expositions of the Prayer Book catechism which he had by him before venturing to compose his own.3 Many others prefaced their works with modest disclaimers as to the simplicity, meagre value, or lack of originality of their own composition compared to that of the 'many excellent and profitable catechisms set forth' or 'the almost infinite number of models' from which catechists could already choose.4 In 1660 Philip Nye expressed the belief that there were then 'no less than five hundred several catechisms extant', a figure which was echoed the same year by Richard Baxter (himself a very conscientious catechist and composer of instructional works as well as a voracious reader of other men's writings), and again in 1693 by an

____________________
1
T. Watts, The entrie to Christianitie ( 1589), sig. B4v; for more details of the works cited, see below, pp. 266-7.
2
I. Bourne, A light from Christ ... or, the rich jewel ( 1646), sigs. A8v-a2r, and p. 3.
3
Anon., Eniautos: or a course of catechizing ( 1674), sigs. B10r-11v.
4
J. Leech, A plain and profitable catechisme ( 1605), sig. A2r; J. Syme, The sweet milke of Christian doctrine ( 1617), sig. A3v.

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