A Return to Puritan Childhood?

colonialkids

A few weeks ago, there was a fascinating article featured by The Gospel Coalition that caught my eye. The post was titled, “Teaching Theology to Children,” and emphasized support for teaching young children theological truth through the use of a catechism. As author Melissa Kruger states, “A catechism is simply a series of fixed questions and answers used to instruct children in the precepts of Christianity.”

This is a rather unsuspecting tool to apply in a “modern” age. Catechisms have roots in ancient history and were used regularly by both Protestants and Catholics to clearly state doctrinal truth. However, the most immediate predecessors to this current usage were 17th and 18th century Puritans.

During these centuries, Puritans began to adapt catechisms to specifically address the needs of children. One of the largest contributors to this change was Nonconformist theologian Isaac Watts. Watts wrote numerous tracts not only for children, but on how to instruct them. Modeled after the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Watt’s modified Assembly’s Catechism laid out a series of questions for children to memorize and answer. What made his format unique was that he organized these questions based on the age of the child. These categories ranged from ages 12-14, 7-12, and under 7. Watts grasped what he saw to be important truths about childhood. His categories reveal that he believed all children were capable of reason and rationality, but in varying degrees. To him, children at three years old were expected to at least understand that God created them and obey the simple duties that He required.

Nevertheless, as Enlightenment ideals continued to take hold in American society, the use of catechisms began to diminish. In 1845 Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing spoke for many Americans in writing, “A catechism is a skeleton, a dead letter, a petrifaction. Wanting life, it can give none. A cold abstraction, it cannot but make religion repulsive to pupils whose age demands that truth should be embodied, set before their eyes, bound up with real life.” From this point forward, the use of catechisms for instruction, although not completely abandoned, were viewed as an antiquated system.

This, perhaps, is what makes Kruger’s article especially fascinating. The Gospel Coalition is a highly influential organization that represents a large portion of mainstream American evangelicalism. Their modern advocacy for catechismal instruction highlights a return to Puritan ideals and teaching that is becoming increasingly apparent. It shows strong ties to the continuing legacy of men like Watts and Jonathan Edwards.

This is particularly relevant for me, because I recently finished a Master’s thesis titled “Holy Children are Happy Children: Jonathan Edwards and Puritan Childhood.” In this work, I show that Edwards in many ways was a bridge between the old system of Puritan child-rearing and the more modern Enlightenment ideals. One of the ways in which this is shown is through his use of catechisms. While Edwards was against the rote learning of catechisms, he was not against catechisms altogether. He believed that catechisms, even memorization, was useful for instruction as long as the student understood the context. Edwards saw children not only as objects of instruction, but also as vibrant personalities that could be reasoned with. Evangelical Christianity’s current use of children’s catechisms appears to come from this same vein, and is not surprising.

The Gospel Coalition’s admiration for Edwards has been made apparent in numerous articles, posts, and sermons throughout the past several years (such as this one, titled “5 Things Jonathan Edwards Teaches Us about the Christian Life“). Perhaps Edwards’ extensive work with children will soon be discovered as well.

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