Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
The Catechisms of George Fox:
Why they were written in the first place,
what was contained in them, what use was made of them,
And what we can learn from them today
By Stephen W. Angell
Catechisms are out of fashion in the twenty-first century, perhaps because of a perceived rigidity or undue conformity that seems to many to be a necessary consequence of this form. However, their total eclipse is a shame, because there is much useful to be recovered in the concept. The word "catechism" signifies a means of straightforward instruction of those who need to learn, and it almost always refers to religious subject matter. Usually a catechism is found in a question-and-answer format. When the subject matter is complex, one does well to look for a catechism, although today we would more likely refer to it as a study guide, a point that could be supported by many examples.
When Quakerism originated in mid-seventeenth century England, catechisms were definitely in fashion. Richard Baxter, a Presbyterian clergyman, author, and contemporary of George Fox, estimated that there were 500 catechisms extant in England in the 1650s. Actually that is probably a slight underestimate. One scholar has counted 678 catechisms in the English language in England between 1530 and 1740, of which at least one copy survives today. There is also evidence of 52 catechisms published in England in other languages than English, and 75 English-language catechisms of which no copy has survived, and more than 200 related publications that are not strictly catechetical. (Green, 51)
Practically, a child, or an adult new to the Christian faith, should commit the catechism to memory and be able to recite it. For children, this should be accomplished prior to oneís confirmation, which usually took place at age twelve or thirteen. Confirmation was necessary to be admitted to the Lordís Supper. (Ingle, 7)
In the mid-seventeenth century, there were two competing concepts of catechisms among English Protestants. The older concept, which can be traced back to John Calvin, Martin Luther, and the great catechists of the sixteenth century, was that catechisms should serve to fully explicate the meaning of four fundamental creeds and rituals at the basis of Protestant Christianity, i.e., the Apostlesí Creed, the Decalogue, the Lordís Prayer, the sacraments, and (in the Anglican church) the Thirty Nine Articles. For Luther and Calvin, one had to commit oneself to Christ and begin practicing Christianity before one could have any real concept of the substance of faith, much less how to strengthen it.
The newer concept, traceable to English theologian William Perkinsís Foundation of Christian Religion Gathered into Six Principles (1590), was that the catechist should devise his or her own structure for presenting the truths of the Christian faith. While catechisms should not be formally structured around four basic rituals, most of the content embodied in those rituals should be introduced in a more fluid and natural setting. This move toward a less formally structured catechism was also associated with a notion anathema to most traditional Calvinists, that a catechism might serve to prepare the hearts of the elect for the faith to which they would later commit. For Perkins, both "effectual hearing and preaching" and "mollifying of the heart" came prior to faith; orthodox Calvinists would admit only the first element as preceding faith. (Green, 282, 284, 374) Quaker catechisms would be definitely rooted in Perkinsís tradition rather than the older Calvinist tradition.
Those who did not possess their own catechism, as Quakers did not prior to 1657, were definitely way behind the seventeenth-century cultural curve. They should not expect their religion to be taken seriously, unless they were willing to make their principles known in this easily comprehensible format. Richard Baxter, weary of the constant attacks thrown his way by itinerant Quakers, made this point forcefully in his pamphlet, One Sheet against the Quakers, which appeared in 1657. Baxter wrote, "No wise man can be a Quaker, because their Religion is an uncertain thing; And so is not that Religion that must save us. The things that they agree in, besides the furious opposition of others, are but a few broken scraps of Doctrine, which they never yet set together, as making the substance of their faith: I never met with man that heard of any sum or body of their Divinity, Faith or Religion, which they have published: No, not so much as in a Catechism, or Short Confession." (Emphasis added; Baxter 1657, 3) In other words, a catechism was an indispensable basis, a foundation on which all other theology must be built; it was the least that could be expected for a religious group which wanted to be taken seriously to provide to the inquiring public. Lest this important point be lost, the relatively succinct Baxter returned to it a few sentences later in this work: "Shall we turn Quakers meerly because they bark and bawl at our Religion, Ministry and Church, before they once tell us where to find a better, or give us so much as a Catechism, or Confession to tell us what their own Religion is, which they would have us to receive?" (Baxter 1657, 3) It was not enough to speak in opposition, or to extend the cogent criticism; what Baxter claimed that he wanted to see was Quakersí constructive theology. (How genuine was his claim is another question entirely. Two years earlier, Baxter had written The Quakerís Catechism, an attempt to define Quakers pejoratively by providing a set of scornful answers to a series of almost two dozen questions posed to him by Quaker ministers. He ignored James Naylerís reply to this work.)