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 one’s confirmation, which usually took place at age twelve or thirteen. Confirmation was necessary to be admitted to the Lord’s 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 Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue, the Lord’s 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 Perkins’s 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 Perkins’s 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 Quakers’ constructive theology. (How genuine was his claim is another question entirely. Two years earlier, Baxter had written The Quaker’s 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 Nayler’s reply to this work.)

In the late Cromwellian Protectorate, an increasingly conservative time when the Quakers were already on the defensive because of the James Nayler affair, (Barbour and Frost, 33) Quakers could not afford to spurn this invitation to cultural respectability. It may well be true that Baxter’s argument was just enough to spur Quakers on to producing their very first catechism. At any rate, whether Baxter’s argument played any role in it or not, the first Quaker catechism was published toward the end of this same year (1657/8) by George Fox: A Catechisme for Children, that They may come to learne of Christ, the Light, the Truth, the Way, that leads to know the Father, the God of all Truth.

This work bore all the marks of being hastily written. It was highly repetitive and not always clear. It can well be argued that every Quaker catechism that appeared afterwards was an improvement upon this one. But its one large virtue was that it was quite authoritative, having been published by the “First Friend” (as Larry Ingle styles him), George Fox. It focused very substantially, as most Quaker catechisms would afterwards, on delineating the Quaker notion of the Light of Christ. (Moore, 110) The light is “the truth, which doth enlighten every man that cometh into the world.” To everyone, it “manifest[s] to him his evil deeds which he hath acted, and the Divel which is out of Truth.” (Fox 1658, 1-2). There is no other way to God, the Father, except through the light. Those “who believe in the light” will have “victory over the world.” It will bring to the trial “every ones words, actions, thoughts, and ways and deeds, and imaginations.” (Fox 1658, 2-5). The following question and answer may well be an implicit reply to Richard Baxter (“no wise man can become a Quaker”) as quoted above:

Q. And did Pilate, which had the original, crucifie Christ? He was a wise man, he had Hebrew Greek and Latine?

A. Yea, he had so; for when they had crucified Christ, he wrote his superscription over him in Hebrew, Greek and Latine: yea he did so, John 19.19.

Q. Do not the teachers of the world tell us that the Original is Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, which do deny Christ that enlightneth every man that cometh into the world, and do not these set their Original above Christ? . . .

A. Yea, Rom. 10.9. [That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.]

Fox 1658, 11-12

If this is indeed an oblique reply to Baxter, Fox is drawing a distinction between wisdom born of the Spirit and worldly wisdom, the latter which he would find in Baxter. Fox asserted that “teachers of the world” such as Baxter, who devoted much time to studying Scriptures in the original languages, overlooked the Biblical truth that the multiplicity of languages was one of the fruits of the fall of humanity, issuing as it did from the tower of Babel. If they recognized this, they would turn to the light of Christ with humility and determination, rather than spending untold hours reading the New Testament in Greek.

Ironically, however, Fox would soon issue his catechism in a Latin translation: Catechismus pro Parvulis (1660b). He may have seen Latin as one of the fruits of Babel, but Fox and other Quakers undoubtedly desired the accessibility to an international intellectual elite that a Latin version provided.

The most involved and complicated question and answer had to do with whether there was any saving grace in “an outward knowledge of the Scriptures:”

Q. Yea, but I had thought if I had gotten the Scriptures, and men had gotten the Scriptures, which speaks of God and Christ, and the Prophets and the Apostles, and professed them, it had been enough, and carried them in my memory, for this is but a thing lately that we have heard of, of a light that enlightneth every man that cometh into the world . . . I had thought getting an outward knowledge of the Scriptures that had been sufficient?

In a two-page answer, Fox stated that Jews had “profess[ed] Moses’s words” and preached “a Christ was to come,” but “they did not know what they professed,” and the same was true of most Christians, even though they acknowledged that Christ had come. In each case, the problem was such people’s denial of “the light which we all have been enlightened withal.” Fox believed in the message of Romans 9-11, which asserts that somehow Jews will be converted to Christ before Christ returns, but he was not at all surprised that Christians who were not Quaker had been unable to accomplish that task: “What should they have converted the Jews into, when they both were out of the belief in the light?” (Fox 1658, 15-17) And so on. Fox’s catechism wanders, not always with a clear thread or order of inquiry. He ends, inconclusively, by taking a dig at those Puritans who maintained that Sunday was the Sabbath.

Q. And is the first day the Sabbath?

A. No, Christ rose on the first day of the week, and the Saints met on the first day, and the Circumcision was on the first day, the eight day, and the Iews met on the seventh day called the Sabbath: so the Iews meetings differs from the Christians meetings which meet on the first day, Mark 16.2, Acts 20.7, Luke 1.59, Iohn 7.22. The End. (Fox 1658, 62)

“The circumcision” here seems to refer not only to the Jewish ceremony for infant boys, but probably also alludes, in common early Quaker fashion, to Christian worship, whether of the inward variety that Fox and his comrades favored, or of the outward variety that they were attempting to supersede. But Fox does not explicate that point, and on this enigmatic note, his catechism ended. This hardly seems like a catechism for children, as the language and concepts are not always simple, and certainly not susceptible to memorization. However, it may have met in an appropriate way Baxter’s demand for the beginnings of a Quaker constructive theology that non-Quakers could weigh and examine for themselves.

Fox’s next catechism appeared only one year later, in 1659, and it is quite a different sort of publication. This catechism includes only questions without any answers supplied, but the lack of a question-and-answer format is hardly its most important difference from his previous publication. This catechism is not directed to children, but to persons who, at least in Fox’s view, have manifested a quite different and more willful form of ignorance: A Primer for the Schollers and Doctors of Europe, But especially to them in and about the (called) Two famous Universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, To them, and every of them, whether Tutors of Schollers, Batchellors and Masters of Arts, Batchellours of Divinity and Doctors of Divinity, or to any other Member of that Body that hath sprung from these the two, so called, well heads of Divinity, either such who keeps their station of trading there, or such who have learned their Arts, Sciences and trades there, and now improves them to their best advantage in the Nation of England, or elsewhere.

This work is loaded with many, many difficult terms and concepts, some in English, others in Latin or Greek, enough to befuddle or confound any scholar at Oxford or Cambridge. Religious subject matter is only one chapter in this work. Fox intended to engage scholars in all branches of knowledge. His twenty-second question in the chapter on grammar for example is “why a comma, a colon, a period, a parenthesis, introgration, exclamation, and hyphen, species, analogie, anomilie, proper and common, case and gender, collective; and what be the words and what was their author and root?” In the area of ethics, Fox asks for his fiftieth question, “what is monarchy, aristocracy, and democracie, which are called politique friendship betwixt a Magistrate and his subject?” These two questions, at least, have relatively straightforward answers, although it would take some care and effort to give good answers to them.

But let us turn our attention to his chapter on “Theologie,” especially since this is the area where the Quaker argument with university scholars was most intense and heartfelt. Here is a small sampling from Fox’s 140 questions from this area:

14. How is that question (to ask whether the Scripture be the word of God) unworthy a Christian?

18. How is God known absolutely in his essence, and relatively in his persons?

19. What are Gods incommunicable properties, and what his communicable in Analogical effects?

20. What is the Trinity in Unity, and whether all these words be not of mens wisdom and teaching?

24. How is this opinion of the trinity, not onely a Church tradition, but a doctrine expressed in the Scriptures?

32. What is the General decree, and what is the special decree of God?

33. What is predestination to the end, and predestination to the means, which distinction you say ye make for the weakness of your understanding; how is predestination an absolute decree, and a not absolute decree of God?

34. How is sin not the cause of reprobation but the cause of reprobability?

45. How is man renewed or in the state of grace free from evill, and free to good, by Gods grace, but imperfectly?

73. How is John and Christs Baptisme [re ipsa] as you say or in very deed the same?

74. How is one end of Baptism with water a seal of receiving and Implanting into Gods family and of regeneration?

78. How know you that breaking of the bread is not a thing indifferent, and what is the body and blood of Christ? How know you that when Christ said this is my body, his meaning this was the Sacrament of my body?

Fox 1659, 36-44

And, surprisingly, for someone intensively using what was for him a new genre of literature:

133. What is a Catechism?

There are obviously several aims to this line of questioning for Fox. First, on many of these issues, Fox has strong opinions, based both on his careful reading of Scriptures and his extensive religious experience steeped in the light of Christ, and he would like university scholars to reconsider their views on whether outward sacraments are necessary, whether the doctrines of the trinity and of predestination have firm founding in Scripture, whether human perfection is possible this side of the grave, whether the Scriptures or Christ is the word of God, and so forth. Second, Fox is lampooning the intricacies of seventeenth-century theological discourse. In his view, these scholars are involved in sophistries by trying to draw slender distinctions between such terms as “reprobation” and “reprobability.”

As important as these points are, however, they are all subsidiary to what Fox considers to be his main point in this publication. Fox wants to suggest a method of inquiry or investigation that will yield real truth, not just sophistries. He plants this method, with slight variations, as a constant refrain throughout this work. After question 78, for example, he inserts the following commentary, which is clearly meant to apply to all of the questions he is posing in this tract:

Whether or no here are not lies in these words and things of yours and confusion and darkness, your selves by your own words which your own wisdom teacheth you, what is every one of these words . . . and who was the Author of every word, and the root, what is that of every word and thing that is queried above, answer to the thing, and whether or no they are not the words and things that mans wisdom hath taught, which knows not the root of the true wisdom nor the Kingdom of God w[hi]ch has no end, answer these things [if] you be in the wisdom of God, if not, let your mouth stop and confound you; . . . if you know the root of every word, . . . now if you tell what another man sayes is the root, and root of your words, then I ask what was the root of that man, that made him to speak them forth, was it from the wisdom that man teacheth, or from the wisdome that the Holy Ghost teacheth? (Fox 1659, 44-45)

Get to the root of the issue! If being a “radical” means addressing the root causes, this passage clearly shows that Fox was a radical. (At least that was true at this time in his life; after the death in 1658 of Cromwell, Fox and other Quakers had hopes that the Army’s Council of Officers would push England leftward, and perhaps take such steps as abolishing tithes, which Cromwell had not done.) (Ingle, 167-181; Moore, 168-174) Getting to the root meant rooting one’s life and teaching in the “wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” Fox did not intend that Spirit’s Wisdom supersede the use of one’s reason. In his next catechism, for example, he would be very interested in tracing the etymology of words. Fox does, however, clearly mean a right use of reason, as part of a well-ordered life that sought out and was obedient to the leadings and motions of the Christ within.

While replying to controversial literature was definitely a strong part of mid-seventeenth-century English culture, and Quakers received more than their fair share of attacks and replies to their works, there appears to have been no reply to this work. Given the number of traps and pitfalls Fox has set in this work, the lack of replies is completely understandable. While Fox is listed as the sole author of this work, and undoubtedly was the author of the many passages that emphasized getting to the root of things, I believe that he definitely received help in composing the challenges to scholars. Perhaps someone like the new Quaker convert Samuel Fisher, a recipient of a Masters of Arts degree from Oxford University, might have helped him formulate his questions.

In 1660, the year that saw the restoration of the monarchy in England, the second (and last) edition of Catechisme for Children was issued. One minor change made it seem more directed to children and less to supercilious ministers such as Baxter. Each question was now addressed to “father” and each answer to “child,” giving the text slightly more of an air of intergenerational dialogue, e.g.,

Question. Father, Is any lye of the Truth?

Answ. No Child, for the Truth checks and reproves the Lyar, and he is not of Truth, I John 2.21.

The most significant change, however, was a doubling in size of the work, as Fox appended a considerable amount of material to the end of the first edition. In the second edition, Fox addresses the evolving body of Friends’ testimonies. Quaker opposition to oaths, their insistence on use of “thee” and “thou” in addressing a single person, their insistence to use numbers only when referring to days of the week, and their opposition to tithes are all addressed in this expanded edition.

Another feature both of Primmer for the Schollers and the expanded edition of Catechisme for Children was a continued strong anti-clerical dimension. In Catechisme, there were several pointed questions that aimed to undermine the Puritans’ and Anglicans’ use of catechisms to instruct young persons in the faith:

Q. Father, It is the custom of all the Teachers to ask their children the questions concerning names and things which they have made, that children doth not know until it be told them what they be, and is it not better for children to aske the question of their Teachers that pretends the Gospel? . . .

Q. I but Father, The Teachers that Catechiseth Children, asks of three Persons and a Trinity, and such like things; and asketh us of two Sacraments, and Christs humane Body, and I cannot find these things in the Scriptures which they call the Rule, and do not they ask me things beside the Rule? . . .

Q. And Father, The Teachers that Catechiseth askes me whether the Scriptures be not the Word of God, and the Saints that gave forth the Scriptures sayes, they are the words of God?

Answers to such questions came along fairly predictable lines: children should be encouraged to ask hard questions about the gospels, but teachers should not ask “hard questions which they have not learned of God themselves;” words such as “trinity” and “sacrament” should be discarded as unscriptural, although it is permissible, in scripture terms, to affirm the existence of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;” Scriptures do not speak of Christ’s body as human, but rather represent him as “the Lord from Heaven;” the Scriptures themselves are not the Word of God (a title reserved to Christ), but rather the “Words of God.” (Fox 1660a, 120-122)

In other words, Fox sought to level the catechizing process, although it was unclear what authority or relevance his own catechism could retain as a means of instructing children, after such leveling had occurred. In the earliest decade of Quakerism, what members of the Religious Society of Friends would later regard as a testimony of equality manifested itself most strongly in anti-clerical sentiments of which these are just the tiniest sampling. Another example of a practice that led to a testimony of equality would have been the Quaker use of “thee” and “thou” while addressing only one person, even a high born person. This practice is alluded to in Fox’s expanded edition but is not explained very clearly. (Fox 1660a, 138-140)

Also notable was the introduction of new questions and answers relating to the burgeoning peace testimony which was slowly gaining ground among Quakers as the hopes for a pure commonwealth presided over by a virtuous Puritan army began to fade:

Q. But Father, What Souldiers are these that fights with the Creatures, knocks down, sheds blood, stocks and whips, and burns, and banishes, and sayes they are a Church, and are Ministers; Do they worship God, and are they the Servants of Christ?

A. Nay Child, These are led with the power of darknesse, not with the power of God, that destroys his Workmanship; and these are not the Souldiers of Christ, but the prince of darknesses Souldiers, and the prince of the airs Souldiers, that ordains, stocks, whips fires, faggots, house of Correction, Goals for Christ the Prince of Life, the Prince of Peace, which came to save men lives, and not to destroy them, Luke 9.56. and he never sent his Messengers or Embassadors and Apostles to set up such things in the nations, nor did his Church; though he says, he brought a sword and fire in the Earth, yet he came to save mens lives, and brought peace, Mat. 10.34. . . .

Fox 1660a, 74-75

Q. What Father, Is the Gospel, seeing that all that are called Christians will say they have the Gospel, and yet are on heaps about it, and fightings, and are not in unity nor in fellowship, and these have all the Scriptures of Christ, the Prophets, and the Apostles words, therefore what is the Gospel?

A. Child, The Gospel of peace is the Power of God, Rom. 16, unto salvation to every one that do believe Life and Immortality comes to Light by it, which is the Power of God, 2 Tim. 1.10. which is Immortal, for people being dead in sins and trespasses, Col. 2.13, and the life transgressed (which the Prince of the Air and darknesse hath darkened the minde which rules in the hearts of the children of disobedience, Eph. 2.1,2.) . . . In the Power of God the Gospel of peace men have unity one with another, but out of this people will be all on Sects, and Judgements, and heaps, being out of the Power of God the Gospel, and hath not peace one with another . . .

Q. Father, From whence comes all wars and fightings, and strife and contention and jangling, which tears more to pieces then Edifies?

A. Child, They come from the lust, in which lust all people seeks d finds not, James 4.1,2, because they ask amisse, they pray not in the spirit, so all fightings, strifes, Wars, contentions, quarrelings are from pride, lust and ambition; first they do transgresse the Spirit of God in themselves, then they go into the lust pride and ambition, and then there is Wars, contentions, distractions, and the Devils work is to set people on to destroy the creatures, and to set the people on, especially on such as are come from under his Dominion, and against such as be in the power of Christ, the Devil sets the creatures against them because they will not bend to him, and come under his Dominion, which sees before it was, that be in Christ Jesus the Power of God the truth; so all Wars and strifes and fightings and vain contentions, it is in the flesh, Gal. 5.17. so the spirit is opposite against the flesh, and the power is opposite against it, in which Power, in which Spirit, Light and Life, there is no wars but peace.

Fox 1660a, 95-99

At the time of this publication, the classic statement of the Quaker peace testimony was still months in the future, with one immense intervening event, the failed revolt of the Fifth Monarchists and the subsequent jailing of thousands of Quakers on the largely mistaken conclusion that they were allied with the Fifth Monarchists and thus a party to the conspiracy. (Barbour and Frost, 45-46; Ingle, 192-193) At that time, Fox and eight co-signers would write that “all bloody principles and practices we . . . do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever: and this is our testimony to the whole world.” (Ingle 194; Moore, 180-182). But these passages seem quite similar to that formulation of the peace testimony.

The direction of Fox (and probably also of his movement, of whom he was a pre-eminent leader) was quite clear in the Catechism, especially for the patient and nuanced reader. Christ “came to save mens lives, and brought peace;” all fighting, strife and wars “are from lust pride and ambition” and are “in the flesh;” in the life born of the Spirit, “there is no wars but peace.” It is a sensitive reflection on the previous twenty years of English history. Fox’s phraseology, in these passages at least, did not favor Roundhead or Cavalier. Lust, pride, and ambition were singularly evident on both sides of the English Civil War. Whatever the evils of rule by the King or the Puritans, the evils of war were greater. Seeing the work of the devil (or Satan, the divine adversary) at work in these events provided a powerful metaphor for the causes of the profound suffering that Fox and other English men and women had undergone during the 1640s and 1650s. In summary, Fox’s writing shows a degree of psychological perspicacity that modern-day Friends might do well to emulate.

Up to 1660, only Fox had authored Quaker catechisms. During the rest of the century, however, this would change, as Isaac Penington, William Smith, Thomas Richardson, Ambrose Rigge, Robert Barclay, and George Keith all wrote and published catechisms, with Penington, Smith, and Keith responsible for more than one. Of these men, perhaps only Richardson was not part of a British cultural elite. Penington was the wealthy son of the former lord mayor of London; Smith, a former Independent minister from the English midlands; Barclay, the well-educated son of the squire of Ury in Scotland; Keith, a Quaker schoolmaster and close friend from student days of his fellow Scot, Barclay; Rigge, a schoolmaster from Westmorland in the “Quaker Galilee,” the North of England. (Barbour and Roberts, 582-607; Moore, 210) Each knew what a good, respectable catechism could gain Quakers in cultural capital, appreciating, with John Symes, that catechism provided “without question the most profitable way for the simpler sort of people” to learn their religion. More grandly, the Anglican minister John Tillotson wrote that “catechizing and the history of the martyrs have been the two great pillars of the Protestant religion,” (Green, 1) and these Quakers aimed to make the same two pillars lend strength and impetus to a growing Quaker movement. Indeed, some embodied both pillars at once, as Richardson and Smith published their catechisms while imprisoned.

A detailed summary of the contents of these catechisms would exceed the limits of this brief essay, but a brief note on their publication history seems in order. Of the thirteen catechisms written by these six other Quakers, only one was truly successful. That was Robert Barclay’s Catechism and Confession of Faith, first published in 1673 and reprinted at least 27 times in English and five times in foreign languages. (Barbour and Roberts, 314) Barclay’s clear and comprehensive organization of Quaker beliefs under fourteen subheadings, and his discipline in limiting his answers to questions about Quakerism almost wholly to Biblical passages, garnered his work popularity in Quaker circles still bedeviled by accusations that Quakers disregarded Scripture.

Other than Barclay, however, the catechism that gained the most influence among Friends was not any of those alluded to above, but rather the one that would result from Fox’s final foray into the catechetical marketplace. In 1670, he teamed up with Ellis Hookes, London Friends’ paid secretary, to publish A Primmer and Catechism for Children: or a Plain and easie way for Children to learn to Spell and Read perfectly in a little time. Three years later, Fox and Hookes corrected the spellings of some words and expanded the contents of the book slightly for their new, retitled edition: Instructions for Right Spelling, and Plain Directions for Reading and Writing True English. With Several delightful Things, very useful and necessary both for Young and Old to read and learn (1673).

This book is quite unlike any of Fox’s several hundred other works, which tended to focus heavily on religious matters. Its diverse contents include instruction in the alphabet, the syllabification of words, the meaning of Scripture names, the significance of the seven arts, Scriptural and English weights, measures and coins, directions on how to spell, multiplication tables, instructions in Roman numerals, and much more. Presumably Hookes wrote many of these sections. But at the center of the two men’s work, embedded in a variety of religious subject matter, was a catechism, which, in the first edition, occupied 33 pages (pp. 58-90). It is this portion which is of greatest concern to us. (Comparison of the catechism as published in the 1670 and 1673 editions yields several minor changes, but no significant ones.)

This catechism is more succinct, more useful, and, in most respects, more comprehensive than his Catechism for Children, which, even in its second edition, was ten years old by the time that the Primmer was published. The new work, however, did not duplicate all of the material of the first catechism, by any means. There was, for example, no mention of the peace testimony in Fox’s latest work. His nearest approach to that topic was a reminder of the patient suffering under persecution of the prophets and apostles of Biblical times. Fox reminded his readers that “the People of God were in all Ages mock’d, persecuted, imprisoned and Sufferers,” lifting up examples from the lives of Elisha, David, Jeremiah, Job, Jesus, James, Peter, Paul and Silas, and ending with Paul’s statement that “whosoever will live Godly in Christ Jesus must suffer Persecution; for it is through many Tribulations we must enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (II Tim 3:12; Acts 14:22; Fox and Hookes 1670, 90)

Much of the catechism emphasized the inwardness of true Christian faith:

Schol. What is that shall lead into all Truth?

Mast. It is the Spirit of Truth which must lead into all Truth

Schol. Where is the Spirit?

Mast. Within.

Schol. What shall reprove the World of sin, of their Righteousness, and of their Judgment.

Mast. It is the Spirit of Truth that leads all Saints into all Truth.

Schol. In what is God worshipped?

Mast. He is worshipped in Spirit and in Truth.

Schol. Where is this Spirit and Where is this Truth?

Mast. The Spirit is within, and the Truth is within in the inward parts, by which God is known . . .

Fox and Hookes 1670, 65

Consequently, Fox defined many Christian terms in a predominantly inward sense, allowing no sacredness to material, non-living entities:

Schol. What is God?

Mast. God is a Spirit.

Schol. Where is the Church?

Mast. The Church is in God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Thes. 1.1.

Scho. What is the Church?

Mast. The people of God which he hath purchased with his own Blood. . . .

Schol. What is the Church Fellowship?

Mast. It is the Gospel-Fellowship.

Schol. What is the Gospel?

Mast. The Gospel it is the Power of God unto Salvation to every one that believeth, so the Power of God the Gospel is Everlasting.

Schol. What is the Cross of Christ?

Mast. The Cross of Christ is the Power of God, and this is foolishness to them that perish and set up a wooden or a stone, or iron cross, or any other outward cross.

Fox and Hookes 1670, 66, 72-73

So stone could constitute neither a church nor a cross. Fox had good scriptural citations for each of his contentions, although, perhaps because he figured that these passages would have been well known, he usually does not supply his citations in his text. “God is a Spirit” is from John 4:24; church as “purchased with God’s own blood,” Acts 20:28; “gospel-fellowship,” probably Phil. 1:5; gospel as the “power of God,” Rom. 1:16; cross as the “power of God,” I Cor. 1:17-18. The succinctness of Fox’s presentation here invites memorization in a way that his earlier catechetical efforts did not, and it signaled an effort to build more of a constructive theology, rather than the critical theologies featured in his previous catechisms.

Fox provides a clearer picture of his understanding of the sabbath in this catechism, and unsurprisingly he gave it a significance that is inward, not outward:

Schol. Who is the Christian Sabbath or Rest?

Mast. Christ Jesus, he that believeth hath entered into his Rest and ceased from his own works, as God did from his; and so Christ is the Rest by whom all things are made and created, and there is Rest and Peace in him, but not in old Adam. [No exact scriptural matches here: perhaps Eph. 2:14 comes closest.]

Fox and Hookes 1670, 75

Matching this piece of the puzzle with the one that the earlier catechism provided, we can surmise that Fox’s view on the sabbath is as follows: In the old covenant, the sabbath was a period of time, one day in seven, an outward sanctuary in time. In the new covenant, Christians meet once a week, not on the sabbath, but a different day. Still, Christians should maintain a sabbath, but the sabbath is an inward one, and it occurs whenever a Christian finds peace and rest in Christ. Thus, the term “sabbath” is no longer primarily a reference to a day of the week, but to an inward attitude of rest and peace. This is the kind of radical redefinition that Fox sometimes did not explain clearly, and, in any case, did not readily catch on, even perhaps with most Quakers.

There is much else in this catechism. There is, for example, extensive explanations of Quaker stands on the naming of days and months. Clearer explanations are given to issues relating to equality in this catechism than in earlier ones, with careful, scripturally based explanations of their use of “thee” and “thou” when addressing only one person, their refusals to bow or put off their hats, and their eschewing of flattering titles. (Fox and Hookes 1670, 76-78; compare to Fox 1660a, 138-140) Anti-clericalism is a bit more circumscribed, although still present, as Fox gives ten “marks and signs” by which one might know “deceivers and false prophets,” and also four signs of true ministry. Perhaps, however, we have explored this work sufficiently to garner some of its flavor.

The most surprising aspect of this work, however, for those who explore this subject three and a half centuries later, is its extensive history of republication. For a century or so after its first appearance, Primmer and Catechism/Instructions for Right Spelling was the most popular of Fox’s works by far, if the number of reprintings is any judge. R. C. Alston found twelve reprintings of this work, including four in America (but none after 1769). (Fox and Hookes 1971, Note) These reprintings suggest that Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic were using this text as Fox intended it to be used, in instructing children at an elementary education level. Instructions for Right Spelling was not, however, included in the eight volumes of Fox’s collected works when those were issued in 1706, probably because Instructions was pitched to a very different audience than the literate adults who would have bought the collected works. Catechism for Children also was omitted from the collected works, most likely for the same reason. In the nineteenth century, catechisms grew to be unfashionable throughout much of the Western world. Ian Green theorizes that this was because new educational theories “de-emphasized catechetical or ‘reception’ learning in favor of ‘discovery’ learning.” (Green, 230) Quakers, in tune with this broader cultural trend, stopped reprinting Fox’s catechetical works, which were, in any case, seriously outdated in many respects (not the least of which was the many obsolete spellings contained in Instructions for Right Spelling).

Obviously, these catechetical works are of interest for the many historical insights that they can provide us into the worldview of George Fox and early Friends. I can see another reason for attention to them, however. I suggest that this premodern form may have unexplored relevance for our postmodern times. It can provide a means of expressing complicated thoughts about one’s ultimate concern in simple and straightforward ways without sacrificing meaning, and hence could constitute a discipline from which all can benefit. Our renewed examination, then, might well lead toward efforts of emulation.


Barbour, Hugh and Arthur Roberts. Early Quaker Writings, 1650-1700. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973.

Barbour, Hugh and J. William Frost. The Quakers. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1994.

Barclay, Robert. “A Catechism and Confession of Faith” (1673). In Truth Triumphant, vol. 1. Philadelphia: Benjamin C. Stanton, 1831.

Baxter, Richard. One Sheet against the Quakers. London: Robert White, 1657.

Fox, George. A Catechisme for Children. London: Thomas Simmons, 1658.

Fox, George. A Catechisme for Children. 2nd edition. London: Thomas Simmons, 1660a.

Fox, George. Catechismus pro Parvulis. London: Robert Wilson, 1660b.

Fox, George and Ellis Hookes. Instructions for Right Spelling and Plain Directions for Reading and Writing True English. N.p., 1673.

Fox, George and Ellis Hookes. Instructions for Right Spelling,1673. Ed. by R. C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800, no. 303. Menston, England: Scolar Press Limited, 1971.

Fox, George and Ellis Hookes. A Primmer and Catechism for Children. N.p., 1670.

Fox, George. A Primmer for the Schollers and Doctors of Europe. London: Thomas Simmons, 1659.

Green, Ian. The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England, 1530-1740. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Ingle, H. Larry. First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

Moore, Rosemary. The Light in their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000.

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