Pillar Journal

Catechetical Evangelism

The Puritans were not looking for quick and easy conversions; they were committed to building up lifelong believers whose hearts, minds, wills, and affections were won to the service of Christ.

Like the Reformers, the Puritans were catechists. They believed that pulpit messages should be reinforced by personalized ministry through catechesis —the instruction in the doctrines of Scripture using catechisms. Puritan catechizing was evangelistic in several ways:

First, scores of Puritans reached out evangelistically to children and young people by writing catechism books that explained fundamental Christian doctrines via questions and answers supported by Scripture.1See George Edward Brown, “Catechists and Catechisms of Early New England” (D.R.E. dissertation, Boston University, 1934); R.M.E. Paterson, “A Study in Catechisms of the Reformation and Post-Reformation Period” (M.A. thesis, Durham University, 1981); P. Hutchinson, “Religious Change: The Case of the English Catechism, 1560-1640” (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1984); Ian Green, The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c. 1530-1740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). For example, John Cotton titled his catechism, Milk for Babes, drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments.2London, 1646. Other Puritans included in the titles of their catechisms such expressions as “the main and fundamental points,” “the sum of the Christian religion,” the “several heads” or “first principles” of religion, and “the ABC of Christianity.” Ian Green shows the high level of continuity that exists in Puritan catechism books in their recurring formulae and topics such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. He goes on to suggest that there really was no substantial discrepancy even between the simple message of many elementary works and the more demanding content of more sophisticated catechisms.3The Christian’s ABC, pp. 557-70. At various levels in the church as well as in the homes of their parishioners, Puritan ministers taught rising generations both from the Bible and from their catechisms. Their goals were to explain the fundamental teachings of the Bible, to help young people commit the Bible to memory, to make sermons and the sacraments more understandable, to prepare covenant children for confession of faith, to teach them how to defend their faith against error, and to help parents teach their own children. 4Cf. W.G.T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (1867; reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), pp. 356-75.

Second, catechizing was evangelistic in relation to both sacraments. When the Westminster Larger Catechism speaks of “improving” one’s baptism, it refers to a task of lifelong instruction in which catechisms such as the Shorter Catechism play a decisive role.5The Westminster Assembly desired to establish one catechism and one confession of faith for both England and Scotland, but a large number of catechisms continued to be written after the Westminster standards were drafted (J. Lewis Wilson, “Catechisms, and Their Use Among the Puritans,” in One Steadfast High Intent [London: Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1966], pp. 41-42). William Perkins said that the ignorant should memorize his catechism, The Foundation of Christian Religion, so they would be “fit to receive the Lord’s Supper with comfort.” And William Hopkinson wrote in the preface to A Preparation into the Waie of Life, that he labored to lead his catechumens “into the right use of the Lord’s Supper, a special confirmation of God’s promises in Christ.”6A Preparation into the Waie of Life, with a Direction into the righte use of the Lordes Supper (London, 1583), sig. A.3.

The more their public efforts to purify the church were crushed, the more the Puritans turned to the home as a bastion for religious instruction and influence. They wrote books on family worship and the “godly order of family government.” Robert Openshawe prefaced his catechism with an appeal “to those who were wont to ask how you should spend the long winter evenings, [to] turn to singing of psalms and teaching your household and praying with them.”7Short Questions and Answeares (London, 1580), p. A.4. By the time of the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s, the Puritans considered the lack of family worship to be an evidence of an unconverted life.8Wilson, “Catechisms, and Their Use Among the Puritans,” pp. 38-39.

Third, catechizing was a follow-up to sermons and a way to reach neighbors with the gospel. Joseph Alleine reportedly followed up his work on Sunday five days a week by catechizing church members as well as reaching out with the gospel to people he met on the streets.9C. Stanford, Joseph Alleine: His Companions and Times (London, 1861). Richard Baxter, whose vision for catechizing is expounded in The Reformed Pastor, said that he came to the painful conclusion that “some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close disclosure, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.”10Richard Baxter, Gidlas Salvianus: The Reformed Pastor: Shewing the Nature of the Pastoral Work (1656; reprint New York: Robert Carter, 1860), pp. 341-468. Baxter thus invited people in his home every Thursday evening to discuss and pray for blessing upon the sermons of the previous Sabbath.

Fourth, catechizing was evangelistic for purposes of examining people’s spiritual condition, and for encouraging and admonishing them to flee to Christ. Baxter and his two assistants spent two full days each week catechizing parishioners in their homes. In addition to that, on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and evenings he catechized each of his seven family members for an hour per week. Those visits involved patiently teaching, gently examining, and carefully leading family and church members to Christ through the Scriptures. Packer concludes: “To upgrade the practice of personal catechising from a preliminary discipline for children to a permanent ingredient in evangelism and pastoral care for all ages was Baxter’s main contribution to the development of Puritan ideals for the ministry.”11A Quest for Godliness, p. 305.

Puritan churches and schools considered catechism instruction so important that some even offered official catechists. At Cambridge University, William Perkins served as catechist at Christ’s College and John Preston at Emanuel College. The Puritan ideal, according to Thomas Gataker, was that a school is a “little church” and its teachers “private catechists.”12David’s Instructor (London, 1620), p. 18; see also B. Simon, “Leicestershire Schools 1635- 40,” British Journal of Educational Studies (Nov. 1954):47-51.

Puritan evangelism, carried on by preaching, pastoral admonition, and catechizing, took time and skill.13Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing: A Puritan’s View of Evangelism, intro. J.I. Packer (reprint Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 1998), pp. 14-15. The Puritans were not looking for quick and easy conversions; they were committed to building up lifelong believers whose hearts, minds, wills, and affections were won to the service of Christ.14Thomas Hooker, The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn to Christ (1635; reprint Worthington, Pa.: Maranatha, 1977). Some pastors were more gifted than others at catechizing, but all were called to be evangelistic catechists.

The hard work of the Puritan catechist was greatly rewarded. Richard Greenham claimed that catechism teaching built up the Reformed church and did serious damage to Roman Catholicism.15A Short Forme of Catechising (London: Richard Bradocke, 1599). When Baxter was installed at Kidderminster in Worcestershire, perhaps one family in each street honored God in family worship; at the end of his ministry there, there were streets where every family did so. He could say that of the six hundred converts that were brought to faith under his preaching, he could not name one that had backslidden to the ways of the world. How vastly different was that result compared to the results of today’s evangelists who press for mass conversions, then turn over the hard work of follow-up to others!

Excerpt from
Puritan Evangelism
A Biblical Approach
Joel R. Beeke

EBOOK Puritan Evangelism: A Biblical Approach – EBOOK (Beeke) (9953 in Stock)

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In this book, Joel Beeke investigates how the Puritans proclaimed what God’s Word counsels regarding the salvation of sinners. He describes the preaching of the Puritans (thoroughly biblical, unashamedly doctrinal, experimentally practical, holistically evangelistic, and studiously symmetrical), the primary methods of evangelism (plain preaching and catechetical evangelism), and the inward disposition of the Puritan evangelist (dependent on the Holy Spirit and prayerful).


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction: Puritan Evangelism Defined

Characteristics of Puritan Preaching

2. Thoroughly Biblical

3. Unashamedly Doctrinal

4. Experimentally Practical

5. Holistically Evangelistic

6. Studiously Symmetrical

The Method of Puritan Evangelism

7. Plain Preaching

8. Catechetical Evangelism

The Inward Disposition of the Puritan Evangelist

9. Dependency on the Holy Spirit

10. Men of Prayer



Joel R. Beeke (PhD, Westminster Seminary) is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary; a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan; editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth; editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books; and a prolific author.



“This is a well-written, easy introduction to the subject of Puritan evangelism, and an important reminder that gimmicks and showmanship are not God’s way to evangelize.” – The Presbyterian Banner