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§ 96. The Westminster Catechisms.


The Humble | Advice | of the | Assembly | of | Divines, | Now by Authority of Parliament | sitting at | Westminster; | Concerning | A Larger Catechism: | Presented by them lately to both Houses of Parliament. | Printed at London [Oct. 1647, without Scripture proofs], and reprinted at Edinburgh, by Evan Tyler, Printer to the King's most Excellent Majestie, 1647 [Dec.]. The Edinburgh reprint has fifty-six pages, and no Scripture proofs. See fac-simile in Vol. III. p. 674. Of the London editio princeps, six hundred copies were printed, but not published, by order of Parliament, for its own use. Of the Edinburgh editio princeps, eight hundred copies were ordered by the General Assembly, Dec. 23, 1647. The second ed., which appeared in London [after April 14, 1648], contains the proofs from Scripture.

The Shorter Catechism appeared under the same title (except Shorter for Larger) a little later [after Nov. 25, 1647], by order of Parliament. Mr. John Laing, the obliging librarian of the Free Church College in Edinburgh, informs me that both Catechisms appeared in one vol. of seventy-nine pages, at Edinburgh, Dec. 23,1647, with a general title and a separate title for each. A statement to the same effect I see in the Advertisement to Dunlop's Collection of Confessions, Vol. I. p. clviii., with the additional remark that this edition was sent to the Presbyteries for examination.

The Larger and Shorter Catechisms often appeared in connection with the Westminster Confession, and exist in innumerable English and American editions, especially the Shorter. The textual variations are insignificant, except that the American (General Assembly's) editions of the Larger Catechism omit the words 'tolerating a false religion' in the answer to Question 109.

I have made use of the first Edinb. ed., and a large London ed. of 1658, which contains the Conf. and both Catechisms under their original (three separate) titles (The Humble Advice, etc.), with the Scripture proofs in full. Opposite the special title of the Shorter Catechism is the order of Parliament, dated 'Die Lunæ 15. Septemb., 1648,' directing that the Shorter Catechism 'be forthwith printed and published, wherein Mr. Henry Roborough and Mr. Adoniram Byfield, Scribes of the Assembly of Divines, are requested to use all possible care and diligence.'

The Catechisms have been translated into many languages, especially the Shorter. A Latin version appeared, together with the version of the Confession, in Cambridge, 1656, as has been noted above, p. 753. The Latin text of the Shorter Catechism is printed in Vol. III. pp. 676 sqq. For a German version of both, see Böckel, pp. 716 sqq. A Greek version of the Shorter Catechism (with the Latin), by John Harmar (Regius Professor of Greek In Oxford), was published at London, 1660; a new one by Robert Young (ἡ κατήχησις συντομωτέρα), Edinburgh, 1854. A Hebrew version by G. Seaman, M.D. (London, 1689), and another by H. S. McKee (Edinb. 1854; Dublin, 1864). Also Syriac, Arabic, modern Greek, Portuguese, Welsh, and other versions.

The largest number of editions and translations are to be found, as far as I know, in the British Museum.


Thomas Lye (Minister in London, d. 1684): An Explanation of the Shorter Catechism. London, 1676.

Hugh Binning (d. 1653, Prof. of Moral Philos., Glasgow): The Common Principles of the Christian Religion. . . . A Practical Catechism. 1671.

Thomas Vincent (Minister in London, d. 1671): An Explanation of the Assembly's Shorter Catechism. London, 1708; Edinb. 1799; Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia.

Thomas Watson (Minister in London, d. 1690): A Body of Practical Divinity, consisting of above 176 Sermons on the Shorter Catechism. 5th ed. Glasgow, 1797; Lond. 1807; Glasgow, 1838; N. Y. 1836.

John Flavel, (b. 1627, d. 1691): Exposition of the Catechism. 1692. In his Whole Works, 2 vols. fol. 1701, 7th ed. Edinb. 1762; and in 6 vols. London, 1820.

Thomas Ridgley (b. 1667, d. 1734): A Body of Divinity . . . Being the Substance of Lectures on the Assembly's Larger Catechism, London, 1731–33, 2 vols. fol.; an ed. in 4 vols. 8vo, 1814; Edinb. 1845, 2 vols. 8vo; New York, 1855.

Samuel Willard (b. 1640, d. 1707): A Body of Divinity in 250 Lectures on the Assembly's Catechism. 1 vol. fol. Boston, 1726.

John Willison (Minister of Dundee from 1718 to 1750): An Example of Plain Catechising upon the Assembly's Shorter Catechism. Edinb. 1737; 2d ed. Glasgow, 1764.

Fisher's Catechism: The Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism Explained, by way of question and answer. By some Ministers of the Gospel. The authors are Ralph Erskine (d. 1752), Ebenezer Erskine (d. 1754), and James Fisher (d. Sept. 28, 1775, Secession Minister at Greyfriars, Glasgow). Fisher prepared the second part alone, and issued the third ed. Glasgow, 1753. Hence the whole work is called by his name. 14th ed. Edinb. 1800; 17th ed. Glasgow, 1813; also by the Board of Publication, Philadelphia.

John Brown (Minister at Haddington from 1751 to 1787): Easy Explication of the Assembly's Shorter Catechism. 8th ed. Edinb. 1812; 9th ed. Montrose, 1822.

Henry Belfrage (d. 1835): A Practical Exposition of the Assembly's Shorter Catechism, exhibiting a System of Theology in a Popular Form. Edinb. 2d ed. 1834. 2 vols.

Alex. Mair (d.1751): A Brief Explication of the Assembly's Shorter Catechism. New ed. Montrose, 1837.


Alex. Smith Paterson: A Concise System of Theology: being the Shorter Catechism Analyzed and Explained. Edinb. 1841; 2d ed. 1844.

Ashbel Green, D.D. (President of Princeton College from 1812 to 1822; d. 1848): Lectures on the Shorter Catechism. Phila. 1841, 2 vols., Presbyt. Board of Publ.

Jonathan Cross: Illustrations of the Shorter Catechism. Proof-texts, Exposition, and Anecdotes. 2 vols. 18mo. Presbyt. Board of Publ.

Edwin Hall, D.D.: The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly, with Analysis and Scripture Proofs. Presbyt. Board of Publ.

James R. Boyd, D.D.: The Westminster Shorter Catechism; with Analysis, Proofs, Explanations, and Illustrative Anecdotes. 18mo. Presbyt. Board of Publ.

The Bellefonte Series of Tracts on the Answers to the Shorter Catechism, written by numerous Presbyterian ministers, and edited by the Rev. Wm. T. Wylie. Bellefonte, Pa. 1875.


Simultaneously with the Confession, the Assembly prepared first one, and afterwards two Catechisms: a larger one for public exposition in the pulpit, according to the custom of the Reformed Churches on the Continent, and a smaller one for the instruction of children, a clear and condensed summary of the former.15041504   The first Catechism of the Assembly, according to Baillie, was nearly agreed on at the end of 1644, but was never published. Perhaps it was the same which is partially inserted in the Minutes; or it may have been the MS. Catechism of Sam. Rutherford, which is preserved in the University library at Edinburgh. In the 774th session, Jan. 14, 1647 (old style, 1646), the Assembly ordered 'that the Committee for the Catechism do prepare a draught of two Catechisms, one more large and another more brief, in which they are to have an eye to the Confession of Faith, and to the matter of the Catechism already begun' (Minutes, p. 321). Both are amply provided with Scripture proofs. The questions of Church polity and discipline are properly omitted.

The Catechisms were finished and presented to Parliament for examination and approval in the autumn of 1647.15051505   Both Catechisms were first presented to Parliament without Scripture proofs, the Larger before Oct. 25, 1647, the Shorter on Nov. 25, 1647 (Minutes, pp. 485, 486, 492), and were forthwith printed in London and Edinburgh. The Catechisms with Scripture proofs were presented to Parliament on or before April 14, 1648 (Minutes, p. 511). Parliament ordered six hundred copies to be printed, and then examined and approved the Catechisms, with some slight exceptions (Sept. 15, 1648). The General Assembly at Edinburgh adopted the Larger Catechism, July 20, 1648, and the Shorter Catechism, July 28, declaring both to be 'agreeable to the Word of God, and in nothing contrary to the received doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of this Kirk.' These acts were approved by the Scottish Parliament, Feb. 7, 1649, but repealed under Charles II. in 1661. When the Scottish Parliament, in 1690, established Presbyterian government in Scotland, and ratified the Westminster Confession of Faith, no express mention was made of the Catechisms, but both continued in ecclesiastical use, and the Shorter 785Catechism was often earnestly enjoined upon ministers, teachers, and parents by the General Assembly.15061506   Mitchell, Minutes, p. 515. note. Innes (Law of Creeds, p. 195) says: 'The Shorter Catechism has been for many generations the real creed of Scotland, so far as the mass of the people is concerned.'


The two Catechisms are, in the language of a Scotch divine, 'inimitable as theological summaries; though, when it is considered that to comprehend them would imply an acquaintance with the whole circle of dogmatic and controversial divinity, it may be doubted whether either of them is adapted to the capacity of childhood. . . . Experience has shown that few who have been carefully instructed in our Shorter Catechism have failed to discover the advantage of becoming acquainted in early life, even as a task, with that admirable "form of sound words."'15071507   M'Crie, Annals, pp. 177 sq. Neal (Vol. II. p. 42) judges similarly. 'The Larger Catechism,' he says, 'is a comprehensive system of divinity, and the smaller a very accurate summary, though it has by some been thought a little too long, and in some particulars too abstruse for the capacities of children.' Baillie was of the same opinion (Letters, III. 59).

Both Catechisms have the peculiarity that each answer embodies the question, and thus forms a complete proposition or sentence in itself.

Both depart from the catechetical tradition by omitting the Apostles' Creed, which in other orthodox Catechisms is the common historical basis of the exposition of the Articles of Faith. It is, however, annexed to the Shorter Catechism,' not as though it were composed by the Apostles or ought to be esteemed canonical Scripture, as the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, but because it is a brief sum of the Christian faith, agreeable to the Word of God, and anciently received in the Churches of Christ.' A note is attached to the article on the descent into Hell (better, Hades or Sheol), to the effect that it simply means Christ 'continued in the state of the dead and under the power of death until the third day.' This explanation (like that of Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism) misses the true sense of the descent, and ignores its peculiar significance in the work of redemption for the world of the departed (comp. Luke xxiii. 43; Acts ii. 31; Eph. iv. 8, 9; 1 Cor. xv. 55, 57; 1 Pet. iii. 18, 19; iv. 6; Rev. i. 18). 786The eschatology of the Reformation standards is silent or defective on the middle state, and most Protestant versions of the Bible confound Hell and Hades, which represent separate and distinct though cognate ideas.


The Larger Catechism occupied, as the Minutes show, a good deal of the Assembly's attention during the year 1647, and was discussed question by question. It was prepared before the Shorter.15081508   This appears from the Minutes, p. 410. The report on the Shorter Catechism was first called for in the 896th session, Aug. 9, 1647. Mr. Palmer reported, and Messrs. Calamy and Gower were added to the Committee. The opposite view is clearly wrong, though advocated by Neal (Vol. II. p. 42), and even quite recently by Dr. M'Crie, who says (Annals, p. 177): 'The Larger Catechism was not prepared till some time after the Shorter, of which it was evidently intended to form an amplification and exposition.' It is chiefly the work of Dr. Anthony Tuckney, Professor of Divinity and Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge.15091509   It is based in part on Ussher's catechetical Body of Divinity, perhaps also on the concise theological compendium of John Wolleb, Antistes at Basle (1626). It is a masterpiece of catechetical skill, superior to any similar work, and exhibits in popular form a complete system of divinity, like the Roman Catechism and the Longer Russian Catechism of Philaret. It also serves in part as a valuable commentary or supplement to the Confession, especially on the ethical part of our religion. But it is over-minute in the specification of what God has commanded and forbidden in the Ten Commandments, and loses itself in a wilderness of details.15101510   Take for example Question 113:    What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?
   'The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God's name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious, or wicked mentioning, or otherwise using his titles, attributes, ordinances, or works, by blasphemy, perjury; all sinful cursings, oaths, vows, and lots; violating our oaths and vows, if lawful; and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful; murmuring and quarreling at, curious prying into, and misapplying of God's decrees and providences; misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the Word, or any part of it, to profane jests, curious or unprofitable questions, vain janglings, or the maintaining of false doctrines; abusing it, the creatures, or any thing contained under the name of God, to charms or sinful lusts and practices; the maligning, scorning, reviling, or any wise opposing God's truth, grace, and ways; making profession of religion in hypocrisy or for sinister ends; being ashamed of it, or a shame to it, by uncomformable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive walking or backsliding from it.'


Dr. Tuckney was also the convener of the Committee which prepared the Shorter Catechism, but its concise and severely logical answers 787are traced to the Rev. John Wallis, M.A., an eminent mathematician, who as a young man fresh from Cambridge was appointed an amanuensis of the Assembly.15111511   In the Minutes, p. 488, Wallis is mentioned in connection with the Shorter Catechism. He published an exposition of it. He afterwards became Professor of Geometry at Oxford and one of the founders of the Royal Society. He was probably the last survivor of the Westminster divines, for he died 1703, aet. eighty-eight.15121512   Masson's Milton, Vol. II. p. 515. Gillespie's name is traditionally connected with the question 'What is God?' He is said to have answered it in prayer, apparently without meditation, when the Assembly were in suspense for words to define the Being of beings. But the Scotch Commissioners had little to do with the Shorter Catechism, as most of them had left before it was discussed in the Assembly.15131513   The Scotch Commissioners took leave Dec. 25, 1646. The last mention of them is Nov. 9, 1647, when Rutherford took his leave.—Minutes, pp. 471, 487. Dr. Mitchell informs me that the fourth question is probably derived from 'A Compendious Catechism' (by J. F.), printed at London in April, 1645: 'God is a Spirit, One, Almighty, Eternal, Infinite, Unchangeable Being, Absolutely Holy, Wise, Just, and Good.'

The Shorter Catechism is one of the three typical Catechisms of Protestantism which are likely to last to the end of time. It is fully equal to Luther's and to the Heidelberg Catechism in ability and influence, it far surpasses them in clearness and careful wording, and is better adapted to the Scotch and Anglo-American mind, but it lacks their genial warmth, freshness, and childlike simplicity.15141514   For a fuller comparison, see pp. 543–545. It substitutes a logical scheme for the historical order of the Apostles' Creed. It deals in dogmas rather than facts. It addresses the disciple as an interested outsider rather than as a church-member growing up in the nurture of the Lord. Its mathematical precision in definitions, some of which are almost perfect,15151515   For example, Questions 4, 21, 92. though above the capacity of the child, is a good preparation for the study of theology. Its use among three denominations (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Regular Baptists) proves its solid worth. Baxter called it 'the best Catechism he ever saw, a most excellent sum of the Christian faith and doctrine, and a fit test to try the orthodoxy of teachers.' Thomas Carlyle, in speaking against modern materialism, made this confession (1876): 'The older I grow—and I now stand upon the brink of eternity—the more comes back to me the first sentence in the Catechism which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper its meaning becomes: "What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."'

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