Ian Green. The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c. 1530-1740. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996. xiv+767 pp. ISBN 0 198 20617 8 Cloth.
Douglas Bruster
University of Texas, San Antonio

Bruster, Douglas. "Review of The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c. 1530-1740." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 9.1-14 <URL:

  1. This monumental study of catechisms and catechizing deserves to be widely read and discussed, for few topics pertain more to what people in early modern England were taught to believe about their duties and relation to God, their families, neighbors, and others. Catechisms directed people how to live, and provided individuals with the conceptual framework of Christian life. Perhaps more than most genres of publication, catechisms were thoroughly cultural texts. Indeed, as instruction manuals for belief and behavior, they remind us that the word "culture" comes from the Latin colere: to cultivate, till, tend. This active sense of culture as something deliberately produced -- rather than as an accidental and impersonal field -- well suits catechisms and catechistical practice. Catechisms were, in short, the Reformation's tool for cultivating responsible Christians.

  2. The Christian's ABC poses a special situation for reviewers, and does so for several reasons. First, this study is declared to be part of a larger project devoted to the techniques and materials of religious instruction in early modern England. Subsequent volumes in what Green describes as a trilogy will take up, on the one hand, Bibles, aids to Bible study, prayer books, psalters, and various other religious texts, and, on the other, the era's means of religious instruction. Thus a proper evaluation of this study might be possible only in the context of these forthcoming works, each of which will intersect with the present text. Secondly, Green's study is itself a three-part work -- even three books in one -- consisting of: an extensive history of catechisms and catechistical practices in England from 1530 through 1740 ("The Medium"); a close examination of the structures and aggregate content of nearly 60 popular catechisms from this era ("The Message"); and an annotated bibliography or finding list of English catechisms published during this time. Each of these parts describes the early modern catechism and its use from a distinct angle, and provides information whose usefulness will undoubtedly vary depending on the individual reader and that reader's needs at a particular moment.

  3. The justification for beginning this study at 1530 arises from a profound shift in the form of religious instruction in England. During the early sixteenth century, the question and answer form now familiarly identified with the catechism supplanted isolated recitation. As the comforting aid of visual forms -- wall-paintings, icons, gestures, and vestments -- was less and less available following the Reformation, a new kind of religious authority was sought in the individual's ability to master the answers to fundamental questions. Catechists grilled individuals as to the "grounds," "foundations," and "principles" of Christianity, terms frequently employed to describe the bases of faith and of faithful living. "Set thy house upon a sure foundation," ran a bourgeois proverb of the time, and such might be seen as the guiding belief of catechizing during the early modern era. Without a proper foundation, it was thought, the framework of individuals' faith would be unstable, leaving them not only unprepared for salvation, church life, and communion, but less capable of understanding scripture, and of recognizing vice and false doctrine.

  4. Who was catechized during this period, by whom were they catechized, where, and how often? We can make the following generalizations about catechistical practices during the early modern era from Green's study -- most of which he qualifies to a degree this review will be unable to convey. Children, servants, apprentices, and older persons who lacked knowledge of Christianity's essentials were all thought appropriate for catechizing. During the sixteenth century, when the still contingent nature of Protestantism made catechizing appear most urgent, children of 7 and 8 years of age were considered suitable for beginning the process, and the age of 19 was thought a proper time to finish it. This sentiment changed over the next century, when -- perhaps because of the success of earlier catechizing efforts -- the younger end of this spectrum was emphasized. Green notes that it was also during this later era that writers began saying that individuals did not understand Christian principles, whereas before they had often said that individuals did not know them.

  5. Catechizing was done mainly by the clergy, in the church. Ideally, catechizing was to occur just before the evening prayer on Sundays and holy days, year-round, though this is not likely to have been uniformly realized. And Green traces a decline in the time perceived necessary for catechizing: during the sixteenth century, an hour or more was thought requisite; in the following century, this time shortened to half an hour or less. Likewise, the sixteenth-century's year-round devotion to catechizing gave way, by the early eighteenth century, to catechizing during a few months or weeks. Besides the clergy, some schoolmasters and parents engaged in catechizing as well.

  6. Green notes that two catechisms dominated this era. The first of these, familiarly known as the "church catechism," originally appeared in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. This Edwardian catechism featured thirteen questions and answers, and took up only seven pages in the Prayer Book. Its length was doubled in 1604, when revisers added a section on the sacraments. Because this catechism was printed in not only the Book of Common Prayer, but two other best-selling works, The ABC with the catechisme, and The primer and catechisme, it has claim to being one of the most pervasive works of the era. As Green suggests, "it is likely that the first text on which the majority of people who learnt to read practised their new skills was the catechism of 1549" (66). The second major catechism was the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648, called "shorter" in relation not to the Prayer Book catechism (than which it was much longer) but to the "Larger" catechism produced at the same time. Not surprisingly, this Shorter Catechism was nonconformist in its orientation, but survived the Restoration to have a lasting influence on catechistical practice over the following centuries.

  7. Besides these two official forms, other popular catechisms included Alexander Nowell's moderately Calvinistic text -- which, in its condensed version (often called Nowell's "middle" catechism) went through more than forty editions in Latin and English, beginning in 1570 -- and John More's catechism, originally published in 1572 and later associated with More's collaborator (and, possibly, reviser), Edward Dering. By 1634, the Dering-More catechism had been published more than forty times, and in two forms. Many such "alternative" catechisms were published during this era, probably to supplement rather than replace the church catechism.

  8. The second part of The Christian's ABC takes up the content and form of early modern catechisms: their doctrine, and the sequence in which they presented this doctrine. For this examination Green sampled many of the era's more influential catechisms, focusing on their treatment of the four staples of early modern catechizing: the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the sacraments. Green points out that Catholic catechisms, in contrast, had many more units than their Protestant counterparts -- often including, besides the preceding, the Ave Maria, the commandments of the church, cardinal and theological virtues, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, the works of mercy (corporal and spiritual), capital sins, sins against the Holy Ghost, the four last things, additional prayers, and the methods by which one might prepare for confession and penance.

  9. One of the most remarkable of Green's findings is that the influential Protestant catechisms he examines have more doctrinal overlap than our current understanding of religious factionalism might lead us to believe. Whether the author of a particular catechism can be described as a Calvinist, episcopalian, presbyterian, Baptist, or Independent, that work is likely to share considerable content and structure with other catechisms of this period. Green summarizes their common ground, relating that catechisms of the era agree "on God's fatherly roles as creator and preserver; on Christ's offices as prophet, priest, and king; on the importance of the Holy Spirit in delivering help; on the difference between the two tables of the Law, and the broad interpretation of each Commandment; on the importance of trying to keep the Law, even though total success was impossible; on the nature and value of prayer in general, and the meaning of the six petitions of the Lord's Prayer in particular; on the existence of two covenants, one with Adam before the Fall, and the other with Christ thereafter; on the sacraments having been instituted by Christ as seals of the covenant of grace; on baptism being a rite of initiation into the church and a symbolic cleansing from sin; and the Lord's Supper being a rite of communion with Christ and his ecclesial body" (565-66).

  10. All of which is not to say that individual catechisms did not present the above beliefs in ways consonant with various genres of Protestant thought -- for they did, and, especially from the 1640s, catechisms increasingly offered polemical positions. Green's careful exposition of the open unity of catechisms' doctrinal content provides, in fact, something like a history of Protestant thought in early modern England. Besides extensive chapters on each of the four staples of catechisms, the second section of his book examines the issue of predestination, as well as assurance, justification, and the covenant of grace.

  11. This study closes with a detailed "finding list" of English catechisms for the period under consideration. In six running columns spread out over each two-page opening, Green provides the basic information concerning all the catechisms known to him. Each entry supplies, in the following order: author, title, date, number of separate editions, the source or location for Green's bibliographic information, and a compressed description of the catechism -- including size, content, origins, and geographical use. Here and throughout The Christian's ABC, what makes Green's information so useful is his willingness honestly and thoroughly to describe his procedures, and the assumptions that shaped them.

  12. Because of this scholarly integrity, because Green has a mastery over his subject that few could approach, and because this book is in every way a gift to the field, criticism of The Christian's ABC seems misplaced. Yet a few aspects of this study call for comment. For one thing, Green appears to have inherited from his subject matter the belief that one can know what lies in other minds. That is, although he sometimes qualifies his confidence, at several times in this study he suggests that further inquiry might tell us how effective catechizing was -- something that seems highly unlikely. As the work of David Riggs and others has shown us in relation to Renaissance atheism, knowing mental states and orientations in the same way we know texts that purport to describe them is impossible. On the whole, however, this does not affect what Green does, only what he suggests it might be possible to do. As for its physical layout, this book would have been more useful had Green's footnotes been indexed. This study is long, and deeply engaged with current historiographical literature; accordingly, readers would benefit from a comprehensive index. It is hoped that the forthcoming volumes of this project might offer this feature.

  13. Finally, one irony of The Christian's ABC is that it so faithfully treats the great range of catechisms that readers can be left feeling they do not know any single catechism well, and so do not understand the experience of such a text. Those intending to begin this study will benefit from acquainting (or reacquainting) themselves with a catechism or catechisms from the era. Recommended here are such accessible catechisms as the church catechism printed in the Book of Common Prayer (see, for instance, John E. Booty's modern edition of the 1559 BCP, pp. 282-287) and the advanced catechism of Alexander Nowell, translated into English by Thomas Norton in 1570, and later edited for the Parker Society (1853; republished by Johnson Reprints, 1968).

  14. As George Herbert noticed in "The Parson Catechizing," the twenty-first chapter of The Country Parson, the "secret" of catechisms resided in their shift of agency from priest to parishioner: "at Sermons, and Prayers, men may sleep or wander; but when one is asked a question, he must discover what he is." In this last phrase one can hear something like the essence of a Protestantism that gradually transformed a religion of community and works into a religion of faith and the individual. By focusing on the books and practices that contributed to this transformation, The Christian's ABC gives us special insight to both the culture of early modern England and a primary method with which that culture produced the more sufficient individual we recognize as quintessentially modern. Inasmuch as it thoroughly examines "a pattern of words that we can be moderately sure was heard regularly in a great many parishes and schools of the early modern period" (570), this study can be seen as the most significant treatment of one of the most significant kinds of books in early modern England.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(DB, LH, RGS, 22 January 1998)