By: Joel Beeke
Although evangelism differs to some degree from generation to generation according to gifts, culture, style, and language, the primary methods of Puritan evangelism—plain preaching and catechetical teaching—can show us much about how to present the gospel to sinners. Last week we explained plain preaching; today we’ll consider catechetical evangelism.
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.
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. For example, John Cotton titled his catechism Milk for Babes, drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments. 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.” At various levels in the church as well as in the homes of their parishioners, Puritan ministers taught rising generations from both the Bible and 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.
Catechizing was a follow-up to sermons and a way to reach neighbors with the gospel. Alleine reportedly followed his work on Sunday by several days each week of catechizing church members as well as reaching out with the gospel to people he met on the streets. 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.” Baxter invited people to his home every Thursday evening to discuss and pray for blessing on the sermons of the previous Sabbath.
The hard work of the Puritan catechist was greatly rewarded. Richard Greenham claimed that catechism teaching built up the Reformed church and seriously damaged Roman Catholicism. 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 brought to faith under his preaching, he could not name one who had backslidden to the ways of the world. How vastly different was that result compared with those of today’s evangelists, who press for mass conversions and turn over the hard work of follow-up to others.
Excerpt adapted from Joel Beeke’s Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism.