Pattillo's Geographical Catechism

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

When John Chavis — the first African-American Presbyterian ordained as a minister in the United States (licensed on November 19, 1800) — engaged in his secondary schooling in preparation for the ministry, he studied first under the Rev. Henry Pattillo (1726-1801), and then at Princeton under the Rev. John Witherspoon (1723-1794), both Scottish-born American patriot Presbyterian ministers and educators. It is to Henry Pattillo that we look today — who himself studied under the Rev. Samuel Davies — to take note of a memorable work which he produced, which is thought to have made a deep impression upon Chavis, who also was a patriot who served in the American War of Independence (as did Pattillo; Witherspoon signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation).

That notable work was titled A Geographical Catechism (1796), the first textbook ever published in North Carolina. It constitutes an attempt to educate farmers and young people about the world around them, including the celestial world. Further, it introduced its readers to world history and culture, taking particular note of the newly-formed United States of America, and the other major nations of the earth. This overview, given in question-and-answer format, was produced with an explicitly Christian worldview, aiming to inculcate in its readers a desire to glorify the God of creation, providence and redemption.

Pattillo, Henry, A Geographical Catechism Title Page cropped.jpg

The scientific descriptions given by Pattillo for the world of nature reflect the current understanding of his day. Four continents are described, as well as seven planets in the solar system (the furthest away from the sun being known to Pattillo as “the Georgian Planet” — or, as we know it, Uranus).

His praise of the United States is high indeed. Answering Q. 104, he describes the United States as a “terrestrial paradise,” sketching its history from the arrival of Christopher Columbus, but focusing chiefly on the late conflict with England, summing his thoughts thus:

A general treaty took place, in which Britain acknowledged the independence of the American States, which the other nations of Europe did soon after. A constitution was formed by the united wisdom of our country, which after some time was adopted by all the states. Under its happy influence they have flourished ever since in peace, prosperity and reputation and the population of our western territory has never been equaled since the first ages of the world.

O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint Americanos! Virgil

Pattillo’s description of comets in space proceeds — encouraging his readers to follow this example — from the scientific to the doxological.

No part of God's works that have come to my knowledge, astonish me more than the infinite wisdom, foreknowledge and divine art of the Deity, in throwing from his creating hand more than 40 enormous globes, whose paths oppose and cross each other for thousands of years, in every direction, without the rapid fiery comet once touching or interrupting a single planet? which must have frequently happened had the planet been in that part of its orbit in which it was before the cornet passed, or would be soon after. Adore ye sons of men, and in humble gratitude acknowledge the power, wisdom and goodness of GOD! If he is thus tremendous in one of his works, who can stand when HE ariseth? Make peace with him whilst thou art in the way; for he is as gracious to returning penitents, as he will be terrible to the sinner in his crimes (A. 72).

Descending from the heavenly realm to the terrestrial, Pattillo still focuses the attention of the reader on the God who made all:

Q. 90. Having surveyed wonders sufficient to bring an infidel to his knees, and to animate the devotion of the most devout; may we now return to Geography, if any thing on our globe be worthy of notice, after the more illustrious scenes we have passed through?

A. It is true our world is but a speck in the creation, and yet it has wonders of power and wisdom belonging to it, sufficient to employ the deepest researches of the wisest of men, and fresh wonders discovered every day; and it has one thing to glory in, above all the creation of GOD.

Q. 91. What is that pray?

A. It is that great gospel truth, GOD so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. A world thus redeemed, is well worthy of our notice. We return then to Geography, or that description of countries, cities, and seaports, without the knowledge of which, no person can read a news-paper, nor follow a traveller by sea or land.

Chavis’ biographer states that it was “the Presbyterian view” indeed “that all knowledge is a part of God’s providence” (Helen Chavis Othow, John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor (1763-1838), p. 39). By summarizing the basic knowledge of the world of creation and providence for his students, including John Chavis, Pattillo made an enormous contribution to the godly education of students in North Carolina and Virginia. Chavis is an important part of that legacy, because it reflects a desire on the part of the teacher to have all of his students, of whatever skin color, in the words of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler, “think God’s thoughts after Him.”