J.W. Alexander on Sabbath Evenings in Former Days

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James Waddel Alexander, writing in 1851 under the pen name “C.Q.,” has given us a description of how evenings were spent on the Lord’s Day, after public worship was over. It is valuable to note the place given to family worship, Scripture, the Psalms, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the reading of classic religious books.

Among our Presbyterian forefathers it was not customary to have public service on Sabbath evenings. That time was usually devoted, in England, and especially in Scotland, to the instruction of the household. In addition to the family worship, which at these seasons was more solemn and more extended, the domestic ordinance of catechizing was observed with great punctuality and zeal….

After the evening meal of the Sabbath, the whole family was gathered, not excepting the domestics, some of whom were grey headed servants of Christ, who had grown up under the roof. In our day of restlessness it is thought enough to despatch a few questions and answers; but the Scottish method was to go through the whole Shorter Catechism, without omission or abridgment. The presiding person, in this exercise, was the master of the house; and we know families, in which, even now, this service is constantly performed without book. We were lately told by a lady, that, after her father's death, the catechetical examination was faithfully carried on by the mother; and no doubt, this has happened in thousands of instances. Though the Larger Catechism was extensively taught, as was the case in a family from which the writer is descended, it was the Shorter Catechism which every youth, without exception, was expected to know. Any one who chooses to try the experiment, may easily satisfy himself how deeply this form of sound words is impressed on the memory of all who have enjoyed a regular Presbyterian training. After attaining a perfect knowledge of the text, children were made to learn a sufficient number of Scripture proofs. This was in itself a theological education. By weekly repetition, it was not merely taught, but inculcated, in the proper sense of that term; so that scarcely any lapse of years could entirely eradicate it from the mind. Whatever may be said about the tediousness of such a discipline, we believe all who have passed through it agree in looking back to those evening exercises as serenely delightful; and in regretting the seeming necessity of denying the same to their own children.

In the Presbyterian houses to which reference is now had, Holy Scripture had its place, in the looking out of passages quoted by the preacher, and in repeating psalms and paraphrases. Expositions of a familiar kind were not unfrequently given, which left their impression on the youthful mind. In days when books were scarcer than at present, many an hour was spent in reading aloud from such works as Rutherford's Letters, Boston's Fourfold State and Crook in the Lot, Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, Guthrie's Interest, and the Sermons of Binning and Andrew Gray. Does not the heart of some reader bless God for these golden opportunities?

There are many congregations among ourselves, in which the evenings of the Lord's days are vacant. It is a very serious question for parents and householders, how far they may employ this sacred season, statedly, for the benefit of their families. Thorough and effectual catechising demands at least a weekly exercise; and where there is no other engagement, the best time for these is the Sabbath evening. Religious instruction, at such a season, is sanctified by the hallowed day, and sweetened by the flow of home- feelings. The service need be neither tedious nor burdensome. A little management may render it delightful. Next to the house of God, there is no place so favourable for the conversion of children as the happy fireside. Let not the subject be laid aside, without some careful recurrence to the past, some candid self-examination, some deliberate planning, some resolved purpose, some self-denying and courageous endeavour, and some prayer to God for his blessing.

Alexander’s snapshot of Sabbath evenings past was meant to encourage readers of his own day to redeem those hours with family exercises of worship, catechetical instruction, and devotional reading. How much more do we need — “in our day of restlessness” — such encouragement in the early part of the 21st century?

Samuel E. McCorkle on the duty and practice of catechizing

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In a 1792 sermon titled A Sermon, on the Doctrine and Duty of Sacrificing, which was preached more than once and published in 1794, Samuel Eusebius McCorkle highlighted the duty of catechizing and explained the particular method that he used in his own congregation (Thyatira Presbyterian Church in Rowan County, North Carolina).

The next [duty] I shall mention is, the ancient and important duty of Catechising.* Many things might be said on this subject, but I forbear with only Qbserving that it may have its influence on both sermons and sacraments, by preparing the mind to be profited by them.

* Here I beg leave briefly to suggest to my brethren the plan of catechising from the Scriptures, as the platform or ground of a catechism. I have proceeded from Genesis to Job, and through part of the four evangelists; and I design, if God permit, to proceed on to the end, asking questions that lead to reading and reflection. I have found it profitable to myself and my people, and can venture to say that as far as I have proceeded there is not a congregation on the continent better acquainted with the Scriptures.

The Congregation I have divided into a number of divisions, of fifteen or sixteen families each, assigned to each division a set of written questions, and from one part of one or two books, as they may be long or short, in each Testament; catechising in the morning from the Old, in the afternoon from the New Testament, and closing by calling on the youth to repeat the shorter catechism.

This set of scriptural questions thus examined on, pass to the next division of the Congregation, who often attend as spectators, knowing that they are next to be examined on the same questions. Thus in rotation, every individual will be examined on every part of the Bible.

William Henry Foote, in his Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical (pp. 360-361), add this:

His daughter says, the divisions were eight in number; and that an elder was attached to each division; to this elder, he gave the copy of questions, and the elder supplied the division. In the examination he never publicly questioned the elders, they met him at his own house. The children were early brought to say their catechism; and the parents were reproved or commended according to the proficiency manifested in the examination.

Thus we have here an historical snapshot showing the importance placed on catechizing a congregation, young and old, as it was implemented by a leading North Carolina Presbyterian minister at the close of the 18th century.

It may be asked, separately from an analysis of the particular methods used here, whether the church today places the same high premium on catechizing. McCorkle set the bar high to the end that his congregation would know the Scriptures thoroughly. This, no doubt, ought to be our goal as well.

Two More American Covenanter Catechisms

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Last year we announced the addition of two Reformed Presbyterian catechisms to this site, one by William Louis Roberts (1853), and one by George Alexander Edgar (1912). This week we have added two more by ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church of North America (RPCNA).

The first is a 1923 pamphlet by Owen Foster Thompson titled Scotland Through Her Character Windows: A Catechetical Exposition of Covenanter History (1923). It is a remarkable work which covers in 54 pages the history of the Covenanters from the time of the Reformation to their establishment in America. It concludes with James Hislop’s famous poem “The Cameronian’s Dream.”

The next is an undated pamphlet, produced by the joint collaboration of James Melville Coleman, David Raymond Taggart and Owen F. Thompson, titled A Catechism for Covenanter Children. With the note that this is intended to serve as preparation, not a substitute, for the Westminster Shorter Catechism, these men authored a catechism for the young which covers both doctrine and church history.

Presbyterians have long held that there is great value both in the use of catechetical teaching and in the knowledge of church history. These Covenanter catechisms employ the question-and-answer format to install a knowledge of their own particular historical background and distinctive doctrines for the young and old. The three co-authors of the latter work, borrowing from Hebrews 12:11, tell us that:

"Training always seems for the time to be a thing of pain, not of joy; but those who are trained reap the fruit of it afterwards in the peace of an upright life."

The Ecclesiastical Catechisms of Alexander McLeod and Thomas Smyth

Most Presbyterians are familiar with the Westminster Shorter/Larger Catechisms, or the Heidelberg Catechism. But have you heard of Ecclesiastical Catechisms? At least two were written by Presbyterians in America in the 19th century: one by Alexander McLeod (1806) and one by Thomas Smyth (1843). (Another was written by Luther Halsey Wilson titled The Pattern of the House; or, A Catechism upon the Constitution, Government, Discipline and Worship of the Presbyterian church, which we hope to add to the site in the future.) These books present the doctrine of the church in question and answer format, so that God's people might more easily understand what the Scriptures teach about the institution that Jesus is building. McLeod and Smyth won't agree on everything (for instance, the number of offices Jesus has appointed in His church), so comparing and contrasting these two documents, written 40 years apart, will undoubtedly be an edifying and rewarding use of your time. 

Note: This blog post was originally published on November 8, 2017 and has been slightly edited.

The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism, Part Two

Previously, we have highlighted the important 1853 edition of The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism by William Louis Roberts (1798-1864). Today we focus on the 1912 edition of The Reformed Presbyterian Catechism (A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Upon the Mediatorial Kingdom of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ) composed primarily by the chairman of the committee assigned to the task, George Alexander Edgar (1865-1927), a Belfast-born leader of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.

Whereas the earlier catechism, which was almost 200 pages long, identified twelve “peculiar and more prominent” doctrines of the RPCNA by which it is distinguished from other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, the 1912 edition (26 pages long) is comprised of 146 questions and answers divided into nine general categories:

  1. Christ’s Mediatorial Kingdom

  2. The Bible - The Law of Christ’s Mediatorial Kingdom

  3. Covenanting - The Subject’s Acceptance of the Divine Law

  4. The Family

  5. The Church

  6. The Nation

  7. The Relation of Church and State

  8. Voluntary Associations

  9. Christian Living

The primary means by which the particular doctrines of the RPCNA are presented is through the lens of Christ’s mediatorial kingship over all the institutions over which he has created and governs - i.e., the family, the church and the state. In this way, His authority over all these institutions and the precepts which He gives us through Scripture are upheld.

The 1912 Reformed Presbyterian Catechism by Edgar serves as a good introduction to what the RPCNA historically believes, whereas the 1853 Reformed Presbyterian Catechism by Roberts is very in-depth examination of the most of the same territory. Both have their place both are here commended for the study of historic Reformed Presbyterian doctrine.

A Sabbath Afternoon Read for the Family from James R. Boyd

Are you seeking something edifying to read this Sabbath afternoon with your family? Consider The Child’s Book on the Westminster Shorter Catechism by James Robert Boyd. He designed it as a supplemental catechism for students 12 and under with the aim of reviewing the great divine truths found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He suggests that a half an hour on Sabbath afternoons be given to the study of this little book as a method of stirring up consideration religious conversation and promoting the spiritual interests of the family.

This is a good exercise for the family consistent with the aim of the Sabbath (see Boyd on the Fourth Commandment). And this is a means of involving the whole family in discussion of those matters which all should know about the basic divine truths of Christianity. Not meant to replace, but to supplement, the study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, this little volume is a means of reinforcing the knowledge that every member of the family should know and can be used to stimulate further discussion. Here is one matter that may prompt a healthy family discussion:

Q. What is the best day of the week?
A. The Sabbath-day.

Q. Why is it the best?
A. Because it is to be kept holy, or spent in a religious manner.

If you are looking for a tool to help the family keep the Sabbath during the afternoon, this book will serve you well. For more in-depth study, be sure to check out Boyd’s other exposition: The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Analysis, Scriptural Proofs, Explanatory and Practical Inferences, and Illustrative Anecdotes.

Three Indian Catechisms by American Presbyterian Ministers

The Reformed Faith has long been a missional faith, and America’s early Presbyterians had an interest in propagating the Gospel among the Native Americans. The first Presbyterian minister America sent as a missionary to Indians on Long Island was Rev. Azariah Horton (1715-1777).

Another early Presbyterian minister, Rev. Abraham Pierson (c. 1611-1678), composed a catechism for Algonquian Native Americans, in the Quiripi language of Connecticut and Long Island, under the title Some Helps For the Indians. The catechism was designed to show them that there was one God, and then to teach them about Gospel of Christ. It is an interesting piece, and a helpful one in understanding how Catechisms have been used to help people of every tribe and tongue to understand the Gospel of Christ. Like John Eliot’s A Primer or Catechism in the Massachusetts Indian Language (1654), Pierson’s catechism borrows much material from William Perkins’ The Foundation of Christian Religion Gathered Into Six Principles (1558).

In the 19th century, Stephen Return Riggs (1812-1883) served as a missionary to the Sioux or Dakota Indians of the Great Plains. He did much to translate the Scriptures into their language, and published a Dakota Catechism as well. His autobiography — Mary and I, or Forty Years with the Sioux — is a fascinating account of his missionary endeavors.

Additionally, Amory Nelson Chamberlin (1824-1894) is worthy of mention. In the War Between the States, Chamberlin served as a scout and quartermaster for Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee leader who fought for the Confederacy (together with his brother Buck Watie, later known as Elias Boudinot, Stand Watie had earlier written articles for The Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper). After the War, Chamberlin followed in his father’s and grandfather’s steps to become a Presbyterian missionary to the Cherokee Indians, who typically preached his sermons bilingually. After persistent requests, he received a press which used the Cherokee font (the written alphabet was developed by Sequoyah only in 1821) and he used that to publish such valuable works as The Shorter Catechism With Proofs in Cherokee (1892), and the Cherokee Pictorial Book: With Catechism and Hymns (1888), a partial PDF of which may be found at Log College Press.

Catechisms have long been a useful tool to inculcate knowledge, and these Quiripi, Dakota and Cherokee catechisms provide a window into the lengths to which American Presbyterian missionaries have gone historically to help Native Americans to better understand Scriptural truths in their own languages. For further study on 19th century American Presbyterian missionary labors on behalf of the Indians, see Michael C. Coleman, Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893.