Reformed Classics You Should Know: The Westminster Shorter Catechism


In every generation, one of the most critical tasks of the church is to pass on the truth of God’s Word to the next generation. This usually takes place through evangelism, adult education, and the diligent teaching of children.

In not too many years, our children will replace us as guardians of the Christian faith. Will they have a clear grasp of the truth?

Throughout its history, the church has often used a tool called ‘catechisms’ to help pass on the faith. A catechism is a booklet of questions and answers, designed to teach key doctrines. Children not only read and reflect on them, but also commit them to memory.

There was a time when catechisms were routinely used in the church and family, parents were considered the primary spiritual teachers of their children, and pastors were there to assist them. It was during the Reformation that the practice of explicitly “catechizing” children and the laity aimed toward raising up a new generation of Word-shaped people.

But catechisms have largely been abandoned in our time. Today in many churches, memorization is frowned upon, doctrinal instruction of children is out, and “edutainment” is in. We shy away from these older teaching tools. . . and to our own detriment.

In my own church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we have two catechisms—the larger and the shorter Westminster catechisms, along with a confession—The Westminster Confession of Faith, which explains what we believe. But it’s The Shorter Westminster Catechism that I want to bring to your attention. It’s a classic you should know about.

In the opinion of theologian B.B. Warfield, the Westminster Assembly left to posterity not only “the most thoroughly thought-out statement ever penned of the elements of evangelical religion,” but also one which breathes “the finest fragrance of spiritual religion.” Their most influential work, The Shorter Catechism, was intended as a an introduction to the Christian faith.

It was written in 1646-7, when the Puritans briefly captured the British Parliament, and has played a vital role in churches ever since. It was adopted by Presbyterians. But Baptists and Congregationalists also used a slightly altered version of The Shorter Catechism as well (such as The Baptist Catechism of 1677).

Perhaps the most significant example of this is The Shorter Catechism’s appearance in America’s New England Primer, America’s first school text book (used in our country from 1690-1890). Which is to say, for two hundred years, generations of Americans were shaped not only by a deeply Biblical education, but a particularly reformed Biblical education. The Primer taught generations of Americans how to read. When Benjamin Harris introduced it in 1690, he had a brilliant idea. Why not use the Bible and Christian truth to teach children to read. It sure beats the Dick and Jane books I was raised on!

Listen to this, from The New England Primer, 1843 edition “Our Puritan Fathers brought The Shorter Catechism with them across the ocean and laid it on the same shelf with the family Bible. They taught it diligently to their children. . . .If in this catechism the true and fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are expressed in fewer and better words and definitions than in any other summary, why ought we not now to train up a child in the way he should go?—why not now put him in possession of the richest treasure that ever human wisdom and industry accumulated to draw from?”

When you look at The New England Primer, one is immediately struck by how massively we have drifted as a nation in our view of law, education and the importance of the Bible.

Fortunately, this great reformed classic and helpful teaching tool is still available to us in both modern and classic editions. (The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English / The Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs)

There is even a children’s version of this aimed at kids ages 3-6th grade which can make a nice supplement to children’s Sunday school (Catechism for Young Children)

What do you find in The Shorter Catechism?
• It all begins with the magisterial statement, that the purpose of life, the chief end of everything, is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
• Its outline is shaped by the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
• It gives succinct definitions, such as Question 4: What is God?   “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
• It speaks of God’s sovereignty in describing his works of creation and providence.
• It reminds us with stark realism of the fall and its consequences–vividly describing our condition as one of “sin and misery”.
• It gives us a simple grid to interpret the entire Bible through the concept of covenants.
• It helps us understand Christ our redeemer by simply explaining his person, natures, offices, and states.
• It reviews the Spirit’s role in applying redemption and the benefits of Christ to our soul, by defining effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification.
• It spells out the duty God requires of us by explaining his moral law, the Ten Commandments.
• It tells of the saving grace of God for salvation that is offered in the gospel
• It gives basic instruction on prayer through The Lord’s Prayer.
• It details the outward means whereby Christ builds us up: the Word, prayer, and sacraments.

I did not grow up with catechisms. In fact I was wary of them. I’d never heard of The Shorter Catechism until I was in college. The way I got to know this spiritual gem was at Regent College where theologian J.I. Packer seemed to smuggle the Westminster  catechisms into most of his classes and make us memorize them! For that I am deeply grateful.

This  teaching tool added simple depth to my faith and the faith of my children and churches. It set basic outlines and definitions in mind to help build a basic Biblical and doctrinal literacy.

Like other reformed churches, this catechism is part of the Constitution of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. According to the EPC Book of Order, “The home and the church should also make special provision for instructing the children in the Bible and in the Church Catechisms. To this end Sessions should establish and conduct under their authority Sunday schools and Bible classes, and adopt such other methods as may be found helpful. The Session shall encourage the parents of the Church to guide their children in the catechizing and disciplining of them in the Christian religion.” (BOO, Chapter Four, 4-5)

I’m not sure how many Elder boards take this charge seriously. Many Presbyterian churches have lost touch with their reformed roots. But there are wonderful resources available to help us pass on the truth of God’s Word to the next generation, and this is one of them.

Whether it is The Westminster Shorter Catechism, or The Heidelberg Catechism, or even Luther’s Catechism, these are Reformation treasures that we desperately need to rediscover.

This entry was posted in church, church history, Education, Presbyterians, Reformed Classics, Theology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reformed Classics You Should Know: The Westminster Shorter Catechism

  1. Linda Graves says:

    I am still learning from you, Dr. Sweeting. Thank you for writing.

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