MY REVEREND BRETHREN:
IN one of the Rubrics appended to our matchless Catechism, it is prescribed that "The Minister of every Parish shall diligently upon Sundays and Holy Days, or on some other convenient occasions, openly in the Church, instruct or examine so many children of his Parish, sent unto him, as he shall think convenient, in some part of this Catechism." And our Church adds, a strong and decisive confirmation to this order,--if any such were needed,--in her 28th Canon concerning Parochial Instruction; where the duty of being "diligent in instructing the children in the Catechism" is enjoined, in the clearest terms, upon those clergymen "who have charge of Parishes or Cures."
Now, after hearing these plain requirements, the question will naturally arise in the minds of those whom I now address,--How happens it, that this good old custom, enforced by such authority; hallowed by antiquity; evidently fitted to produce such abundant spiritual results; and affording an opportunity such as cannot [3/4] elsewhere be found, for stamping divine truth upon the hearts of the rising generation; should have fallen, during many past years, into such general neglect? The fact of this neglect is very certain; and will be immediately and universally acknowledged. The causes by which it has been produced are various; and it will be important to give them, at the present time, a brief consideration.
One of the principal sources, to which may be traced the discontinuance of Catechetical Instruction by our Clergy, is that of the establishment of Sunday Schools. And, in mentioning these blessed institutions in connection with the evil to which your attention is now invited, I shall not be suspected, I trust, of any endeavor to lessen them in your esteem; or of losing from memory the incalculable benefits, which, through their instrumentality, have accrued to the world. They deserve to be enumerated among the most powerful auxiliaries to ministerial teaching, which the wisdom of man has devised. They come preeminently within the scope of that exquisite description of mercy, that "it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes: "for, while thousands of tender minds and hearts have been led to Christ, by the assiduous laborers in this interesting field, these laborers themselves, in the very act of communicating heavenly knowledge have received untold spiritual riches. But, when these subordinate agencies are allowed to step out of their proper position, and, ceasing to be auxiliaries to the appointed shepherd of the flock, become his substitutes, the good which they work must not blind our eyes to a great accompanying evil;--and that is, that the beneficial influence upon the lambs of the fold, with which divine Providence has invested the sacred office, is by this means [4/5] well nigh lost. That the rise and progress of Sunday Schools have contributed, in some measure, to this casting of the ministry into the shade, so far as the children of our parishes are concerned, will, I suppose, be readily admitted. Before the formation of these admirable spiritual nurseries, the parochial incumbent made it a portion of his regular duty to give instruction, at certain seasons, in the authorized Catechism of our Church. But when, in process of time, this new form of teaching began to prevail, the Clergy, finding, in their Sunday-School teachers, a band of devoted, and, in many cases, competent assistants, in the work of directing the young mind, by degrees transferred the care of their little ones from themselves to others. In some cases, the Catechism, as the authorized exponent of the great doctrines and truths of the gospel, as taught by our own Church, was wholly omitted among the prescribed studies of the school. In other cases, the ministerial head of the parish did, indeed, examine the pupils, at certain seasons, in this excellent compendium of divine knowledge: but, inasmuch as a very considerable portion of those children who attend the sanctuary, are, for various reasons, not found within the walls of the Sunday School, the benefit of such instructions was' of course, in that proportion, wholly lost. And it must be remembered, too, that in this way the blessing which others might have reaped, who were persons of adult age, was also brought to an end: for these examinations not being conducted, according to the requisition laid down, "openly in the Church," but within the precincts of a distinct and comparatively small apartment, the voice of God's authorized messenger, while it was dropping doctrine into the ear of the child, no longer [5/6] reached at the very same moment the heart and conscience of the parent. It is easy to perceive how, in this way, the admirable provision which our Church has made for "the nurture and admonition" of the younger portion of her children, became quite obsolete. The Sunday School occupied a wrong situation. Instead of being an handmaiden to the leader, it became itself the leader.
In addition to the cause which has just been assigned, as explanatory of the general neglect of instruction in the Catechism, there is another, which contributed greatly to this evil; and it is this. A growing distaste for the duty took possession of the minds of the Clergy, owing to the mechanical and vapid manner in which they had accustomed themselves to perform this interesting work. Pursuing a narrow and monotonous track, they became weary of its sameness; and hailed the delegated labors of others as a welcome relief. There are many now before me, who can undoubtedly call to memory the prevailing method, in former years, of discharging the prescribed duty of catechising children. At certain seasons of the year, the parochial clergyman assembled his little flock before the rails of the chancel. The Catechism, instead of being used as a text-book upon which to enlarge,--and as a summary of divine truth to be illustrated by copious reference to Scripture, and by variety of question and of observation,--was simply travelled over, from the beginning to the end. It was a mere system of lifeless mechanism, both on the part of the teacher, and of those who were taught. The few, short pages, were commenced, continued, and finished:--they were then commenced, continued, and finished again:--and so the stale exercise proceeded, through every successive period which [6/7] arrived for its performance. Now is it a reasonable subject of surprise, that, under such circumstances, the minister of the sanctuary should at length find this department of his labors an irksome task? The mode which he had prescribed to himself,--and which, strangely enough, he seemed to imagine as the only possible mode,--for imparting the knowledge of this little book of instruction, he found, of course, to be totally devoid of interest. It failed to awaken the attention of his youthful charge. It had no power of calling their minds into exercise. After a short time, even their memories were no longer tasked; and they uttered with their tongues an involuntary and unconscious response, to which they attached no meaning, and in which their hearts had neither lot nor part. It happened by this means, that, when the institution of Sunday Schools took place, and took for the subjects of tuition some of those children who had been thus instructed, catechising had become emphatically "the letter;" and the Clergy had proved by painful experience, that in this case "the letter killeth." They relinquished, therefore, the work which they had so long discharged, without a sigh. This branch of their duty was on the point of expiring in their hands, by a natural death; and they were well pleased to turn it over to other practitioners, who, by some more novel method of treatment, might revive what was paralyzed, and strengthen the things which were "ready to die."
But among the reasons for the decline of catechetical instruction, must also be mentioned the great increase, during recent years, of the labors of the parochial Clergy.
Among those subjects for abundant gratitude to God which present themselves to our minds, is most assuredly [7/8] that activity which, in later times, has been infused into the great body of the ministers of our beloved Church. The age of comparative repose has passed away; and a reign of new life has long since begun. A gradually growing attention to the momentous subject of religion, in the community abroad, has called forth energies in our Clergy, which, during a more indifferent state of the public mind, were not exerted. And thus an additional weight of physical and intellectual effort has been placed upon those who minister at our altars. And these exertions have been still farther augmented by the rise of various institutions, which have made heavy demands upon their time and strength; and which, established as they were for the purpose of extending the gospel, and of supplying the spiritual wants of this country, and of the world, the Clergy could not, with any color of propriety, refuse to sustain by their personal assistance. But in this way it came to pass, that, while there was an increase of labor in one direction, there was a corresponding diminution of it in another. They who had the charge of parochial cures found themselves tasked beyond their ability; and, while considering carefully to what portion of their duties they should apply the restraining hand, they naturally turned to the department of catechetical teaching. For here, from the mode in which it was generally performed, they found, as has been already observed, a want of personal interest in the work. Here, too, they found a substitute ready to assume the responsibility, in the person of the Sunday-School Superintendent, with his company of willing and well-trained instructors. In this quarter, then, they determined to relieve themselves from a portion of the burden which had been gradually accumulating [8/9] upon their shoulders: not reflecting, that, wherever else reduction might be made, wisdom, and the express authority of our Church alike required, that here, at least, there should be a continuance of the old ways. That catechising was enjoined in the clearest language, it is strange that they should have forgotten: but still more strange is it that they failed to remember, that, by dispensing with it for the purpose of lightening their toils, they parted with one of the most effectual instruments of spiritual conquest. The discontinuance of it, therefore, was similar in sagacity to the conduct of the soldier, who, under a sense of weariness in marching onward to battle, should relieve himself by casting behind him the very weapons, on which depended victory in the intended assault. And yet such was the fact. The desire, so naturally and reasonably indulged, to lessen the superincumbent weight of daily labor, led to an unwise selection of the department to be lopped away. And hence, that practice which the usage of ages had sanctioned, was, in the revolution of a few years, well nigh abolished.
I have thus traced,--correctly, as I trust,--to some of its sources, the gradual decay, for many past years, of this salutary and enjoined practice. But the question now comes home to you, my reverend brethren, with all its force,--Is not the duty of catechising an imperative obligation, laid upon you by that venerated Church whose sons you profess to be? As long as the requisition stands before us in full power, can it with propriety be evaded? On this subject there can be, among honest minds, but one opinion. Considering this, therefore, as a settled point, I would affectionately ask your attention to a few suggestions, in reference to the true method of discharging [9/10] the office under consideration;--such a method, as, by making catechetical instruction interesting to yourselves, and beneficial to the children of your cures, may cause you to work in this prescribed service with delight and with freedom.
In order to give life and interest to examinations in the Church Catechism, it is manifestly of the highest importance that, in the first place, the questions asked on these occasions should not be confined to the simple letter of the book. This compendium, admirable as it is, is yet chiefly admirable in this,--namely, that its statements are so many pregnant hints, forming the basis of oral instruction to an almost illimitable extent. When the minister of Christ, then, meets the young lambs of his flock assembled before the chancel rails, he has an opportunity, with the Catechism in his hand, for questioning them on every possible topic, which is embraced within the wide range of heavenly truth. The comprehensive treatise before him suggests inquiries on any thing, and every thing, important for a Christian man either to believe, or to practise. What a field of doctrine, for example, in which to expatiate, presents itself in the several successive articles of the Apostles' Creed! What an extensive variety of illustration in regard to practical duty, is intimated to him while proceeding, in order, through the two tables of the decalogue! What a multitudinous number of thoughts opens before him in the Lord's Prayer! How ample are the materials of instruction furnished by the succinct explanation of the Sacraments! Now all these portions of that masterly summary which our Church has given us, if skilfully drawn out,--and commented upon,--and driven home personally to the conscience,--and made the ground [10/11] of "doctrine," of "reproof," of "correction," and of "instruction in righteousness,"--will keep up a perpetual interest and animation both in the teacher, and in them that are taught. The heart and intellect of the pupils will become enlisted in the subjects before them; and he who is thus laboring to sow in the young mind the seed of life eternal, seeing that he has obtained a hold upon the objects of his care, will find the service in which he is engaged to be a service full of joy. It is very true, that, in order to put the contents of the Catechism into this edifying and attractive shape, the parochial clergyman will need diligent preparation for his work. In the effort to arrest the attention of the lambs of his flock, he will be successful only by putting forth labor at least equal to that which he exerts, while aiming after the spiritual benefit of the matured in years. But when have great results ever been achieved, except through the instrumentality of previous toil? There is no exception to this general law; and least of all in that supernatural change, by which a fallen creature is brought out of darkness into light, and from the power of Satan unto God. And if the necessary amount of thought and of study be great, contemplate also the magnitude of the blessing to be accomplished. He who does not perceive the momentous importance of this department of ministerial duty, has little of the mind that was in Christ. "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones: for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my. Father which is in heaven."
I would also suggest to you, my reverend brethren, as a means of rendering instruction in the Catechism interesting to yourselves, and profitable to the young mind, the [11/12] propriety of illustrating this compendium of truth by a constant reference to the Articles, the Liturgy, and the various Offices of our Church. The prevalent unacquaintance, in persons who have grown up to maturity, with these several portions of our Book of Common Prayer, is an evil which you must frequently have perceived and lamented; and, in the case of those who from infancy have been reared within our Communion, it is to be traced to the want of early instruction. This knowledge, if not acquired in childhood, is seldom sought after in subsequent years. And to such individuals, the volume containing our glorious standards is, consequently, a sealed book. Can we wonder, therefore, that, when some erroneous doctrine, contrary to the express teaching of our formularies, is suddenly presented to their view, they are unable to understand its merits; and are often carried away by those very delusions, which it was the great object of our "form of sound words" pointedly to condemn? Let it be the aim of the Clergy, then, to begin betimes the work of communicating the knowledge of all that our Church teaches. And here, what a field of interesting instruction opens before the parochial minister! There is not a page of the Prayer-Book, which cannot be brought in to confirm and elucidate the statements of the Catechism. Comparisons can continually be made with the supplications and praises of the daily Morning and Evening Prayer; with the Baptismal Offices; with the Communion and the Burial Service; and with those Thirty-Nine Articles, in which the English Reformers have declared, with such consummate moderation, simplicity, and skill, the system of scriptural truth. Children will, in this way, not only be [12/13] interested to an uncommon degree, but they will grow up with an enlightened view of what our Service Book contains. They will see in it, not a series of forms, of whose meaning they have no intelligent perception, but a distinct embodying of the great truths of the corruption of man,--of his salvation by the merits of the crucified Son of God,--of the necessity of repentance and faith, through the operation of the Holy Spirit,--of the importance of good works, as fruits acceptable to God, and growing out of a true belief,--of the nature and perpetual obligation of the two divinely appointed Sacraments,--and of that final day of account, when He who suffered for us on the earth shall come to judge us amidst the clouds of heaven. It is certainly not too much to say,--for experience warrants the declaration,--that the young of our various parishes will become, under this species of discipline, so many libraries of well-digested truth. They will have clear views of the great scheme of human redemption. On arriving at mature years, they will be members of our Church of whom we need not be ashamed; "instructed unto the kingdom of heaven;" "ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh them a reason of the hope that is in them, with meekness and fear."
Above all, however, let it not be forgotten, that, in order to make catechising interesting and useful, the attention of children must constantly be turned to Scripture, in proof of the several statements presented to them on the pages of the Catechism. The propriety of this course must be at once evident. It is recommended mainly by the consideration, that the declarations of doctrine contained in the Catechism appeal with no force to the young mind, except so far as they are borne out by the testimony of God's word. If [13/14] you would urge with authority what is set forth in this little book of instruction, you must show that it has drawn its assertions from the living oracles of inspiration. And, besides this, how desirable is it that the rising generation should grow up with the certainty, derived from actual examination, that our Church is a scriptural Church! She challenges, as you know, comparison with Holy Writ, in regard to all that she declares. Her Sixth Article invites such proof in the fullest manner; and even of the Nicene and the Apostles' Creed she affirms, in her Eighth Article, that they "ought thoroughly to be received and believed, for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture." Upon this ground, then, let your young catechumens be taught to search the sacred Volume; namely, that, by turning their attention thither, you will bring them to the conviction, that the standards in which they are instructed are not the inventions of men, but the words of heavenly truth and wisdom. But, more than all this,--if you would make catechising an instrument of spiritual blessing, you can only accomplish this wish by making Scripture the basis of all your teaching. It is by imbuing the mind, in early years, with the doctrines of that blessed book, that you will reach the conscience, and change the heart, and awaken to the love of Christ. And, by thus benefiting the youthful objects of your care, and seeing visible results of your labors in the interest which is excited, you will find this duty its own reward. You will experience, in this part of your ministerial exertions, one of your purest and holiest pleasures. For you will behold the children of your several flocks steadily advancing in that path, by which at length they shall "all come in the unity of the faith, and of the [14/15] knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."
In these suggestions which I have made, as to a profitable and interesting mode of discharging the duty of catechetical instruction, I feel that there may be many before me to whom they are altogether superfluous; and who, in their particular sphere of parochial labor, have efficiently carried out the plan now recommended to your adoption. Allow me to offer to such, and to all of you, my brethren of the Clergy, a few concluding words of encouragement; by the due consideration of which you may be carried onward, with spirit and life, in this work of love.
Let it be well weighed, then, as a stimulus to this duty of catechising children, that every minister of Christ who diligently puts it into practice is thereby saving himself many a sigh, and groan, and tear, which would otherwise be his lot, in subsequent days, at the sight of an unimpressed and worldly flock. To impress the doctrines of the blessed gospel upon the young mind, is to take the easy and the probable mode of achieving that dominion over the corrupt heart, which a delay until future years will make difficult of attainment. I admit fully, that to change the nature even of a child is a supernatural operation, and can only be accomplished by the holy Spirit of God. But it is evident that, in the dawning period of human life, the obstacles which resist this gracious Visitant are comparatively few. The contaminating influence of the world has not yet hardened the soul. Habits of neglect of things unseen and eternal have not been formed. That mass of evil which, with those who have grown up into manhood, must first be cleared away, before the Holy Ghost can enter into the "swept and [15/16] garnished" chamber of the inner man, has, in the present case, no existence. And, accordingly, he who bestows assiduous labor upon the objects of his ministry, while they are in the spring-time of their being, is working with every advantage that his heart could possibly desire. Let the Lord's husbandman neglect this pliable season, and what is the consequence? Every year that passes away has thickened that incrustation of worldliness and insensibility, which must be broken, before the Lord Jesus Christ can go in and reign, with sovereign sway, over the hearts of his creatures. A deadness has gradually crept over the conscience. The soul has become steeled against the claims and the appeals of Him that died upon the tree. Neither the persuasions of the gospel, nor the terrors of a judgment to come, produce any deep emotion. And the herald of good news to men, as he looks round upon the attendants on his ministrations, is compelled to weep over the prospect; and, in the discouragement of his spirit, to cry, "Who hath believed our report? and unto whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" If you would avoid, then, as far as in you lies, this melancholy condition of things, lay out a large portion of your strength upon the lambs of the fold. Excite their interest by the use of that effectual system of examination, which our Church has so wisely provided;--a system which brings truth home to the mind, with a directness which cannot be escaped;--a system, "the secret of whose good," says George Herbert, "consists in this, that at sermons and prayers men may sleep or wander; but when one is asked a question, he must discover what he is." The spirits thus trained will well reward your pains. They will receive those impressions, which will lead them, in due season, to a sincere [16/17] and joyful profession of Christ, as their "wisdom," and "righteousness," and everlasting "redemption."
To the consideration just offered, by way of encouragement to perseverance in catechetical teaching, may be added another; and that is, that the youth of this country hear so little of religion in the course of their daily education, that the ministry are called to double diligence in thus remedying the evil. For what is the maxim which now prevails over the land? The child,--we are told,is not to be fettered by any religious bias in his opening years; but is rather to be left free upon this subject, until, having arrived at the age of discretion, he shall, be qualified to choose or to reject for himself. Now what is this but a practical defiance of that inspired counsel which says,--"Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it?" Nay more,--does not the course to which I have alluded proceed virtually upon the blasphemous assumption, that Christianity is a disputable and open question; and must, accordingly, be decided in mature years by every man for himself? But, since such, lamentably enough, is the fashionable doctrine of these relaxed times,--and since the effect of this doctrine is to leave our youth, amidst the richest abundance of human knowledge, wholly destitute of that knowledge which maketh "wise unto salvation,"--how loud is the summons addressed by such surrounding negligence to the "stewards of the mysteries of God!" Be it your part, my reverend brethren, to look with an affectionate and ever wakeful eye, upon these young subjects of your pastoral care. Imbue them with the savor of the precious gospel of Christ. Communicate to them, at this propitious period of their existence, that wisdom in [17/18] things divine, and those scriptural associations, which will be their preparation for the heavenly world. You will thus do something, at least, towards making them the salt of the community, instead of the corrupters of their generation; and, above all, will train them for a more enduring and exalted citizenship in "the kingdom of heaven."
My brethren of the Clergy, how glorious is the part which God has given you to perform! Go forth into the field. Sow the precious seed. Labor without weariness. Rely, for your encouragement, upon the everlasting promises of the great Lord of the harvest. In due time you shall gather in your sheaves with joy. And not only shall your efforts be recompensed; but to yourselves the assurance has been spoken,--"They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever."