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The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England, c.1530-1740.

By Ian Green. Pp. xiv + 767. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. ISBN 0 19 820617 8. 70 [pounds sterling]

For several decades historians of early modern English religion have been shifting their attention away from what the churches taught to what the English people may have believed. But it is only now with the publication of Dr Green's monumental and admirable study of catechizing and catechisms that the most obvious point of contact between clerical teaching and popular belief has been properly investigated. Green shows that the rudimentary Christian instruction to which the English were exposed was simple, uncontentious and far from partisan. Calvinist, puritan, Arminian, Nonconformist--those labels of distinction which are so essential to modern church histories--are simply not appropriate to the medium or the message of the early modern catechist. Such conclusions converge with those of other historians working on popular piety as seen in the `cheap print' of ballads and chapbooks. To their findings Dr Green now adds a particularly powerful argument that the presentation of catechisms was progressively simplified across these centuries in an attempt to win over the masses. This reinforces a growing conviction that media like catechisms and godly tracts were effective in spreading their message, but that their message was barely `Protestant'--indeed, Dr Watt has dubbed this a `post-Reformation' rather than a Protestant religious culture.

Yet to begin a review with Dr Green's contribution to on-going academic speculation is, in a way, to misrepresent his project. In an era when so much scholarship is based on polemic or wilful interpretation, it is chastening to encounter a book which began in curiosity and which seeks principally to report what the curious historian has found. Dr Green wanted to know what the parish clergy of the Stuart church actually taught. What he has found out will eventually fill three volumes: one on religious instruction in the period; another on print, especially bibles, prayer books, and psalters; and the present long book which itself falls into three parts. Much of its length is due to the final part (pp. 571-151), a finding list of English catechisms produced, used or recommended between c. 1530 and 1740. It is this bibliography which underpins the whole enterprise. It is the quantity and chronological distribution of these works, and of course what they have to say about the theory and practice of catechizing, which informs the book's first part on the medium of catechizing. Part two elicits the `message' of the catechisms from a sample of fifty-nine popular and influential works which are listed separately in an appendix.

The bibliographical research was in the author's words `a process of serendipity' (p. 574), and he calls his list `provisional', inviting further references from his readers and even foreseeing the need for a supplementary list. But this authorial humility should not disguise the labour and the skill involved. The difficulties of identification--who, for example, was to know from the title in some library catalogue that T. T.'s A handfull of goates-haire (1616) was a beginner's catechism--are only matched by the perplexities of defining rules for inclusion. Dr Green guides the reader expertly through these mysteries, explaining how and why he reached his decisions. The resulting list will be invaluable to researchers in many fields, not least because it offers advice on the locations of copies and even guidance on their content; those who browse the list will also enjoy some of its lighter inclusions such as Handsome F-ng's catechism (1706) `written by a club of bullies and misses'.

On the foundation of this accumulated reading, Dr Green builds an exhaustive account of catechizing. He shows that this is a series of activities and he teases out answers to questions about where and when it took place, with whom and for how long, and he explores the different views of catechists on a range of practical issues. For all the reformers' enthusiastic claims that question-and-answer catechizing was both scriptural and a practice of the ancient church, Dr Green demonstrates that it was in fact a sixteenth-century innovation and an import to England from the continental Reformation. He ranges far and wide in search of evidence of the practice of catechizing and makes particularly effective use of the clerical replies to the episcopal questionnaires of the early eighteenth century. In the process we gain a clear picture of pastoral practicalities; we glimpse hard-headed ministers juggling with the demands of work, the seasons, the weather and distance, and re-scheduling catechism class from a crowded Sunday to a weekday or composing their own form of the catechism to meet the capabilities of their flock. Two important trends seem to stand out from the detail: most younger children were exposed to catechizing for at least a few months, but only the minority who went on beyond primary schooling or who lived in godly households were catechized for any length of time or at an advanced level; and there seems to have been a general decline in the time and effort put into elementary catechizing by clergy and laity across the period. Beyond that, Dr Green will only conclude that there was `moderately frequent, moderately conscientious catechizing in early modern England' (p. 2) or `that there are grounds for cautious optimism in surveying catechizing in early modern schools' (p. 171). To those who find such statements a little bland, one can only reply that these are the only generalizations such careful scholarship dealing with such a long period will permit.

The book's second part, on the catechisms' `message' or doctrinal content, follows the structure of the catechism with chapters on the creed, the decalogue, the Lord's Prayer and the sacraments, and further chapters on predestination and soteriology. The material is drawn from fifty-nine catechisms--just under 10% of those in print--which vary in length, complexity, and intended audience, and range from works by Calvin and the Heidelberg divines to those of the Baptist Keach and the Independent Wells. This sample has been selected on the criteria of `popularity and potential influence' (p. 289). This mixture of best- and steady-sellers shared much common ground. They avoided contention and contentious issues. For example, despite all the heated debates at Dort and Lambeth, and among historians since, about predestination, only six of these fifty-nine catechisms included explicit statements about the decrees of predestination. Admittedly all of these six statements differ from each other and Dr Green is at pains to expound them and to stress their variety. These chapters contain much that is thought-provoking about catechisms themselves, such as the sequence of the elements within the catechism, the use of the first person singular, and the almost inevitable pastoral presumption that the catechumen is a potential saint; but there is also a great deal of wider relevance about subjects as varied as the ordo salutis or the obligation of the sabbath. Differences of emphasis or interpretation are never glossed over, but the author's constant theme is one of continuity and convergence between the different wings and denominations of Protestantism.

This is, of course, to be expected of catechetical teaching. And Dr Green uses the quotidian message of the catechists to cast a different light on the specific arguments of a host of modern scholars including Tyacke, McGee, and Parker, and to suggest that many broad interpretations of the period--including that hazarded by the present reviewer--contain a hint, but only a hint, of truth. He is not, of course, denying significant theological differences between denominations or even wings within the church, but he is making a strong argument that these differences were the concern of only the very few who had progressed beyond the dame school and The Christian's ABC. This is to raise large questions about the penetration of Calvinism, the appeal of Protestantism and even the very success of the Reformation in England. At this point the composition of the sample of fifty-nine catechisms becomes crucial. Judging popularity by the number of editions, and the decision to treat all in the sample as of equal significance, are perhaps more debatable procedures than the author allows, but this reviewer found it difficult to offer any alternative way of managing and assessing such heterogeneous material. Indeed, as so often, the author is his own best critic. Several passages suggest further avenues of inquiry, including surely the most important one of exploring how the catechetical message was developed, amplified, or even thwarted by the other great religious mass media, the sermon and the liturgy.

It is devoutly to be hoped that Dr Green fulfils his intention and produces further discussion of these and other issues in his next two volumes. Few, if any, scholars can be so well equipped for the task. He writes in a clear and leisurely prose, with points enumerated and lucidly explained; chapters eight and nine are particularly sane and judicious expositions of difficult theological debates. Henceforth it will be worth looking up most theological issues in one's copy of `Green on the Catechism' for a thumbnail sketch and in many cases for a substantial discussion. Yet it must be said that the index, while doing its job, is far from detailed; it does, however, contain some nice (and pointed?) entries like `millenarianism, dearth of in sample...'. It also seems to be cutting corners to omit a bibliography of secondary literature, but in general the Oxford University Press are to be congratulated on producing a handsome volume with an exceptionally high level of typographical accuracy. For once one cannot begrudge the price asked--perhaps that of two standard monographs--for what will be an enduring work of reference, enlightenment, and stimulation.
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Author:Spurr, John
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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