Shorter Catechism Boys

In 1910, B.B. Warfield wrote, 1

It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.’

Warfield knew that learning the Shorter Catechism wasn’t easy. “The Shorter Catechism is, perhaps, not very easy to learn. And very certainly it will not teach itself. Its framers were less careful to make it easy than to make it good.” He goes on:

We think, nevertheless, that the acquisition of arithmetic, grammar and reading is worth the pains its costs the teacher to teach, and the pain it costs the learner to learn them. Do we not think the acquisition of the grounds of religion worth some effort, and even, if need be, some tears?

Tim Challies’ recent tweet got me thinking about examples of these shorter catechism boys.

Here are five examples: (1) John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, (2) Charles Hodge, professor of thousands of pastors, (3) B. B. Warfield, great defender of biblical Christianity, (4) J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Seminary (5) my grandfather Joe Hopper, missionary church planter in rural Korea.

John Newton (1725–1807)

John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace and “perhaps the greatest pastoral letter-writer of all time” (J.I. Packer), wrote of his upbringing:

My mother was a Dissenter, a pious woman, and a member of the late Dr. Jenning’s church. She was of a weak, consumptive habit, and loved retirement; and as I was her only child, she made it the chief business and pleasure of her life to instruct me, and bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Have been told that from my birth she had, in her mind, devoted me to the ministry; and that, had she lived till I was of a proper age, I was to have been sent to St. Andrews, in Scotland, to be educated. But the Lord had appointed otherwise.

I was rather of a sedentary turn, not active and playful, as boys commonly are, but seemed as willing to learn as my mother was to teach me. I had some capacity, and a retentive memory. When I was 4 years old, I could read (hard names excepted) as well as I can now; and could likewise repeat the answers to the questions in the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, with the proofs, and all Dr. Watt’s smaller Catechisms, and his Children’s Hymns.

Newton’s pastoral theology was greatly shaped by his rich heritage. Pastor Tim Keller accurately describes Newton’s rich letters:

Newton was able to take the great theological doctrines of the faith and apply them to the needs of friends, parishioners, even strangers who wrote for advice. In his letters he is often blunt, yet always tender. He is remarkably humble and open about his own flaws, but never in a cloying or self-absorbed manner. He is therefore able to point others to the grace of Christ on which he himself clearly depends

Charles Hodge (1797–1878)

Charles Hodge taught at Princeton Seminary from 1820 to 1878. During that time, around 3,000 men who would go on to become gospel ministers sat under his instruction. Countless more have benefited from his magisterial 3 volume Systematic Theology.

The great love for Christ and His Word that shaped Hodge’s life and teaching started long before his days at Princeton. He would write, “To our mother, my brother and myself, under God owe absolutely everything. To us she devoted her life. For us she prayed, labored, and suffered. Our mother was a Christian … [she] carefully drilled us in the Westminster Confession."2

Hodge biographer Paul Gutjahr wrote,3

Learning and reciting the catechism was an intensely religious ordeal, but those who had mastered it in their youth often proudly recited its contents well into old age. It was a highly formalized and structured way of teaching that Presbyterians made great use of throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Hodge learned his lessons well, and the doctrines he memorized as a boy provided the foundation for the theological views he held his entire life.

Stuart Robinson (1814–1881)

In Southern Presbyterian leaders, Henry White writes of Stuart Robinson:

Among the Scots of North Ireland, in the month of November, 1814, Stuart Robinson was born. Soon after this event, his father, a linen merchant, brought the family across the Atlantic and established a home in the lower part of the Valley of Virginia. There, not far from the Potomac River, Stuart’s boyhood was spent.

Every Sunday for several years he walked six miles to Falling Water Church to receive instruction in the Sunday-school which his own mother organized and there to listen to the words of grace that fell from the lips of the pastor, one of the most effective preachers of that day, John Blair Hoge. During the week, under the mother’s guidance, he stored up in his memory the words of the catechism and various selections from the Bible.

Robinson would go on to pastor many churches, including Second Presbyterian Church in Louisville and Central Presbyterian Church in Maryland; he trained men for gospel ministry at Danville Theological Seminary in Kentucky. In 1869, he would serve as moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the United States General Assembly. His lasting legacy is in his writings. The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel by Stuart Robinson articulately defends the doctrine of the church as an outworking of Jesus Christ’s kingship over his people. His Discourses of Redemption outline the story of God’s covenants with His people in a proto-Vossian fashion.

B.B. Warfield (1851–1921)

B.B. Warfield would teach at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. He was the last great theologian at Princeton before its decline into theological liberalism. R.C. Sproul has said that “Warfield is second only to Jonathan Edwards as America’s greatest theologian.”

Like these other men, Warfield’s theological formation started in his home. Fred Zaspel quotes Warfield’s younger brother Ethelbert:

Youthful objects had little effect in a household where the shorter catechism was ordinarily completed in the sixth year, followed at once by the proofs from the Scriptures, and then by the larger catechism, with an appropriate amount of Scripture memorized in regular course each Sabbath afternoon.

Warfield would go on to devote his life to defending those Scriptures and the Christ of Scripture.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937)

In the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the early 20th century, Machen was a stalwart defender of the truth. Late in his life, Machen said that from his parents he “learned what Christianity is and how it differs from certain modern substitutes."4

Of his education he wrote:

In Baltimore I attended a good private school. It was purely secular; and in it I learned nothing about the Bible or the great things of our Christian faith. But I did not need to learn about those things in any school; for I learned them from my mother at home. That was the best school of all; and in it, without any merit of my own, I will venture to say that I had acquired a better knowledge of the contents of the Bible at twelve years of age than is possessed by many theological students of the present day. The Shorter Catechism was not omitted. I repeated it perfectly, questions and answers, at a very tender age; and the divine revelation of which it is so glorious a summary was stored up in my mind and heart.4

In his memoir of Machen, Ned Stonehouse quotes from a letter young Machen wrote to his mother while she was away5:

Arly [brother Arthur] desected a beetle, and let me see him do it, and I like it verry much. I have finished Mathu, and nearly finished Mark, and then I am going to begin at the very beginning of the whole bible. Any said over his cattercisum, and made only one mistake. It seems to me that on sunday I can never get a nuf off my cattercisum. I like it so much and Poply always heres me on sunday, and some tims in the week.

You know that little book I told you about in my other letter, and read sum in efry morning, and I learn one of the little verses by hart, and then I find out where they are in the bible, and Carry looks them out in the revised vershun and I like it verry much and do it very often. It seems to me that sundays get nicer and nicer becous Poply reads me in pilgrime progres and hears me my cattercisum, and I like it very much. I like to play hook and lader verry much and bild up houses and play that they gech on fire and I like it verry much and do it verry much. I read in that little book so much that I forget to tar of my calnder I like it so much.

Stonehouse concluded5:

In mature life Machen often paid tribute to the instruction in the Bible that he received at his mother’s knee. At twelve years of age his knowledge of its contents, including the names and character of all the kings of Israel and Judah, he later observed, surpassed that of the average theological student of his day. There was, moreover, careful instruction in the Westminster Shorter Catechism and a commitment to memory of questions and answers. To this he later attributed, to a significant degree, his love of the noble tradition of the Reformed Faith as expressed in its classic symbols as over against the meager skeletal creeds of a mere “Fundamentalism.”

Joseph Hopper (1921–1992)

My grandfather served the Lord as a PCUS missionary to Korea for 38 years (1948-1986). He was reared a missionary kid in Korea where his also served the PCUS. In his memoir, he recounts his parents’ faithful instruction in the home:

We always had daily prayers in our home. They were usually held at the breakfast table with read of a chapter of Hubert’s Bible Story Book and prayer. If Father was home, he was the leader, but when he was away, Mother took his place. When morning school work began, we were required to memorized some verses of Scripture and the answers in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I still have the diploma given by the Christian Observer for reciting the Shorter Catechism in April 1932 when I was less than eleven years old. As was the custom, I wrote a letter to the editor which was printed, as follows:

Dear Mr. Converse:

I am a boy of eleven years old. I have recited the Shorter Catechism to my mother. Please put my name on the Roll of Honor and send me a diploma. Father is a missionary in Korea. …

Your little friend, Joseph Barron Hopper

My great grandmother was reared in a Associate Reformed Presbyterian home outside of Rock Hill, SC. My grandfather wrote specifically of his mother’s instruction:

She was a thorough and strict teacher but a good one… and along with the three “Rs” we were taught the Bible from beginning to end, memorizing many chapters, and also the Westminster Shorter catechism… by far the best theological training I ever received.

At age 12, my grandfather went before the provisional session (elder board) of missionaries to be examined for communicant membership:

My two-hour examination for church membership was held in the Reynolds’ cabin which was next door to ours. The “session” was composed of Dr. W D. Reynolds, Th.D, Dr. S. Dwight Winn, Th.D, Dr. Joseph Hopper, Th.D., and Rev. E. T Boyer. I replied to many of the questions with the appropriate answer from the Shorter Catechism, which pleased these church fathers immensely. Afterwards Father remarked to me, “Joe, I have seen many a candidate for the ministry ordained with less examination than you received!”

I thank God for my great-grandparents’ faithfulness. My grandfather and grandmother went on to raise four children in the Lord who would raise their own children in the Lord.

Do you know of any other great Shorter Catechism boys or girls? Please share about them in a comment below.

  1. I commend Warfield’s Is the Shorter Catechism Worthwhile? wholeheartedly. ↩︎

  2. Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton by Andrew Hoffecker ↩︎

  3. Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy ↩︎

  4. Christianity in Conflict by J. Gresham Machen ↩︎

  5. J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. A free ebook version is available here. ↩︎