This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017.
This post is the second in a three-part series.
“At Midday, There Is to Be Catechism”: Weekly Classes for Children in Sixteenth-Century Geneva
John Calvin provided instructions for catechesis in the same section of the ecclesiastical ordinances in which he described the frequency and locations for weekly pastoral proclamations of Scripture. He directed that each Sunday “at midday, there is to be catechism, that is, instruction of little children, in all the three churches.” The individual responsible for this instruction in each congregation was to be the pastor.
These weekly catechetical classes were designed as a distinct and separate gathering for children, and children’s attendance was not optional. “All citizens and inhabitants,” the ordinances declare, “are to bring or convey their children on Sundays at midday to catechism” to be instructed by the pastor. If children were absent from the classes, parents were to be “called before the company of the elders, and, if they will not yield to good advice, they must be reported to their lordships.” The ordinances spelled out not only the participants but also the content and the goal of the classes:
A definite formulary is to be composed by which they will be instructed, and on this, with the teaching given them, they are to be interrogated about what has been said, to see if they have listened and remembered well. When a child has been well enough instructed to pass the catechism, he is to recite solemnly the sum of what it contains, and so to make profession of his Christianity in the presence of the church.
The catechism that Calvin would compose the following year would provide the content for the curriculum, and the method of instruction would be pastoral teaching followed by the posing of questions to test children’s knowledge. Calvin’s first instructional booklet for the youth of Geneva had been a confession of faith; the catechism of 1542, however, was constructed in a question-and-answer format, following the trend that came to characterize Protestant catechesis. And so, no later than 1541, the Reformed congregations in Geneva were scheduling weekly catechetical classes, led by a pastor, for the purpose of discipling children, separate from the rest of the congregation.
“A Practice and Diligent Care of the Church that Children Be Brought Up in Christian Doctrine”: Pastoral Responsibility for Children’s Catechesis in Early Reformed Congregations
In 1547, Calvin adapted the ecclesiastical ordinances to take into account the challenges faced by churches in the rural regions surrounding Geneva. Each pastor served two congregations in these contexts. As a result, a pastor was only available every other week. The significance of the pastor’s role as a teacher of children was such that catechetical classes for children occurred only on the weeks when the pastor could be present. Adult attendance in these classes seems to have occurred only when an adult had been absent during the Sunday morning sermon or, in the case of fathers, when his child was being baptized. Even when his child was being baptized during a catechetical gathering, the father could be absent if a “legitimate excuse” was submitted to the consistory.
The training of children in Christian doctrine had always been—according to Calvin’s preface for the Geneva Catechism of 1542—part of the “practice and diligent care of the church.” In the past, parents had been encouraged to prioritize the training of their children and schools had been founded to train children “more conveniently.” However, neither the presence of schools nor the priority of parents precluded the establishment of classes that regularly and systematically separated children from the rest of the congregation for pastoral instruction at their level of understanding. What is clear from Calvin’s ecclesiastical ordinances is that, between the first edition of the Institutio in 1536 and Calvin’s return to Geneva in 1541, the Reformer’s recommendations regarding the catechesis of children grew more comprehensive and more specific with regard to the context and the content of children’s training in the church. The expectation for pastoral instruction of children expanded from occasional instruction in the context of a worship service into a systematic program for children.
In time, Calvin’s catechetical patterns would shape not only the Reformed congregations on the European continent but also the churches of the Reformation that was gaining ground in England.
This post is the second in a three-part series.
Discuss in the Comments:
To learn more about the Protestant Reformation, take a look at this video:
What was Martin Luther’s goal in seeking to reform the church? How about John Calvin’s? How might these goals have shaped perceptions and practices of children’s catechesis in sixteenth-century Europe?