One of the arguments that Hardshells also make against Sunday Schools, besides the one that says they are wrong because not specifically mentioned in Scripture, is to say that they are a new thing among Baptists. But, how do they know this? Further, though some Baptists, and other denominations, did not have Sunday Schools, as we have them now, in the centuries before the 19th, yet they did have Bible classes and other methods for instructing the young and the ignorant. Catechisms once did the work of the Sunday School. But, before we notice the Old Baptist use of chatechisms, before the Sunday School phenomenon, let us consider how the early church involved herself in Christian education.
In the book "Exploring the History & Philosophy of Christian Education: Principles for the 21st Century," by Michael J. Anthony and Warren S. Benson, the authors wrote the following about Christian education in the early church: (see here)
"The apostles' teachings continued to establish and strengthen the church body. As new believers were added to the church, some systematic form of instruction was necessary to ensure authenticity of faith and consistency in practice. People with the gift of teaching and shepherding took the lead in providing this training." (pg. 107)
The church has always seen the need for instructing men, women, and children in the Christian faith and special classes for this purpose have been a part of the church from the earliest ages. Yes, sermons by the clergy were instructive, but the church was not limited to this method. When one considers the fact that Hardshell churches have typically met only once or twice per month for most their history, one or two sermons per month is hardly adequate for instructing people systematically in the Christian faith.
Notice that the authors of the above work not only speak of the early church providing "some systematic form of instruction," but also used "people with the gift of teaching," and this was not limited to members of the clergy.
The authors say further:
"The words catechism and catechumen are derived from the Greek workd that is translated "instruct." They occur in the New Testament seven times (Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25; 21:21, 24; Rom. 2:18; I Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6). These passages reveal the systematic nature of the instruction that was provided as preparation for accepting the new convert into fellowship. The period of preparation lasted two to three years and was comprised of three distinct levels. Those in the first level were called hearers because they were allowed to listen to the reading of the Scriptures and to sermons in the church service. They also received instruction in the basic tenets of the faith. Those at the second level were referred to as kneelers because they remained for corporate prayer after the hearers were dismissed from class. They received more detailed instruction in matters pertaining to living the Christian life. Finally, the chosen were people who received intensive training in doctrines and church liturgy and were prepared to receive baptism." (pg. 108)
Notice that the instruction given in the early church was structured, providing "levels" for the various students. Is this not what is done in modern Sunday Schools?
The authors also wrote:
"Eventually, a learned generation of believers recognized the value of educating their children. Heretical philosophies of Greek and Roman origin began to creep into the church and required an educated and rational response. Scholarly preparation in the literature and the philosophical teachings of ancient Greece and Rome put one at par in a rhetorical debate. Soon, believers began attending schools where they could be taught sound biblical doctrine integrated with the seven liberal arts. The result was a powerful defense of the faith among the learned class...The educational institutions that prepared these learned Christian leaders were known as catechetical schools." (pg. 110)
These remarks show that the idea of having schools and Bible classes was a practice of the early church and so the assertion that such is a new phenomenon in the church is an error. There is practically very little difference in the early church's "catechetical schools" and Sunday Schools.
The authors also wrote about educational practices during the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, the above authors refer to a group of Christians in the Netherlands who were called the Brethren of the Common Life. It is said that this "movement spread across the Netherlands, Europe, and eventually to North America itself." (pg. 169) "One book that has survived, the Imitation of Christ, attributed to Thomas a Kempis, reveals the heart of the movement." (pg. 170) "Erasmus's (the famous opponent of Luther - SG) early training was in the school of the Brethren of the Common Life at the famous church school at Deventer." (pg. 173)
Concerning these Christians, the authors say:
"They sought to influence the church and society as a whole through their unique curriculum and instructional methodologies. Their curriculum emphasized Bible study in the vernacular so people could form their own understanding of a passage's meanings and applications." (ibid) And that "They initiated a different means of dividing the class. The grade plan taught students in smaller groups according to the students' levels of progress. These and other innovations were responsible for radical educational reforms in schools across Europe." (Ibid)
How can it be claimed by the Hardshells that Sunday Schools, in the early 19th century, were an entirely new thing?
Tom Nettles, Baptist history professor at Southern Baptist theological seminary, wrote:
"Although literally hundreds of catechisms were produced in English in the seventeenth century, the most influential catechisms were those that arose from the Westminster Assembly, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Shorter Catechism especially influenced Baptist life, as it formed the basis for Keach's (or The Baptist) Catechism and subsequently Spurgeon's Catechism. In America, the Philadelphia Association catechism and the Charleston Association catechism were duplicates of Keach's catechism. Richard Furman used it faithfully and effectively."
He says further:
"Several principles appeared to govern the theory of catechisms. One, many catechist believed that catechisms of different levels should be produced. Luther had published two as did the Scottish divine Craig and the Puritan John Owen (Two Short Catechisms). Richard Baxter had three, suited for childhood, youth, and mature age. The Westminster Assembly's two catechisms are will known. Henry Jessey, another of the leading early Baptists, had three catechisms, all bound together, one of which contained only four questions: What man was, is, may be, and must be. John A. Broadus includes sections of "advanced questions" at the end of each respective section in the body of his catechism. This graduated difficulty in catechism rests on the theory that the earlier the stamping on the mind, the more indelible the result."
This testimony simply shows that the Baptist Church, along with other Puritan groups, believed in the church's mission to educate people in the Christian religion. The method employed by our Old Baptist forefathers of the 17th century was to instruct people by the use of catechisms and these catechisms recognized various levels of instruction. This is what the Sunday School does.
Nettles also wrote:
"Two, exact memory is generally considered important. The power of words to substantiate reality enforces the necessity of some precision at this point. "I serve a precise God," said Richard Rogers. Luther instructed those teaching the Small Catechism "to avoid changes or variation in the text and wording." We should teach these things, he continued, "in such a way that we do not alter a single syllable or recite the catechism differently from year to year."
"Exact head knowledge, however, is obviously not the end of catechetical instruction. Rather, catechizing aims ultimately at the eyes of understanding, heart knowledge. Even in the Westminster Assembly some were concerned that "people will come to learn things by rote, and answer it as a parrot but not understand the thing." The design of the catechism is, under God, to chase the darkness from a sinner's understanding, so that he may be enlightened in the knowledge of Christ and freely embrace him in forgiveness of sin. John Bunyan specifically wrote his catechism, "Instruction for the Ignorant," that God might bless it to the awakening of many sinners, and the salvation of their souls by faith in Jesus Christ. The major purpose of Henry Jessey's "Catechism for Babes" was to give instruction concerning how God could forgive those who "deserve death, and God's curse," and could still "be honoured in thus forgiving, naughty ones as we are."
With this testimony, how can Hardshells claim that instructing varying groups in a class setting is entirely new? John Bunyan was a Baptist. Also, though the Black Rockers thought it an error to expect conversions to occur from Bible classes and tracts, Bunyan felt differently.
Nettles also wrote:
"Henry Fish, an American Baptist, screwed in tightly the application of each section of his catechism by a poignant rhetorical question sealing discussion of each doctrine. For example, "Are you a believer, or does the wrath of God abide on you for unbelief?"
A catechism written by the English Baptist John Sutcliffe pinpoints this same concern as the goal of catechetical instruction.
Q. To conclude: what do you learn from the catechism you have now been repeating? A. I learn that the affairs of my soul are of the greatest importance, and ought to employ my chief concern."
Again, the purpose of Bible teaching is to bring about the conversion of sinners, something the Hyper Calvinist Black Rockers thought was blasphemous.
"A charming reminiscence of one of the children Furman catechized gives a clear picture of the importance he attached to this process and these doctrines. A 1926 edition of In Royal Service quotes the remembrance a grandchild had of her grandmother's experience under Furman."
We had no Sabbath school then, but we had the Baptist Catechism, with which we were as familiar as with the Lord's Prayer. At our quarterly seasons, we children of the congregation repeated the Baptist Catechism standing, in a circle round the font. We numbered from sixty to a hundred. The girls standing at the south of the pulpit, the boys meeting them in the center from the north, Dr. Furman would, in his majestic, winning manner, walk down the pulpit steps and with book in hand, commence asking questions, beginning with the little ones (very small indeed some were, but well taught and drilled at home). We had to memorize the whole book, for none knew which question would fall to them. I think I hear at this very moment the dear voice of our pastor saying, "A little louder, my child," and then the trembling, sweet voice would be raised a little too loud. It was a marvel to visitors on these occasions, the wonderful self-possession and accuracy manifested by the whole class. This practice was of incalculable benefit, for when it pleased God to change our hearts, and when offering ourselves to the church for membership, we knew what the church doctrines meant and were quite familiar with answering questions before the whole congregation, and did not quake when pastor or deacon or anyone else asked what we understood by Baptism, the Lord's Supper, Justification, Adoption, Sanctification. Oh, no; we had been well taught...What a pity that such a course of instruction has been abandoned."
Furman was a leading Baptist and followed that practice of the early American Baptists in teaching the young to memorize and study the catechism.
"John A. Broadus felt the same tension when writing his "Catechism of Bible Teaching." Reflecting on finishing Lesson 1 entitled "God," Broadus said, "It is, of course, an extremely difficult task to make questions and answers about the existence and attributes of the Divine Being, that shall be intelligible to children, adequate as the foundation for future thinking, and correct as far as they go." Those three guidelines should serve well to judge any catechism."
This shows that the early Baptists, prior to the rise of the Hardshells, believed in giving special instruction to the young through the means of special classes to learn the Baptist catechism.
"Baptist catechisms have existed virtually since the appearance of modern-day Baptists in the seventeenth century. Typical of early Baptist commitment to catechizing is an admonition that appears in the circular letter of 1777 from the Baptist ministers and messengers assembled at Oakham in Rutlandshire, England."
Again, if if be allowed that the use of catechisms showed that our Baptist forefathers believed in giving special teaching to the young and ignorant, then this shows that the Sunday School is but an outgrowth of this practice.
"Our confession of faith and our catechism for the instruction of our young people, are published to the world; and from these glorious principles we hope you will never depart...At present, blessed be God, we believe there is no apparent apostasy in our ministers and people from the glorious principles we profess; but, at the same time, we must in great plainness and faithfulness tell you, that catechizing of children is most sadly neglected, both in private families and in public congregations."
Sunday Schools, if properly conducted, are in keeping with the historical practice of the early church and of our Old Baptist forefathers in conducting catechism schools and classes.
"Our honoured brethren, the ministers at Bristol, have lately encouraged the publication of two editions of our catechism,...and we do most earnestly entreat you to furnish yourselves with this excellent compendium of true divinity, and that you would teach it diligently to your children in private, and desire your pastors to instruct them, at least for the summer season, in public."
("An Encouragement to Use Catechisms" - see here)
Our Baptist forefathers encouraged parents to teach the Baptist catechism to their children, but they also had special classes for these young people to learn the catechism and the teachings of the Bible.
In an article titled "The Lost Art Of Catechesis It's a tried and true way of teaching, among other things, Christian doctrine," J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett - see here) wrote:
"Historically, the church's ministry of grounding new believers in the rudiments of Christianity has been known as catechesis—the growing of God's people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight. It is a ministry that has waxed and waned through the centuries. It flourished between the second and fifth centuries in the ancient church. Those who became Christians often moved into the faith from radically different worldviews. The churches rightly sought to ensure that these life-revolutions were processed carefully, prayerfully, and intentionally, with thorough understanding at each stage."
If catechetical schools are so similar to Sunday schools, and they are, then the argument that Sunday schools are new is a falsehood.
The authors continue:
"With the tightening of the alignment between church and state in the West, combined with the impact of the Dark Ages, the ministry of catechesis floundered. The Reformers, led by heavyweights Luther and Calvin, sought with great resolve to reverse matters. Luther restored the office of catechist to the churches. And seizing upon the providential invention of the printing press, Luther, Calvin, and others made every effort to print and distribute catechisms—small handbooks to instruct children and "the simple" in the essentials of Christian belief, prayer, worship, and behavior (like the Westminster Shorter Catechism). Catechisms of greater depth were produced for Christian adults and leaders (like Luther's Larger Catechism). Furthermore, entire congregations were instructed through unapologetically catechetical preaching and the regular catechizing of children in Sunday worship."
These words show that both tract ministries and classes for Bible instruction are not new but in keeping with the practice of our Christian forefathers.
The authors continue:
"The conviction of the Reformers that such catechetical work must be primary is unmistakable. Calvin, writing in 1548 to the Lord Protector of England, declared, "Believe me, Monseigneur, the church of God will never be preserved without catechesis." The Church of Rome, responding to the growing influence of the Protestant catechisms, soon began to produce its own. The rigorous work of nurturing believers and converts in the faith once for all delivered to the saints, a didactic discipline largely lost for most of the previous millennium, had become normative again for both Catholics and Protestants."
Again, special instruction for the young and for new converts, as well as for those ignorant of the Christian faith, are not new.
The authors continue:
"The critical role of catechesis in sustaining the church continued to be apparent to subsequent evangelical trailblazers of the English-speaking world. Richard Baxter, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and countless other pastors and leaders saw catechesis as one of their most obvious and basic pastoral duties. If they could not wholeheartedly embrace and utilize an existing catechism for such instruction, they would adapt or edit one or would simply write their own. A pastor's chief task, it was widely understood, was to be the teacher of the flock."
Again, there is very little difference between these ancient schools and of the Sunday schools we have today.
In writing under the sub title "The Problem with Sunday School," the authors wrote:
"Today, however, things are quite different, and that for a host of reasons. The church in the West has largely abandoned serious catechesis as a normative practice. Among the more surprising of the factors that have contributed to this decline are the unintended consequences of the great Sunday school movement. This lay-driven phenomenon swept across North America in the 1800s and came to dominate educational efforts in most evangelical churches through the 20th century. It effectively replaced pastor-catechists with relatively untrained lay workers, and substituted an instilling of familiarity (or shall we say, perhaps, over-familiarity) with Bible stories for any form of grounding in the basic beliefs, practices, and ethics of the faith."
Yes, Sunday schools did replace the catechism schools, but it can be reasonably argued that Sunday schools can be conducted in such a way that catechisms are taught, as well as teaching the doctrines of the Bible.
The authors continued:
"Thus, for most contemporary evangelicals the entire idea of catechesis is largely an alien concept. The very word itself—catechesis, or any of its associated terms, including catechism—is greeted with suspicion by most evangelicals today." ("Wait, isn't that a Roman Catholic thing?")
But, it ought not to be so. Many Baptist Sunday schools are conducted that are equal to, or superior to, the schools of our forefathers. If the Bible is being taught by qualified men and women, then it is indeed but an outgrowth and improvement upon the religious education given by our Baptist ancestors.