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Household Duties (1) - Family Catechising, William Thomas (1593-1667).



Because religion is rooted in knowledge family catechising may well be the first duty; I say, family catechising, for I shall not here speak of catechising in its general extent, but only apply myself to it as it is a duty belonging to Christians in their families; which godly exercise I shall endeavour to assist and persuade unto, by texts of scripture first, and some arguments and motives after.

A Scriptural Duty


It is not my purpose here to mention every text of scripture that gives strength to this necessary duty, but shall content myself with the naming (and with the opening) of two texts in the Old Testament, and one in the New.


Proven from the Old Testament


The first in the Old Testament is, Deut. 6. 6, 7. These words which I command thee this day shall be in thy heart, And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.


For the opening of this scripture, and the awakening of conscience to a due consideration of it, there comes to be considered in the first place, who it is that speaks in it, even the eternal God by his servant Moses, that was faithful in all his house. Remember that it is he that saith, Keep these words that I command thee this day. But, how must parents keep them? (For, to parents, and every parent, God here speaks, and, in answer to that question, saith) these words shall be in thine heart: yet are they not only to be in the hearts of those that have families, but in their houses, therefore it is added, Thou shalt teach them thy children. Nor was this a ceremonial precept, or a commandment given peculiarly to the Jews for their assistance in the remembrance of the law of God, as their phylacteries-fringes and fastening the law to their door-posts; but it was, and is, a moral, and perpetual precept, binding us in Gospel-times as well as them, and therefore the very same things that we read in this text, we find also in the New Testament: That is,


1. That the word of Christ must dwell in us (Col. 3. 16), which is all one with this here, Let it be in thine heart. And,


2. That it must be in our houses also, for parents are required to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6. 4). In obedience therefore to this standing command, they to whom God has given children, should say as the Psalmist does, Come ye children hearken to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Pslam 34. 11). And when the children be come together, the Spirit of God in the text we have in hand, teaches in what manner they are to be taught, saying, Thou shalt teach them diligently; and in the margin of our Bibles it is, Thou shalt whet, or sharpen, which is well and plainly expressed in the text by teaching diligently, but, yet the word in the original does more particularly note out a teaching by way of repetition, and going over and over again, (as men do with knives when they whet them) that so as the knife, by such whetting is more keen, and fit to cut, so religious instructions, by often turning and returning them on the ears and tongues of children, may pierce more deeply into their hearts for their better understanding and affecting of them. Parents, and those over others, like the heavens over our heads, should be still, as there is occasion and opportunity, distilling and dropping down heavenly instructions from their own understandings and hearts, into their houses, and upon their children and inferiors, that so they may sink and soak, by little and little, into their hearts for abundant after fruit. And I mention inferiors, that is, others that are under the care and charge of householders, together with children, because of that which is observed on this place out of the Hebrew Doctors, to wit, that though only children or sons are here named, yet under this name they understand not the natural sons only, but scholars also, or disciples, because in scripture disciples are called sons, as, the sons of the prophets; so Solomon, in the Book of the Proverbs, still saith, My son. And the extending of the command thus far is favoured by the words following, Thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, walkest by the way, sittest down, risest up; and why thus in the house, but that the whole house may be edified? whilst the holy light of knowledge in parents and householders is not put under a bushel, but, by their catechising, set up in a candlestick that it may enlighten the whole house; which is further also confirmed by the approved example of Abraham in the story of whose Catechising, not only his children are mentioned, but his household also is added, Gen. 18.19.


The other text that I shall allege out of the Old Testament, is, Prov. 22.6. Train up a child in the way he should go, or (as it is in the margin) in his way.


This precept is well and plainly expressed, thus, teach a boy in the first principles, to wit, of the doctrine of Christ; Train him up, or, as it is in the margin of our Bibles catechise him. The Hebrew word signifies the doing of the first things, in any thing, more particularly, it is used for the instructing of others, or the entering of them in, or delivering to them, the first elements and grounds, especially of religion, to which it is here applied. It is rendered therefore by some, initiate a child, or dedicate him to God being yet a child.


For further opening hereof, it may not be amiss to observe, that in former times, they did use to dedicate unto God holy things by a sacred dedication, with certain sacred rites and ceremonies, as the House of God (2 Chron. 7. 7.) the Wall of Jerusalem (Neh. 12. 27.) especially, the Altar (Numb. 7. 8. 2 Chron. 7. 9.) Yea, of old, they did use to dedicate their own houses also, with a mere common, but yet, religious and pious, dedication, (as we see David did, Psalm 30. title) to wit, as accounting God himself the Lord of their houses, and themselves his tenants at will, who were therefore to use their houses as his, and according to his will. The substance of this, we may say, concerns us in these times also. Now, to apply this; as godly men in former times, have dedicated both holy things, and their houses, unto God when they were first made and set up: so should Christian parents look upon their children when they are newly brought into the world, as those whom by their timely teaching and catechising, they are to dedicate and consecrate unto that God from whom they have them.


Yet, there is no cause so to limit it to little children, or to parents children, as that it should not be extended to other young ones (though not so young) in the family, since the word that is rendered a child here, is translated well otherwhere, a young man. And (indeed) householders are not only the fathers of their children, but of the family. The servant does, by good reason, call the master father, and that father should instruct such sons in a way beseeming their age.


However, the duty will further appear by proceeding further in the forecited text, which teaches to train up a child in the way he should go, or (as it is in the Hebrew) in the mouth of his way, that is, in the beginning or entry of his worldly race; for so the gate through which persons first enter into the city, is called in scripture, the mouth of the city. Others explain it thus, according to the mouth of his way; that is, that measure of apprehension, and that degree of capacity which he has in his first entry into his way, without delaying till he be grown up, or pressing him above that which his age is able to reach: Begin with him then (as he is able to receive, and conceive of things) in those beginnings, (Heb. 6.1) which hold forth the first light to guide him in his way; for understanding, piety, and godly behaviour, is the way even of younglings (Psalm 119. 9), and being so, it is good to set them forward, in so happy a journey, in the morning, that they may take the whole day before them.


Objection: But a child has not so much understanding as to receive, and repeat with reverence the things of God, and so the catechising of him will be the taking of God’s name in vain, which is a plain sin.


Answer: If this must hinder catechising, who knows how long it will be hindered? for even children well grown up, (being not catechised before) are not like, at their first teaching, so to understand what is said to them, as to recite and repeat it, with due reverence. It may something help in this, that we find Christ himself instructing Nicodemus in the mystery of regeneration, when he was able to return him only this sorry and unbeseeming answer, How can a man be born again when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb? Yea, after that, we find our Saviour delivering a divine truth to those that were known to be his disciples, and who still accompanied him, and repeated themselves what he spake to them in the very same words wherein he delivered it; and yet, when all was done, confessed they could not tell what he said( John 16. 16, 17, 18): yet we may not say, that by reason of that their ignorance they took that name of God in vain, (which is imprinted on every word of God, and so was on those words of Christ), I say, this was not a vain business; for in this way they understood the words of Christ at last, the meaning whereof they knew not at first.


If it be said, that persons grown up may be first taught to use the name and things of God reverently, (which children cannot be), and by that means when they come to take them into their mouths themselves, the dishonour of God may be prevented. I answer,


1. That if we will consider of this rightly, we must set one thing against another; and then it will be found that the more they that are young, grow in years, the more they will surely grow in corruption, being left without instruction; and thereby by how much they are more capable in regard of their natural understanding, by so much they will be less capable of any good thing through their grown corruption.


2. I answer further, that, parents may and should find out ways to frame the spirits of their children to a greater reverence when they are catechised, than at other times, and in other things. Now it's true, that if they be very little, this must needs be less done; but yet it may still be in doing, and something may be done in it, because they understand, even then, what parents say, or else they would not be capable of making them reasonable answers; And the more they grow up, the more will this holy reverence grow up with them and in them.


But to the main objection propounded, I shall give a second answer, which is this; catechising is considered two ways:


1. In regard of the present action.


2. As it is an introduction and preparation to the future and further knowledge of God. Now, though little ones do not at first, so understand as to use with due reverence the name and things of God; yet it follows not, that they take God’s name in vain, because they repeat good things in order to, and for, the gaining of such a knowledge of God and of those holy things, as whereby afterward they come to use them more reverently; And therein, the first use of them, (though not so reverent) has a part, as being preparatory to it, and having an influence into it, and working, as a good means for the begetting of it. As when parent’s teach very little children their letters by signs, and certain pretty devised sayings and resemblances, which put their little ones in mind of them, this is not a vanity, but a way suited to their littleness, to make them learn them the sooner: so it is in this and the like cases; for, the first rudiments are still to be taken and judged of, not in a way of separation from what follows after, but as a preparation to it, and being so taken, they are not vain, but material things, because they serve to very considerable ends.


This shall suffice for the Old Testament.


Proven from the New Testament


The precept, prescribing catechising in the New Testament, is laid down Eph. 6. 4. in these words; And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.


Of the precept contained in these words there are two branches:


1. Parents are warned, not to abuse their office, power, and authority by provoking their children.


2. Not to neglect to make use of it in instructing their children; and both these are not without great reason mentioned: For in parents there is not only nature, and natural affection, but natural corruption, by reason whereof, if they watch not well, it will be very incident unto them to be curious; yea, and furious with their children, that their own will may be fulfilled: There is need therefore to say, Provoke not. And, on the other side, there is a danger of being too indulgent, and careless, to bring up children to such courses as are necessary for the knowing and doing of the will of God: Hence it is that there is as much, or much more need of the latter branch of the exhortation, which is, But bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.


The first word "But" serves well to join together the two branches of the precept, or parts of the verse: for it holds forth a cure of the provocation spoken of in the former part; and a care of the instruction prescribed in the latter part; Do not provoke, but instruct; yea, instruct, and you will not, or, at least, you shall not have cause, to provoke; for a well-instructed child is in God’s way to be an obedient child, and very tractable to the instructing parents, so that there shall not be any occasion of provoking from him, or being provoked against him. A care of the duty in the latter part of the verse, will be a good prevention of the fault in the former part; for thy child knowing from thee God’s mind (O Christian parent) will not (God blessing the instruction, of which the precept to give it, gives the hope); I say, he will not do contrary to thy mind, if thy mind agree with God’s mind.


After this connecting and conjoining particle, follows the precept concerning children’s nurture, which nurture, howsoever, in itself, it comprehends good and wholesome instruction of every kind; yet the last words "of the Lord" fasten it on that religious nurture, and admonition, which is, of all other the principal, and of which it belongs to this place to speak.


Now whilst I come to the further opening of this precept, it may be noted that there are (in the original) three words offered to our observation, the explaining whereof will serve for a more full discerning of what is here prescribed. The first word is, nourish or feed them, and so it is translated otherwhere. Do not provoke your children, (saith the Apostle) but nourish them; and that, not only so as to give them bread, and food for their bodies (wherein passionate and provoking fathers may be defective) but (which is here meant) to supply them with soul nourishing sustenance; or (as the Apostle speaks of himself) to be soul nurses (1 Thes. 2. 7, 8.), imparting with all dearness for their spiritual good and growth, the soul sustaining Gospel of God; This is, indeed, to bring up (as our English translation has it) well, and most hopefully, for their welfare.


The second word in the text, signifies, in general, a childlike nurture; but, yet there may be found, and hinted in it more particularly these three things.


1. It contains, in a large sense, all profitable instruction (suitable to a child’s age and state) for the composing and framing of him, by knowledge, unto a commendable and virtuous carriage, or for the doing of greater good in human society in time to come; but, in this place, it is to be more properly applied, to instruction in religion, and (as Paul speaks) in righteousness, 2 Tim. 3.16.


2. It contains correction also, which is a part of good nurture, for the moving and making of a child the better to mark what is taught him, and for the getting out of that foolishness which is too fast bound in him, Prov. 22. 15, correction is the urging of instruction.


3. This word (which calls fathers to look upon their children (as) children, and accordingly to teach them) may contain in it a restraint of that provoking before spoken of: for it signifies that the nurture he gives, must be a fatherly feeding of such a one as is his child, and yet, but a child; and therefore it must be with that gentleness which is suitable to, and agrees best with, the relation and affection of a father, and the tenderness of a child; for, angry catechising quickly becomes an act of provocation.


The third word (which is used in the text) carries and commands parents, unto, the best and highest kind of nurture, to wit, that which is drawn and fetched from the word of the Lord, and so, will be most accepted of him, and most profitable to their children; This the Apostle, speaking to Timothy (1 Tim. 4. 6.), sets forth plainly in some other words, but to the same effect, calling it, a nourishing in the words of faith, and of good doctrine. But (besides this) Paul here goes to the bottom and beginning of all good nurture, which is information, or an informing admonition; The word signifies an instilling, or putting a thing into the mind; And this infusing or dropping instruction into the understanding of a child, helps the child to help the father, and to carry on his own good education by his own light, because his well-informed reason enables him to see the necessity and benefit of it. The life and manners cannot be good, unless the mind be good; The mind cannot be good without knowledge; Nor will knowledge be had without teaching and admonishing. In that therefore, as in a golden mine, the riches of religious education lieth, and is laid up.


Oh that so plain and full a precept might so convince the understandings, possess and press the hearts, of Christian parents, as to prevail with them for the bringing up of their children, not only in arts and sciences, to make them wise; nor only in mysteries of trading and worldly employment, to make them rich; nor only in matters of morality and civil honesty, to make them virtuous: but in mysteries of religion, in the nurture and information of the Lord, to make them truly godly and happy.


I shall only add this, (which I touched a little before) which is, that though children only be named in the text, yet this should not cause householders to think themselves discharged, if they catechise their children and never instruct other young ones that are a part of their household: for, he that is the master of the house, is the father of the whole family, and may speak to all the youth in it, as Eli to Samuel, whom he called his son, and accordingly should disperse knowledge among them that they may not live under his roof, care, and charge without some acquaintance with God, and without being bred up to do some homage and service to him. It would be a poor business for mothers to say, we need not bring up our children in any good nurture, for the Scripture in the New Testament, (that especially requires it) names only fathers: No more will fathers be excused, because none are named here to be instructed by them, but only their children. It's true, that under the notion of fathers of children (of whose duty the Apostle here properly speaks) they are called to Catechise their own children; but as they are masters and fathers of families, a further care and charge lies upon them in regard of other young ones, and namely, of servants under them, and with them.


Yet I do not say, that householders are bound to walk in the same way with those that are elder in the family, as they do with their children; or to bestow the same time in instructing servants and children. It's true, that to appoint some day or days in a week, to examine and go on with servants, in some sound and plain catechism, (as namely, the Assemblies Short Catechism) is a godly exercise, and a provident way to preserve the duty of family instruction, and to make it the more minded: But, yet, if householders did but upon the Sabbath-day call those that be grown up to give account of the sermons they hear; Chapters read in the family on the week-days; And further, if having (as they ought) an eye upon their carriage, and seeing any neglect or fault in them, they did take them to task, question with them about it, reprove and admonish them, that for time to come they might amend it; and, then observe whether they do so or no; even this I say, (with some acquainting them with the very first principles of religion in way of conference) might pass for that which we call (Catechising) that word in Scripture, being divers times applied to a more general kind of teaching; But, if such a concession as this, and yielding to any thing, be abused; if nothing be done in this duty, or nothing to purpose; then may one servant and another (if it be possible for an uncatechised servant to have so much grace), come and say seriously and sadly, (I say sadly, both in regard of themselves and the householder), Master, carest thou not that we perish? And let the master consider, how he will answer it.


Meanwhile that I may return to the text, as it stands clear for parents catechising, let it be (in the last place) observed, that parents instruction of their children is of so great importance, that if they therein did their duty, then the work concerning servants were already (in a good part) done; for they should deliver (in this way) to every master a catechised servant, and so the master should have nothing to do, but to preserve and carry on that which is already brought to his hand. But, if for want of this godly care (O Christian master), a catechised servant be not brought to thee; let there be so much goodness in thee, and so much love to his soul, as that he may go a catechised servant from thee.

Catechising as a Necessary Duty.


Although the former precepts might fully suffice, because all reason resides, and is summed up in the commandments of the only wise God: yet, because too much can hardly be spoken in a duty wherein many do nothing, and all do too little; therefore (for a further assistance) I shall adjoin these ensuing arguments drawn from the necessity, and benefit of this exercise.


The First Argument


The necessity which I lay upon this ground, because all that will be saved in God’s ordinary way, must come to the knowledge of the truth. To open this further, I shall take in two questions.


Question 1: How is this Knowledge to be attained?


Saving knowledge is not had by nature; nature (without divine revelation) knows nothing of Christ, by whom alone we can be justified and saved, that's revealed from heaven. And if it cannot be had by nature, how shall it be had but by nurture and information of the Lord? and, how shall children have it so well as by parents pains, and provision?


Question 2: When is it to be endeavoured? or, When is this knowledge to be communicated?


Reason teaches to do it early; for, as all that desire to have knowing children in any kind of learning, begin with them in the beginning of their time (i.e.), as soon as they come to be capable of the first principles thereof: So the morning of life, the first of children’s time (after they are come to any competent capacity) is the best season for the exercising and improving of their understanding in the knowledge of religion. No marvel therefore, if we find that Timothy from a child had known the holy Scripture. And that our Saviour honoured this course of timely instruction, by conversing himself (when but twelve year old) among the Doctors in a kind of catechetical way, both hearing them, and asking them questions. If any say, let children grow up, and then be brought to the ministry, and hear sermons, and that may suffice. I answer, if it be supposed, that they are left to the ministry; yet, (being not catechised before) they are left to it unprepared for it; And I add further, what if they die before that time? then, they must die un-instructed, and that (I think) must needs be a sad death to the negligent parents, and a dangerous death to the neglected child; whereas it is found by comfortable experience, that divers, very young, have died with very considerable, and some, with very rare, expressions of knowledge and godliness, attained by timely teaching. If it be further said, that children may be delivered over to Catechising-School Masters and Ministers; I answer, that's a good help to, but no good discharge from, parents instruction, on whom it lies as a duty, (for it is not said, you fathers send them to others, but, bring them up yourselves); and who should, more naturally, care for their children’s souls; who may begin sooner to exercise that care; who have a shorter work, (having to do only with their own not others children;) and have a larger and better opportunity to carry it on, by those frequent times they may allot to it, and those parental ways that are in their hands to promote it. Parents do something for their children when they put them forth to nurse, but they shall do better to nurse them up themselves with their own more kindly milk, and more natural attendance.


The Second Argument


The second argument to move parents to the duty of catechising is the singular profit thereof, and that both in regard of their children; and the Church of God. As to their children; there is a profitable, and prevailing power in it, in regard of the time, manner, and good effects of the careful performing of it.


1. In regard of the time. For when children are young and tender, they are then most capable, (though not by the ripeness of their understanding, yet by the flexibleness of their age) as of any evil that they see or hear, so of any good that shall be discreetly infused and put into them; like young twigs easily bowed; or like soft wax, that easily receives any impression, when (being grown harder, especially if better things be forestalled by worse, as they will surely be) it will be much more hard to imprint the image of God, and godliness upon them.


2. In regard of the manner. Catechising propounds the question, and puts the child to answer it, as the echo does the voice. Now, the readiest way to make any instruction to take, is to require returns from those that are instructed: whence it is, that in all schools of learning, that course is taken, whereas, if you speak never so well, or so long (yea, the longer the worse) in a set and continual speech, it uses to vanish in the air, without any observable notice, or after-fruit.


3. In regard of the effect. For:


(a) This makes them fit to hear sermons fruitfully; and that both because the words that Ministers use in preaching, are, before-hand made familiar to them; and, because the grounds of religion, whereon they build their preaching, are laid open to children’s understandings, and in some measure, laid in their hearts by their religious breeding: whereas, if a Minister be the first teacher, the language of Canaan is so strange to a young hearer, that (unless God work upon the heart, and bring in a light from heaven into it) he hardly knows what to make of heavenly words or matter. Now, though godly education will not be savingly effectual without regenerating grace, yet this we may say of it, that children religiously bred up, are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven, to wit, in comparison of others not so educated; for they can answer, more discreetly, Mark. 12. 34.


(b) This is the way to make them greatly good; as Obadiah is said to fear the Lord greatly (1 King. 18.3. & v. 12), which (with good reason) may be ascribed (in a way of means) to his fearing the Lord timely, and (as is expressed) from his youth. O How much sin is, in this way, prevented? which entering in quickly, because it is not kept out by good nurture, will (afterward) either grieve the soul by an heart-renting repentance (and that's the best of it) or ruin the soul for want of repentance. And (on the other side), How much good is done by this first goodness? even to others; for, how eminent a Reformer was that glorious Josiah, who being yet young, began to seek after the God of his father David? which seeking is (ordinarily) set on in David's way, that is, by parents instruction and warnings; yea, we find a little captive maid, bred up (as appears) to a reverence of the Lord’s Prophet, to be the instrument of an happy cure of her great Master's both body and soul ( 2 King. 5. 2, 3, 14, 15). But, besides the good of others, how great is the comfort which arises to themselves, who are taught to know and serve God early? and that by the sweet remembrance (when they are old) of their remembering their Creator when they were young, and in those days wherein they had most pleasure, whereby they may confidently conclude, that their God and faithful Creator will remember them in their old age, and those decaying days wherein there is no pleasure, Eccles. 12.1.