Richard Bernard: Compassionate Catechist

By Alex Fogleman

I have been doing some research on catechesis during the sixteenth-century English Reformation and came across this excellent passage from a Puritan pastor named Richard Bernard (1568–1641). This is a treatise about the pastor’s responsibilities and duties, largely drawn, he says, from his own experience.

I am especially impressed by the warm and personalized form of catechizing that he advises, his attention to the particulars of the students, and the profound importance he attaches to catechesis in the context of preaching.

The full title is Richard Bernard, The Faithful Shepheard: Or The Shepheards Faithfulnesse (London, 1607), and this portion is transliterated from chapter 3 (“Of the Ministers wise and godly proceeding in his Pastoral charge to teach his people”), pp. 8-10.

If ignorant, and willing to be taught, [congregants] must be first catechized and taught the grounds and principles of religion: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the doctrine of the Sacraments. With this milk they must be fed, or else they shall never be able to receive strong meat; they cannot understand nor judge of interpretations without it.

         All arts have their principles which must be learned, so does Divinity.

Experience shows that little profit comes by preaching where catechizing is neglected. Many there are who preach two or three times in a week, and yet see less fruit in many years of labor by not catechizing than some reap in one year who perform both together.

This manner of catechizing is to be preformed by propounding questions, and the people answering to them. This plain and simple kind is best, and will bring most profit, even though it may seem childish and tedious to some.

Children (which all are without knowledge, yea babes at first) must be dealt with as children. Many teach the catechism, but they do so in a discoursing manner, which experience also declares does not benefit the ruder sort at all, of which kind are most in country congregations.

Such as will katechizein (teach) rightly must katechein (hear), that is, audire, as well as erudire. Katecheo is audio and erudio, and katechithous (sp?), one catechized, is katecheis, resonans. In schools, teachers shall never profit students if they do not hear them as well as give them lectures.

Let the people then learn the catechism word for word, and answer to every question. Interrupt not beginners with interpretations, neither go further with any than he can well say. Afterwards come to the meaning, and inquire an answer still of them, how they understand this or that in one question, and so in another; but do not go beyond their conceits; stay somewhat for an answer, but not too long: if one does not know, ask another; if any but stammer at it, help him, and encourage him by commending his willingness. If none can answer a question, show it to them plainly how they might have conceived it, and then ask it to someone again, and praise him that understands it, and answers after thy telling of him.

Note the variety of wits, and deal with them as they are. Take a word or a piece of an answer from one, when you may expect much from another. Teach with a cheerful countenance, familiarly, and lovingly.

The forward comment openly, speak to them also in private heartily, to captare beneuolentiam. Hardly will any learn from those they hate. Be free of speech to answer at anyone’s asking, and gladly take occasion to show a will ready always to teach. Be familiar, but beware of contempt; never permit any to laugh at others shortcomings—that will utterly discourage them from coming. Make much of the meanest, and of the best students esteem them as is meet, to make the rest desirous. But those who are willfully obstinate rebuke as they deserve, lest their example make those students inclined to learn careless, and the better sort less dutiful.

Thus through God’s goodness thou may profit by catechizing. Draw them to it without compulsion. If you are proud and cannot stoop to their capacities, or if you are too impatient to hear an ignorant answer, or too disdainful to be familiar, few will come to you willingly, and none except by force; and these will profit little by you. Experience has been my schoolmaster, and taught me these things, and I find great fruit, to my comfort.