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Catechizing Our People: Directions for Pastors

Category Book Excerpts
Date September 10, 2023

The following extract is taken from Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, pages 249–273

Note to the reader: before this section, Baxter spends time considering how a minister may winsomely prevail upon his people to submit to being catechised. With this treated of, he proceeds to outline how a shepherd of God’s flock can best carry out the work of catechesis:

Having used these means to procure them to come and submit to your instructions, we are next to consider how you may deal most effectually with them in the work. And again I must say, that I think it an easier matter by far to compose and preach a good sermon, than to deal rightly with an ignorant man for his instruction in the more essential principles of religion. As much as this work is contemned by some, I doubt not it will try the gifts and spirit of ministers, and show you the difference between one man and another, more fully than preaching will do.

And here I shall, as fitting my purpose, transcribe the words of a most learned, orthodox, and godly man, Archbishop Ussher, in his sermon* before King James at Wanstead on Ephesians 4:13: ‘Your Majesty’s care can never be sufficiently commended, in taking order that the chief heads of the catechism should, in the ordinary ministry, be diligently propounded and explained unto the people throughout the land; which I wish were as duly executed everywhere, as it was piously by you intended. ‘Great scholars possibly may think, that it standeth not so well with their credit to stoop thus low, and to spend so much of their time in teaching these rudiments and first principles of the doctrine of Christ; but they should consider, that the laying of the foundation skilfully, as it is the matter of greatest importance in the whole building, so is it the very masterpiece of the wisest-building. “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation,” saith the great apostle. And let the most learned of us all try it whenever we please, we shall find, that to lay this groundwork rightly, (that is, to apply ourselves to the capacity of the common auditory, and to make an ignorant man to understand these mysteries in some good measure) will put us to the trial of our skill, and trouble us a great deal more, than if we were to discuss a controversy, or handle a subtle point of learning in the schools. Yet Christ did give as well his apostles, and prophets, and evangelists, as his ordinary pastors and teachers, to bring us all, both learned and unlearned, unto the unity of this faith and knowledge; and the neglecting of this, is the frustrating of the whole work of  the ministry. For, let us preach never so many sermons to the people, our labour is but lost, as long as the foundation is unlaid, and the first principles untaught, upon which all other doctrine must be builded.’

The directions which I think it necessary to give for the right managing of the work, are the following:

1. When your people come to you, one family or more, begin with a brief preface, to mollify their minds and to take off all offence, unwillingness, or discouragement, and to prepare them for receiving your instructions. ‘My friends,’ you may say, ‘it may perhaps seem to some of you an unusual and a troublesome business that I put you upon; but I hope you will not think it needless: for if I had thought so, I would have spared both you and myself this labour. But my conscience hath told me, yea, God hath told me in his word, so solemnly, what it is to have the charge of souls, and how the blood of them that perish will be required at the hands of a minister that neglecteth them, that I dare not be guilty of it as I have hitherto been. Alas! all our business in this world is to get well to heaven; and God hath appointed us to be guides to his people, to help them safe thither. If this be well done, all is done; and if this be not done, we are for ever undone. The Lord knows how short a time you and I may be together; and therefore it concerns us to do what we can for our own and your salvation before we leave you, or you leave the world. All other business in the world is but as toys and dreams in comparison of this. The labours of your calling are but to prop up a cottage of clay, while your souls are hastening to death and judgment, which may even now be near at hand. I hope, therefore, you will be glad of help in so needful a work, and not think it much that I put you to this trouble, when the trifles of the world cannot be got without much greater trouble.’ This, or something to this purpose, may tend to make them more willing to hear you, and receive instruction, and to give you some account of their knowledge and practice.

2. When you have spoken thus to them all, take them one by one, and deal with them as far as you can in private, out of the hearing of the rest; for some cannot speak freely before others, and some will not endure to be questioned before others, because they think that it will tend to their shame to have others hear their answers; and some persons that can make better answers themselves, will be ready, when they are gone, to talk of what they heard, and to disgrace those that speak not so well as themselves; and so people will be discouraged, and persons who are backward to the exercise, will have pretences to forbear and forsake it, and to say, ‘They will not come to be made a scorn and a laughing-stock.’ You must, therefore, be very careful to prevent all these inconveniences. But the main reason is, as I find by experience, people will better take plain close dealing about their sin, and misery, and duty, when you have them alone, than they will before others; and, if you have not an opportunity to set home the truth, and to deal freely with their consciences, you will frustrate all. If, therefore, you have a convenient place, let the rest stay in one room, while you confer with each person by himself in another room; only, in order to avoid scandal, we must speak to the women only in presence of some others; and, if we lose some advantage by this there is no remedy. It is better to do so, than, by giving occasion of reproach to the malicious, to destroy all the work. Yet we may so contrive it, that, though some others be in the room, yet what things are less fit for their observance may be spoken in a low voice that they may not hear it; and therefore they may be placed at the remotest part of the room; or, at least, let none be present but the members of the same family, who are more familiar with each other, and not so likely to reproach one another. And then, in your most rousing examinations and reproofs, deal most with the ignorant, secure, and vicious, that you may have the clearer ground for your close dealing, and the hearing of it may awaken the bystanders, to whom you seem not so directly to apply it. These small things deserve attention, because they are in order to a work that is not small; and small errors may hinder a great deal of good.

3. Begin your work by taking an account of what they have learned of the words of the catechism, and receiving their answer to each question; and, if they are able to repeat but little or none of it, try whether they can rehearse the creed and the decalogue.

4. Then choose out some of the weightiest points, and try, by further questions, how far they understand them. And therein be careful of the following things:

(1) That you do not begin with less necessary points, but with those which they themselves may perceive most nearly concern them. For example? ‘What do you think becomes of men when they die? What shall become of us after the end of the world? Do you believe that you have any sin; or that you were born with sin? What doth every sin deserve? What remedy hath God provided for the saving of sinful, miserable souls? Hath anyone suffered for our sins in our stead; or must we suffer for them ourselves? Who are they that God will pardon; and who shall be saved by the blood  of Christ? What change must be made on all who shall be saved; and how is this change effected? Wherein lies our chief happiness? And what is it that our hearts must be most set upon?’ And such like other questions.

(2) Beware of asking them nice, or needless, or doubtful, or very difficult questions, though about those matters that are of greatest weight in themselves. Some self-conceited persons will be as busy with such questions which they cannot answer themselves, and as censorious of the poor people that cannot answer them, as if life and death depended on them. You will ask them perhaps, ‘What is God?’: and how defective an answer must you make yourselves! You may tell what he is not sooner than what he is. If you ask, ‘What is repentance, what faith, or what is forgiveness of sin?, how many ministers may you ask before you have a right answer, or else they would not be so disagreed in the point! Likewise if you ask them what regeneration is, what sanctification is. But you will perhaps say, ‘If men know not what God is, what repentance, faith, conversion, justification, and sanctification are, how can they be true Christians and be saved?’ I answer, It is one thing to know exactly what they are, and another thing to know them in their nature and effects, though with a more general and indistinct knowledge; and it is one thing to know, and another thing to tell what this or that is. The very name as commonly used doth signify to them, and express from them the thing without a definition; and they partly understand what that name signifieth, when they cannot tell it you in other words; as they know what it is to repent, to believe, to be forgiven. By custom of speech they know what these mean, and yet cannot define them, but perhaps put you off with the country answer: ‘To repent is to repent; and to be forgiven is to be forgiven’; or if they can say, ‘It is to be pardoned,’ it is fair. Yet do I not absolutely dissuade you from the use of such questions; but do it cautiously, in case you suspect some gross ignorance in the point; especially about God himself.

(3) So contrive your questions, that they may perceive what you mean, and that it is not a nice definition, but simply a solution, that you expect; and look not after words, but things, and even leave them to a bare Yes, or No, or the mere election of one of the two descriptions which you yourself may have propounded. For example: ‘What is God? Is he made of flesh and blood, as we are; or is he an invisible Spirit? Is he a man, or is he not? Had he any beginning? Can he die? What is faith? Is it a believing all the word of God? What is it to believe in Christ? Is it all one as to become a true Christian? or to believe that Christ is the Saviour of sinners, and to trust in him, as your Saviour, to pardon, sanctify, govern, and glorify you? What is repentance? Is it only to be sorry for sin? or is it the change of the mind from sin to God, and a forsaking of it? or does it include both?’

(4) When you perceive that they do not understand the meaning of your question, you must draw out their answer by an equivalent, or expository question; or, if that will not do, you must frame the answer into your question, and require in reply, but Yes, or No. I have often asked some very ignorant people, ‘How do you think that your sins, which are so many and so great, can be pardoned?’ And they tell me, ‘By their repenting, and amending their lives’; and never mention Jesus Christ. I ask them further, ‘But do you think that your amendment can make God any amends or satisfaction for the sin that is past?’ They will answer, ‘We hope so, or else we know not what will?’ One would now think that these men had no knowledge of Christ at all, since they make no mention of him; and some I indeed find have no knowledge of him; and when I tell them the history of Christ, and what he is, and did, and suffered, they stand wondering at it as a strange thing; and some say, They never heard this much before, nor knew it, though they came to church every Lord’s day. But some, I perceive, give such answers, because they understand not the scope of my question; but suppose that I take Christ’s death for granted, and that I only ask them, ‘What shall make God satisfaction, as their part under Christ?’ – though in this, also, they reveal sad ignorance. And when I ask them, ‘Whether their good deeds can merit anything from God?’ they answer, ‘No; but they hope God will accept them.’ And if I ask further, ‘Can you be saved without the death of Christ?’ they say, ‘No.’ And if I ask, still further, ‘What hath he done or suffered for you?’ they will say, ‘He died for us; or he shed his blood for us’; and will profess that they place their confidence in that for salvation. Many men have that in their minds which is not ripe for utterance; and, through an imperfect education and disuse, they are strangers to the expression of those things of which they yet have some conception. And, by the way, you may here see reason why you should deal very tenderly with the common people for matter of knowledge and defect of expression, if they are teachable and tractable, and willing to use the means; for many, even ancient godly persons, cannot express themselves with any tolerable propriety, nor yet learn when expressions are put into their mouths.

Some of the most pious, experienced, approved Christians that I know (aged people), complain to me, with tears, that they cannot learn the words of the catechism; and when I consider their advantages – that they have enjoyed the most excellent helps, in constant duty, and in the best company, for forty, fifty, or sixty years together – it teacheth me what to expect from poor, ignorant people, who never had such company and converse for one year or week; and not to reject them so hastily as some hot and too high professors would have us do.

(5) If you find them at a loss, and unable to answer your questions, do not drive them too hard, or too long, with question after question, lest they conceive you intend only to puzzle them, and disgrace them; but when you perceive that they cannot answer, step in yourself, and take the burden off them, and answer the question yourselves; and do it thoroughly and plainly, and give a full explanation of the whole truth to them, that, by your teaching, they may be brought to understand it before you leave them. And herein it is commonly necessary that you fetch up the matter from the beginning, and take it in order, till you come to the point in question.

5. When you have done what you see cause in the trial of their knowledge, proceed next to instruct them yourselves, and this must be according to their several capacities. If it be a professor that understandeth the fundamental principles of religion, fall upon somewhat which you perceive that he most needeth, either explaining further some of the mysteries of the gospel, or laying the grounds of some duty which he may doubt of, or showing the necessity of what he neglecteth, or pointing out his sins or mistakes, as may be most convincing and edifying to him. If, on the other hand, it be one who is grossly ignorant, give him a plain, familiar recital of the sum of the Christian religion in a few words; for though it be in the catechism already, yet a more familiar way may better help him to understand it. Thus:

‘You must know, that from everlasting there was one God, who had no beginning, and will have no end, who is not a body as we are, but a most pure, spiritual Being, that knoweth all things, and can do all things; and hath all goodness and blessedness in himself. This God is but one, but yet Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost, in a manner that is above our understanding. And you must know, that this one God did make all the world by his word; the heavens he made to be the place of his glory, and a multitude of holy angels to serve him. But some of these did, by pride or some other sin, fall from their high estate, and are become devils, and shall be miserable for ever. When he had created the earth, he made man, as his noblest creature here below, even one man and one woman, Adam and Eve; and he made them perfect, without any sin, and put them into the garden of Eden, and forbade them to eat of one tree in the garden, and told them that if they ate of it they should die. But the devil, who had first fallen himself, did tempt them to sin, and they yielded to his temptation, and thus fell under the curse of God’s law. But God, of his infinite wisdom and mercy, did send his own Son, Jesus Christ, to be their Redeemer, who, in the fulness of time, was made man, being born of a virgin, by the power of the Holy Ghost, and lived on earth, among the Jews, about thirty-three years, during which time he preached the gospel himself, and wrought many miracles  to prove his doctrine, healing the lame, the blind, the sick, and raising the dead by his Divine power; and in the end he was offered upon the cross as a sacrifice for our sins to bear that curse which we should have borne. ‘And now, if sinners will but believe in him, and repent of their sins, he will freely pardon all that is past, and will sanctify their corrupted nature, and will at length bring them to his heavenly kingdom and glory. But if they make light of their sins and of his mercy, he will condemn them to everlasting misery in hell. This gospel, Christ, having risen from the dead on the third day, appointed his ministers to preach to all the world; and when he had given this in charge to all his apostles, he ascended up into heaven, before their faces, where he is now in glory, with God the Father, in our nature. And at the end of this world, he will come again in our nature, and will raise the dead to life again, and bring them all before him, that they may “give an account of all the deeds done in the body, whether they be good, or whether they be evil.” If, therefore, you mean to be saved, you must believe in Christ, as the only Saviour from the wrath to come; you must repent of your sins; you must, in short, be wholly new creatures, or there will be no salvation for you.’

Some such short rehearsal of the principles of religion, in the most familiar manner that you can devise, with a brief touch of application in the end, will be necessary when you deal with the grossly ignorant. And if you perceive they understand you not, go over it again, and ask them whether they understand it, and try to fix it in their memories.

6. Whether they be grossly ignorant or not, if you suspect them to be unconverted, endeavour next to make some prudent inquiry into their state. The best and least offensive way of doing this will be to prepare them for the inquiry saying something that may mollify their minds, and convince them of the necessity of the inquiry, and then to take occasion from some article in the catechism to touch their consciences. For example: ‘You see that the Holy Ghost doth, by the word, enlighten men’s minds, and soften and open their hearts, and turn them from the power of Satan unto God, through faith in Christ, and “purifies them unto himself a peculiar people;” and that none but these shall be made partakers of everlasting life. Now, though I have no desire, needlessly, to pry into any man’s secrets, yet, because it is the office of ministers to give advice to their people in matters of salvation, and because it is so dangerous a thing to be mistaken as to points which involve everlasting life or everlasting death, I would entreat you to deal honestly, and tell me, Whether or not you ever found this great change upon your own heart? Did you ever find the Spirit of God, by the word, come in upon your understanding, with a new and heavenly life, which hath made you a new creature? The Lord, who seeth your heart, doth know whether it be so or not; I pray you, therefore, see that you speak the truth.’ If he tell you that he hopes he is converted – all are sinners – but he is sorry for his sins, or the like; then tell him more particularly, in a few words, of some of the plainest marks of true conversion, and so renew and enforce the inquiry, thus: ‘Because your salvation or damnation is involved in this, I would fain help you a little in regard to it, that you may not be mistaken in a matter of such moment, but may find out the truth before it be too late; for as God will judge us impartially, so we have his word before us, by which we may judge ourselves; for this word tells us most certainly who they are that shall go to heaven, and who to hell. Now the Scripture tells us that the state of an unconverted man is this: he seeth no great felicity in the love and communion of God in the life to come, which may draw his heart thither from this present world; but he liveth to his carnal self, or to the flesh; and the main bent of his life is, that it may go well with him on earth; and that religion which he hath is but a little by the by, lest he should be damned when he can keep the world no longer; so that the world and the flesh are highest in his esteem, and nearest to his heart, and God and glory stand below them, and all their service of God is but a giving him that which the world and flesh can spare. This is the case of every unconverted man; and all who are in this case are in a state of misery. But he that is truly converted, hath had a light shining into his soul from God, which hath showed him the greatness of his sin and misery, and made it a heavy load upon his soul; and showed him what Christ is, and what he hath done for sinners, and made him admire the riches of God’s grace in him. ‘Oh, what glad news it is to him, that yet there is hope for such lost sinners as he; that so many and so great sins may be pardoned; and that pardon is offered to all who will accept of it! How gladly doth he entertain this message and offer! And for the time to come, he resigneth himself and all that he hath to Christ, to be wholly his, and to be disposed of by him, in order to the everlasting glory which he hath promised. He hath now such a sight of the blessed state of the saints in glory, that he despiseth all this world as dross and dung, in comparison of it; and there he layeth up his happiness and his hopes, and takes all the affairs of this life but as so many helps or hindrances in the way to that; so that the main care and business of his life is to be happy in the life to come. This is the case of all who are truly converted and who shall be saved. Now, is this the case with you, or is it not? Have you experienced such a change as this upon your soul?’ If he say, he hopes he hath, descend to some particulars, thus: ‘I pray you then answer me these two or three questions.

(1) Can you truly say, that all the known sins of your past life are the grief of your heart, and that you have felt that everlasting misery is due to you for them; and that, under a sense of this heavy burden, you have felt yourself a lost man, and have gladly entertained the news of a Saviour, and cast your soul upon Christ alone, for pardon by his blood?

‘(2) Can you truly say, that your heart is so far turned from sin, that you hate the sins which you once have loved, and love that holy life which you had no mind to before; and that you do not now live in the wilful practice of any known sin? Is there no sin which you are not heartily willing to forsake, whatever it cost you; and no duty which you are not willing to perform?

‘(3) Can you truly say, that you have so far taken the everlasting enjoyment of God for your happiness, that it hath the most of your heart, of your love, desire, and care; and that you are resolved, by the strength of Divine grace, to let go all that you have in the world, rather than hazard it; and that it is your daily, and your principal business to seek it? Can you truly say, that though you have your failings and sins, yet your main care, and the bent of your whole life, is to please God, and to enjoy him for ever; and that you give the world God’s leavings, as it were, and not God the world’s leavings; and that your worldly business is but as a traveller’s seeking for provision in his journey, and heaven is the place that you take for your home?’ If he answer in the affirmative to these questions, tell him how great a thing it is for a man’s heart to abhor his sin, and to lay up his happiness unfeignedly in another world; and to live in this world for another that is out of sight; and, therefore, desire him to see that it be so indeed. Then turn to some of the articles in the catechism, which treat of those duties which you most suspect him to omit, and ask him, whether he performs such or such a duty; as for instance, prayer in his family, or in private, and the holy spending of the Lord’s day. I would, however, advise you to be very cautious how you pass too hasty or absolute censures on any you have to do with; because, it is not so easy a matter to discern a man to be certainly graceless, as many imagine it to be; and you may do the work in hand as well without such an absolute conclusion as with it.

7. If, however, you have, either by former discovery of gross ignorance, or by these later inquiries into his spiritual state, discerned an apparent probability that the person is yet in an unconverted state, your next business is, to employ all your skill to bring his heart to a sense of his condition. For example:

‘Truly, my friends, I have no mind, the Lord knows, to make your condition worse than it is, nor to occasion you any causeless fear or trouble; but, I suppose, you would account me a treacherous enemy, and not a faithful minister, if I should flatter you, and not tell you the truth. If you seek a physician in your sickness, you would have him tell you the truth, though it were the worst. Much more here! For there the knowledge of your disease may, by your fears, increase it; but here you must know it, or else you can never be recovered from it. I much fear that you are yet a stranger to the Christian life. For if you were a Christian indeed, and truly converted, your very heart would be set on God and the life to come, and you would make it your chief business to prepare for everlasting happiness; and you durst not, you would not, live in any wilful sin, nor in the neglect of any known duty. ‘Alas! what have you done? how have you spent your time till now? Did you not know that you had a soul to be saved or lost; and that you must live in heaven or in hell for ever; and that you had your life and time in this world chiefly for the purpose of preparing for another? Alas! what have you been doing all your days that you are so ignorant, or so unprepared for death, if it should now find you? If you had but as much mind of heaven as of earth, you would have known more of it, and done more for it, and inquired more diligently after it, than you have done. You can learn how to do your business in the world; and why could you not learn more of the will of God, if you had but attended to it? You have neighbours that could learn more, that have had as much to do in the world as you, and who have had as little time. Do you think that heaven is not worth your labour? or that it can be had without any care or pains, when you cannot have the trifles of this world without them, and when God hath bid you seek first his kingdom and the righteousness thereof? Alas! my friends, what if you had died before this hour in an unconverted state? what then had become of you, and where had you now been? Alas! that you were so cruel to yourselves as to venture your everlasting state so desperately as you have done! What did you think of? Did you not all this while know that you must shortly die, and be judged as you were then found? Had you any greater work to do, or any greater business to mind, than your everlasting salvation? Do you think that all that you can get in this world will comfort you in a dying hour, or purchase your salvation, or ease the pains of hell?’

Set these things home with a peculiar earnestness; for if you get not to the heart, you do little or nothing; and that which affecteth not is soon forgotten.

8. Conclude the whole with a practical exhortation, which must contain two parts; first, the duty of believing in Christ; and secondly, of using the external means of grace for the time to come, and the avoiding of former sins. For example: ‘My friend, I am heartily sorry to find you in so sad a case, but I should be more sorry to leave you in it, and therefore let me entreat you, for the Lord’s sake, and for your own sake, to regard what I shall say to you, as to the time to come. It is of the Lord’s great mercy that he did not cut you off in your unconverted state, and that you have yet life and time, and that there is a remedy provided for you in the blood of Christ, and that pardon and sanctification and everlasting life are offered to you as well as to others. God hath not left sinful man to utter destruction, as he hath done the devils; nor hath he made any exception in the offer of pardon and eternal life against you any more than against any other.

‘If you had yet but a bleeding heart for sin, and could come to Christ believingly for recovery, and resign yourself to him as your Saviour and Lord, and would be a new man for the time to come, the Lord would have mercy on you in the pardon of your sins, and the everlasting salvation of your soul. And I must tell you that, as it must be the great work of God’s grace to give you such a heart, so if ever he mean to pardon and save you, he will make this change upon you; he will make you feel your sin as the heaviest burden in the world, as that which is most odious in itself, and hath rendered you liable to his wrath and curse; he will make you see that you are a lost man, and that there is nothing for you but everlasting damnation, unless you are pardoned by the blood of Christ, and sanctified by his Spirit; he will make you see the need you have of Christ, and how all your hope and life is in him; he will make you see the vanity of this world and all that it can afford you, and that all your happiness is with God, in that everlasting life in heaven, where you may, with the saints and angels, behold his glory, and live in his love, and be employed in his praises. Let me tell you that, till this work be done upon you, you are a miserable man; and if you die before it is done, you are lost for ever. Now you have hope and help before you, but then there will be none. ‘Let me therefore entreat you, as you love your soul,

First, That you will not rest in the condition in which you at present are. Be not quiet in your mind till a saving change is wrought in your heart. Think, when you rise in the morning, Oh, what if this day should be my last, and death should find me in an unrenewed state? Think, when you are about your labour, Oh, how much greater a work have I yet to do, to get my soul reconciled to God, and sanctified by his Spirit! Think, when you are eating, or drinking, or looking on anything that you possess in the world, What good will all this do me, if I live and die an enemy to God, and a stranger to Christ and his Spirit, and so perish for ever? Let these thoughts be day and night upon your mind till your soul be changed.

Secondly, I entreat you to bethink yourself seriously what a vain world this is, and how shortly it will leave you to a cold grave, and to everlasting misery, if you have not a better treasure than it. And consider what it is to live in the presence of God, and to reign with Christ, and be like the angels; and that this is the life that Christ hath procured you, and is preparing for you, and offereth you, if you will only accept of it; and oh think, whether it be not madness to slight such an endless glory, and to prefer these fleshly dreams and earthly shadows before it. Accustom yourself to such considerations as these when you are alone, and let them dwell upon your mind.

Thirdly, entreat, that you will presently, without any more delay, accept of this felicity, and this Saviour. Close with the Lord Jesus that offereth you this eternal life: joyfully and thankfully accept his offer as the only way to make you happy: and then you may believe that all your sins will be done away by him.

Fourthly, Resolve presently against your former sins; find out what hath defiled your heart and life, and cast it from you, as you would do poison out of your stomach, and abhor the thought of taking it again. ‘My last request to you is, that you will set yourself to the diligent use of the means of grace till this change be wrought, and then continue the use of these means till you are confirmed, and at last perfected,

(1) As you cannot of yourself effect this change upon your heart and life, betake yourself daily to God in prayer, and beg earnestly, as for your life, that he will pardon all your sins, and change your heart, and show you the riches of his grace in Christ, and the glory of his kingdom. Follow God day and night with these requests.

(2) Fly from temptations and occasions of sin, and forsake your former evil company, and betake yourself to the company of those that fear God, and will help you in the way to heaven.

(3) Be specially careful to spend the Lord’s day in holy exercises, both public and private, and lose not one quarter of an hour of any of your time; but especially of that most precious time which God hath given you purposely, that you may set your mind upon him, and be instructed by him, and prepare yourself for your latter end. What say you to these things? Will you do this presently, or at least so much of it as you can? Will you give me a promise to this effect, and study henceforth to keep that promise?’ And here be sure, if you can, to get their promise, and engage them to amendment, especially to use the means of grace, and to change their company, and to forsake their sins, because these are more within their reach; and in this way they may wait for the accomplishing of that change that is not yet wrought. And do this solemnly, reminding them of the presence of God who heareth their promises, and who will expect the performance of them; and when you afterward have opportunity, you may remind them of their promise.

9. At the dismissing of them, do these two things:

(1) Mollify their minds again by a few words, deprecating anything like offence. For example: ‘I pray you, take it not ill that I have put you to this trouble, or dealt thus freely with you. It is as little pleasure to me as to you. If I did not know these things to be true and necessary, I would have spared this labour to myself and you; but I know that we shall be  here together but a little while: We are almost at the world to come already; and therefore it is time for us all to look about us, and see that we be ready when God shall call us.’

(2) As you may not soon have an opportunity to speak with the same persons, set them in the way of perfecting what you have begun. Engage the master of each family to call all his family to repeat, every Lord’s day, what they have learned of the catechism; and to continue this practice till they have all learned it perfectly: and when they have done so, still to continue to hear them regularly recite it, that they may not forget it; for, even to the most judicious, it will be an excellent help to have in memory a Sum of the Christian Religion, as to matter, method, and words. As to the rulers of families themselves, or those that are under such masters as will not help them, if they have learned some part of the catechism only, engage them either to come again to you (though before their course) when they have learned the rest, or else to go to some able experienced neighbour, and repeat it to him; and do you take the assistance of such persons, when you cannot have time yourself.

10. Have the names of all your parishioners by you in a book; and when they come and repeat the catechism, note in your book who come, and who do not; and who are so grossly ignorant as to be unfit for the Lord’s supper and other holy communion, and who not: and as you perceive the necessities of each, so deal with them for the future. But as to those that are utterly obstinate, and will not come to you, nor be instructed by you, deal with them as the obstinate despisers of instruction should be dealt with, in regard to sealing and confirming ordinances; which is, to avoid them, and not to hold holy or familiar communion with them in the Lord’s supper or other ordinances. And though some reverend brethren are for admitting their children to baptism (and offended with me for contradicting it), yet so cannot I, nor shall I dare to do it upon any pretences of their ancestors’ faith, or of a dogmatical faith of these rebellious parents.

11. Through the whole course of your conference with them, see that the manner as well as the matter be suited to the end. And concerning the manner observe these particulars:

(1) That you make a difference according to the character of the persons whom you have to deal with. To the youthful, you must lay greater shame on sensual voluptuousness, and show them the nature and necessity of mortification. To the aged, you must do more to disgrace this present world, and make them apprehensive of the nearness of their change, and the aggravations of their sin, if they shall live and die in ignorance or impenitency. To inferiors and the young, you must be more free; to superiors and elders, more reverend. To the rich, you must show the vanity of this world; and the nature and necessity of self-denial; and the damnableness of preferring the present state to the next; together with the necessity of improving their talents in doing good to others. To the poor, you must show the great riches of glory which are offered to them in the gospel, and how well present comfort may be spared when everlasting joy may be got. Those sins must also be most insisted on which each one’s age, or sex, or temperament, or calling and employment in the world, doth most incline them to; as in females, loquacity, evil speeches, passion, malice, pride; in males, drunkenness, ambition, etc.

(2) Be as condescending, familiar, and plain as possible, with those that are of weaker capacity.

(3) Give them Scripture proof of all you say, that they may see that it is not you only, but God by you that speaketh to them.

(4) Be as serious as you can in the whole exercise, but especially in the applicatory part. I scarce fear anything more, than that some careless ministers will slubber over the work, and do all superficially and without life, and destroy this as they do all other duties, by turning it into a mere formality; putting a few cold questions to their people, and giving them two or three cold words of advice, without any life and feeling in themselves, and not likely to produce any feeling in the hearers. But surely he that valueth souls, and knoweth what an opportunity is before him, will go through the exercise with deep seriousness, and will be as earnest with them as for life or death.

(5) To this end, I should think it very necessary that, both before and in the work, we take special pains with our own hearts, to excite and strengthen our belief of the truth of the gospel, and of the invisible glory and misery that  are to come. I am confident this work will exceedingly try the strength of our belief. For he that is but superficially a Christian, and not sound at bottom, will likely feel his zeal quite fail him, especially when the duty is grown common, for want of a belief of the things of which he is to treat. An affected hypocritical fervency will not hold out long in duties of this kind. A pulpit shall have more of it, than a conference with poor ignorant souls. For the pulpit is the hypocritical minister’s stage: there, and in the press, and in other public acts, where there is room for ostentation, you shall have his best, perhaps his all. It is other kind of men that must effectually do the work now in hand.

(6) It is, therefore, very meet that we prepare ourselves for it by secret prayer; and, if time would permit, and there be many together, it were well if we began and ended with a short prayer with our people.

(7) Carry on all, even the most earnest passages, with clear demonstrations of love to their souls, and make them feel through the whole, that you aim at nothing but their salvation. Avoid all harsh, discouraging language.

(8) If you have not time to deal so fully with each individual as is here directed, then omit not the most necessary parts. Take several of them together who are friends, and who will not seek to divulge each other’s weaknesses, and speak to them in common as much as concerneth all. Only the examinations of their knowledge and state, and of their convictions of sin and misery, and special directions to them, must be used to the individuals alone; but take heed of slubbering it over with an unfaithful laziness, or by being too brief, without a real necessity.

12. Lastly, If God enable you, extend your charity to those of the poorest sort, before they part from you. Give them somewhat towards their relief and for the time that is thus taken from their labours, especially for the encouragement of them that do best. And to the rest, promise them so much when they have learned the catechism. I know you cannot give what you have not, but I speak to them that can. And now, brethren, I have done with my advice, and leave you to the practice. Though the proud may receive it with scorn, and the selfish and slothful with distaste, or even indignation, I doubt not but God will use it, in despite of the opposition of sin and Satan, to the awakening of many of his servants to their duty, and the promoting of the work of a right reformation; and that his blessing will accompany the present undertaking, for the saving of many a soul, the peace of you that undertake and perform it, the exciting of his servants throughout the nation to second you, and the increase of the purity and the unity of his churches. Amen.


*The sermon was preached in June 1624, when Ussher was Bishop of Meath. He became Archbishop of Armagh in 1625. James I gave orders for the sermon to be published.

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