John Wallis’s “Brief and Easie Explanation” in the Context of Catechesis in Early Modern England -- By: Jacob Thielman

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 80:2 (Fall 2018)
Article: John Wallis’s “Brief and Easie Explanation” in the Context of Catechesis in Early Modern England
Author: Jacob Thielman


John Wallis’s “Brief and Easie Explanation”
in the Context of Catechesis
in Early Modern England

Jacob Thielman

Jacob Thielman is a doctoral student in systematic and philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.

John Wallis (1616–1703), the contentious polymath and developer of infinitesimal calculus, published the very first explication of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in 1648. As one of the scribes at the Westminster Assembly, Wallis was in a unique position to write such an explication. This article argues that Wallis wrote his simplified catechism out of the pedagogical concerns that emerged through the English catechetical tradition of the mid sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wallis’s Brief and Easie Explanation reduces the catechism to yes/no questions, a method touted by the renowned catechist Herbert Palmer, but not, of course, finally adopted by the committee. By bringing back into use the rejected method, Wallis was not quarreling with the Assembly’s decision, but putting the Palmer method into circulation as another aid to disseminating the Assembly’s teaching. After sifting through the text and finding no theological innovation, this article concludes that Wallis’s concerns were not theological but educational. Wallis was aware of the need for plain teaching and the debate surrounding catechesis. The controversy over pedagogy and the way it drove new innovations serves to highlight the common thrust of the movement to consolidate and purvey the English Reformation; even those who disagreed with other methods of teaching nevertheless encouraged the common cause represented in the proliferation of methods. Wallis’s Brief and Easie Explanation is therefore a peaceable contribution to the work of reform, and meticulously faithful to the results of the Westminster Assembly with which he was uniquely familiar.

Few have deliberately questioned the value of catechising,” S. W. Carruthers pointed out half a century ago, “though many have simply let it fall into disuse. On the other hand, the encomiums of the method are many.”1

While it is true that catechesis has nearly always been lauded and its absence lamented, in the two hundred tumultuous years after the 1530s, English catechesis truly began to flourish and catechisms themselves to proliferate.2 What drove this proliferation was not simply a positive view of catechesis. The deluge was mainly produced by questions surrounding how catechesis should be conducted best in the service of what was, if th...

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