"The blessed echoes of truth": catechisms and confirmation in Puritan New England

Howard, Agnes Rose, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Innes, Stephen, Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, As-History, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, As-Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation analyzes the role of catechesis in Puritan New England. Although other studies of early New England have noted the importance of catechisms, they stop short of a systematic examination of these documents and their usage. Placing New England catechisms in their European Protestant context, I examine the content and practice of this form of religious instruction. Employed in colonial churches, families, and schools, catechisms taught children the fundamental elements of Puritan theology, including the order of redemption, the right structure of the church, and the moral obligations of community life. Catechizing helped to build doctrinal literacy among the laity. As conversion narratives reveal, Puritans found catechisms important elements in the process of religious formation.

While religious instruction in New England substantially resembled the practice of other European Protestants, colonists departed from it in one important respect. Many early modern Protestants used catechizing to prepare youth for confirmation and full communion in their churches. Massachusetts settlers did not, at first, use catechisms this way. The Cambridge Platform did not include a confirmation ceremony. However, as ministers confronted problems surrounding children and the sacraments later in the seventeenth century, they reconsidered this rite. Some clergy looked to Protestant confirmation as a means to bring baptized children nearer to adult membership. However, while the church context of catechizing varied among New England congregations, inside and outside of the meetinghouse, New England colonists employed catechisms to cultivate piety and transmit doctrine to each rising generation.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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