fuller-fulton-lime-juice-nougat-candy-sweets-evening-postYears ago Leonard Coppes wrote an essay in the OPC magazine, New Horizons, on catechizing children. He called it “candychism.” In it he advocated rewarding children who memorize a catechism question and answer. To anticipate a frequent objection: No this isn’t crass bribery. The candy isn’t the point.  The intent is to say to our children, “We recognize that you made an effort to do something important and here’s a small token of recognition.” Kids love it. We rewarded our children with candychism. I’ve tossed candy to college students for answering a question correctly in class. They loved it.

What does it mean? It means that small children are apt to memorize. This is how they are wired. Our stupid contemporary education program seems to be systematically making us all ignorant by refusing to teach children that they can memorize or to encourage them to do it. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out decades ago, the ancient educational pattern in the West was “parrot, pert, and poet.” We can and should apply this pattern to the religious education of our children.

All things being equal, children are able to memorize a good deal of material at a very early age. As an experiment, I taught my children the first line of the Vulgate (“in principio creavit Deus, caelum et terram.”) when they were 2 and 3. They can still recite it at will. Imagine if our children knew the Heidelberg or Westminster Shorter Catechism by age 9? It’s quite possible. Simply have your child memorize a part of a q/a each Lord’s Day and before long your child will have the stuff of the Reformed faith in his head.

As he grows he will begin to ask immature, smart-aleck questions. This is why Sayers speaks of the “pert” stage of development. Children aren’t asking so much whether it’s all really true (though they may) but, however the question is formed, what they’re really asking is “Do you really believe this stuff or are you kidding?” Put on your kevlar and take the heat. It will be worth it.

Finally, your child will reach the “poet” stage where he will begin to see that there are transcendent realities that are true but cannot be easily quantified. Now they are ready to come to the table, because they see bread and wine but they understand that through them the Spirit is feeding us on the body and blood of Christ.

As J. W. Nevin noted in the 19th century, ours is not the system of the anxious bench (i.e., the invitation system) but the system of the catechism. In obedience to our Lord’s command, we initiate our children into the visible covenant community (Gen 17; Acts 2:39) and we do so with the hope and expectation that the Spirit will operate in them through the “due use of ordinary means.” We take them with us to Lord’s Day worship, where they can learn to sing the songs of Zion (God’s Word!) and where they can see for themselves the community of the redeemed gathered around Word and sacrament, where they can see and hear the sermon, where they can see their parents going forward not for an altar call but to the table of the Lord to be fed by Christ, where they can see that they are part of God’s people.

To do this, of course, congregations must stop sending children to another country during the service where they are trained to become Pentecostals and revivalists. What a rude shock it is to children when, after years of preparation to become contemporary evangelicals, they are tricked with a “bait and switch.” Having been trained to sing “Shine, Jesus Shine” they are then asked to sing Psalm 23. Wouldn’t it be better to teach them to sing the songs of Zion with God’s people from the beginning?

We can, if we will, break the cycle of theological poverty. Our children are quite capable of learning a great deal at an early age. The real questions are whether we are willing to teach them, do we love them that much? Let me encourage you with this: I’ve catechized young saints and I’ve buried older saints. It’s wonderful to see those facing death reciting Heidelberg 1, which they learned in their youth.

Parents, you can build a foundation for the rest of your child’s life and it can start with a piece of candy.

Thanks again to Michael Spotts for providing us with terrific pics of the life of the church.

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  1. There was a time when Emmie, our 3-year-old, who was only 2 at the time, could recite the *entire* Apostle’s Creed. We need to get back on catechizing our children as the Brisby family!

    BTW, Gabriel looks classic in that picture. :0)

  2. Dr. Clark,

    The candy reward can be a wonderful example of how God does not deal with us according to merit, but by grace alone. Ask your kid, “Why did I give you a piece of candy?” He’ll, of course, reply, “Because I said the catechism correctly.” Then you gently remind him that you are under no obligation to give him candy; the only reason he was rewarded was because it was the good pleasure of his parents to do so. They could have made him memorize the catechism without rewarding him. Then from that starting point you can move him to the doctrine of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. By the time the child is ten, he’ll be able to refute the Roman Catholic doctrine of condign and congruent merit, as well as the FV and the NPP. All that from Candychism!

  3. Check me out in that pic! Hilarious. i was talking to Gabriel about Dr. Beeke’s sermon on the Canaanite women’s faith and how Jesus and she spoke of dogs. That’s me doing my dog-begging.

    Note to all sem students: ya gotta get down on the kids’ level. When you do, it’s amazing how much they remember.

  4. When I taught at a Full-gospel Penty church school the parents would bribe their kids with Tootsie-rolls if they would just raise their hands in worship, etc. The oddity of employing such incentive to gain what is (presumably) a spontaneous behavior is only matched by faulting a Presbyterian for using incentive to gain a measured learning.

    My wife is routinely amazed at how our 6-year-old rattles off long answers. Truth be told, so am I, despite my assumption that kids are way better memorizers than adults, so it should be more amazing when adults so rattle.

    P.S. Dan, with my brutal sweeth tooth I fully expect a bag of candy when you’re here in May. You bring the sweets, I’ll buy the beer.

  5. Nick,

    It depends partly upon your ecclesiastical setting. If you’re in a Presbyterian setting then the WSC (Westminster Shorter Catechism) would be best. If you’re in a Dutch/German Reformed setting then the HC would be better. If you’re in neither and you have, as it were, a free kick, then I would go with the HC. It’s just a preference. I like the fact that the HC begins with belonging to Christ. The WSC’s first Q/A is wonderful too and brief! You could flip a coin and you wouldn’t lose.


    don’t forget the lovely and gracious Mrs Brisby!


    Thanks. I thought about making that point so I’m glad you did it for me. Well done.


    Thanks for being a faithful shepherd. We’re all grateful.

  6. I am using the GCP two year study on the Shorter Catechism with many of our youth in Sunday School. We cover the first 38 questions in the first year. I had a reward planned for the halfway point of the first year and one for the end of the year. But the kids were not memorizing like they should. So I started offering chocolate gold coins for every question memorized and everything changed. All of a sudden we had a good healthy competition to see who would receive a gold coin! Candychism is wonderful!

  7. “…To do this, of course, congregations must to stop sending children to another country, during the service, where they are trained to become Pentecostals and revivalists. What a rude shock it is to children when, after years of preparation to become contemporary evangelicals, they are tricked with a “bait and switch.” Having been trained to sing “Shine, Jesus Shine” they are then asked to sing Psalm 23. Wouldn’t it be better to teach them to sing the songs of Zion with God’s people from the beginning?…”

    Yes, it irks me to see this happen. Lutherans (and I assume Presbyterian/Reformed) never do this; if a baby is fussy, the pastor just preaches a little louder. ‘Course, the kids in those congregations had already been baptized so they’re considered part of the Church. To turn them away from the worship service would be an affront to the work of the HS.

    Evangelicals/baptists, on the other hand, evidently place them into a different category until they can be credobaptized. And memorize creeds and catechisms? Oh my, no! We’re all supposed to be able go directly to scripture and figure out what it all means entirely on our own. That way we can have an entire congregation with different interpretations.

  8. Great minds think alike! Great article! I like the term “Candychism” and what it involves. I try to use “spiritual vitamins or bite-size nuggets of Reformed creeds and confessions” as a way to induce adults to daily check out the “Daily Confessions” web site –

    Here is what I posted today at my web site referring to it as a good way to learn the Reformed confessions.

    “As you may have noticed from a prior post, the Daily Confession web site provides spiritual vitamins or bite-size nuggets of Reformed creeds and confessions. The link is in the right margin under links and is also provided here in the text –

    Here is the Daily Confession for today –
    Belgic Confession, week 8
    February 25, 2009

    Article 13: The Doctrine of God’s Providence

    “We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement. Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly. We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits. This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground[20] without the will of our Father. In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will. For that reason we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God involves himself in nothing and leaves everything to chance. “

  9. “What is catechizing in the very nature of it, but as it were a taking of any one by the hand, to lift him up out of the dungeon of darkness, and to bring him into the light and sight of Christ crucified, the which alone doth yield justification, Isa. 53.11 and life eternal, John 17:3. So that catechizing is a most special pole to lift up the brazen Serpent, the only beholding of which perfectly cureth that deadly wound which that fiery serpent of hell gave us, John 3.”

  10. Hi Nick,

    I prefer the 1978 translation published by the Reformed Church in the U.S. It might be available via

    There’s an edition on my website which is a slight modification of the same:

    I do not care for the 1976 CRC translation that is widely available. The edition in Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, vol 3. is fine. The edition in the 1959 CRC Psalter-Hymnal (make sure it was printed before 1975) is fine.

    The 1960-61 (?) edition published by the UCC isn’t very helpful, as I recall.

  11. This reforming evangelical wants to memorise a catechism. I know that asking this on Heidelblog(!) is a bit daft, but which is best and why?

    Nick, if you have kids, I would actually recommend the Children’s version of the shorter catechism — with your kids of course.

    Also, I very much like this SC devotional book. You don’t have to rigorously stick to their schedule — we keep it on the dinner table with a bible, and every night we eat together at home (4-5 nights a week) we recite the current question (sometimes the last few questions), read the next devotion & its scripture references, and recite again. Our 8- and even 5-year old is memorizing the SC this way, and even our 3-year old is picking up snippets and phrases. (The only drawback is that the book uses some modern translation of the SC nobody’s ever heard of. I recommend getting a booklet version of the original, and just change “doth” to “does”, etc.)

    Two more confessional resources for you online: Daily Confession and Daily Westminster.

  12. FWIW, as a dad and pastor, I don’t encourage “children’s” catechisms for the simple reason that, if we break up the HC or the WSC into small bits, we don’t need a “children’s” catechism. The HC and WSC are already “children’s” catechisms by design. Third, there’s a limited window during which time the memorization will happen. You get one shot at it. I would make it the one with which you want the kids to live not a pre-catechism. Then they have two catechisms tooling around in their heads.

  13. Heidelberg 1 is awesome. To just learn that would be enough for me. I experienced that disconnect from children’s Sunday School to adult faith. Without a solid doctrinal grounding that a catechism gives I couldn’t deal with all the stuff thrown at me from all sides when I reached 15/16.

    This article was timely for me, Dr Clark. Thank you.

  14. First Rev. Hyde
    Now I know why I enjoy your sermons when you fill in for Rev. Kaloostian.
    Second Dr. Clark
    I am wondering how you feel about the HC for Kids Titled Q&A from CRC Pub. Copyright 1992?

  15. Hi Mike,

    I’m sorry but I don’t know it. If it’s based on the ’75-76 edn of the HC I wouldn’t use it.

    Rather than learning the catechism in layers, better in stages.

  16. Awesome! We have recently started doing “candychism” at our church, Pilgrim OPC, in Raleigh. When I read the title initially I thought, uh oh, he’s gonna blast candychism! Ha!

    May I re-print this post in our congregational newsletter, with credit of course?

    Thank you,
    Chris Townsend

  17. Hi Chris,

    You’re welcome to use this of course. There’s a linked essay that is a little more developed and polished. You might do better to use that one. Anything to help.

  18. Thank you, and thank you for pointing out the linked essay too. I missed that link the first time I read the post in my Google Reader.

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