Candychism

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.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2009.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. I’m on the floor of the PCA General Assembly right now as a Commissioner. I can think of lots of goodies to keep more of us in the hall during the day. Candy would be a good start.

  2. I agree with the above so much. If the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are to survive into the 21st century then the Catechisms, Confessions, the Nicean, Athanasian and Chalcedonian creeds must be taught. As a Roman Catholic growing up in Singapore, I learned the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene, and etc. They are are recited in the Latin Mass.

    The best written systematic theology – as far as literary standards go, is by W. G. T. Shedd. His writing is Lucid! That in and of itself should encourage elders and deacons to read his writings.

    I teach survey American history which is an irony since I am an immigrant! I have taught from 5th grade (physical geography, pre-Algebra to pre-Calculus, Physics, Robotics etc) to College (History and Poly. Sci.) and I have seen the results of our educational system. Many come into my class, blank slates – for them ancient history is the Gulf War and 9/11 is a dim memory – till I tell them who did not perpetrate 9/11.
    Of course, as far as teaching the young, it is absolutely vital that we teach them to read, actively and intelligently and to write essays. I could go on but I am appalled at the level of English and the lack of second languages. The last few National spelling bees in the up and coming generation have been won by the children of Indian immigrants.
    Apologies for the rambling minor rant.

  3. This is why even though we still don’t have kids, Ryan and I are adamantly opposed to the use of the Children’s Catechism. It seems to waste precious years on memorization of an inferior catechism (and I am really doubtful about its covenant theology too). It drives me nuts that Presbyterians (at least?) refuse to use a Sunday School curriculum based on the Shorter Catechism.

  4. We use the apparently much inferior Children’s Catechism (you’ll have to excuse us as we are in the PCA) and reward our kids after they have memorized so many questions. They love it, and my four-year-old’s theology on the covenant of works is quite sound.

  5. Does anyone have a link for the original article? Searching the term “candychism” on the OPC/NH website turns up no results.

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