Climbing Up the Child’s Ladder: Catechism for Little Saints

By August 4, 2012

I stumbled on this little gem while looking for something else in the Internet Archive’s collection of Mormon publications [1] and was both charmed and intrigued by it. The pamphlet is a 16-page tract, titled “The Latter-day Saints’ Catechism: Or, Child’s Ladder,” by Elder David Moffat. Subtitle: “Being a Series of Questions Adapted for the Use of the Children of Latter-day Saints.”[2] Although it is undated, the CHL has penciled 1860? as a publication date; Peter Crawley’s A Descriptive Biography of the Mormon Church, V. 2 1848-1852 (BYU, 2005) tentatively puts it at 1851 instead (item 618). [3]

The catechism was printed by Brother J[ohn] B[enjamin] Franklin, at 5 Northampton Street, King’s Cross, London. Today the City Dance Academy is located along that stretch of street. The little volume was sold at the Latter-day Saints Book and Millennial Star Depot at 35 Jewin Street, an address which no longer exists, as Jewin Street was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Barbican Estate (which is, apparently, a prime example of British “brutalist” architecture, hmm). The price was one penny.

The notion of a memorized catechism for children and the less literate has a long tradition in Christianity, both in Catholic and Protestant traditions, but not (at least not these days) in Mormonism. So a Mormon catechism, especially for children, might seem surprising. This little tract leaves me with many questions. For starters, was Moffat making a cultural adaptation to the religious world of the British Isles at mid-19th century? Or was the notion of a children’s catechism present in Utah Mormonism as well in this era? To the latter at least, yes. John Jacques, an English convert, created a Children’s Catechism that was one of the earliest and most popular of the church’s publications for the fledging international church, being translated into ten languages including Dutch, Hawaiian, and Scandinavian languages. Interestingly, Jacques’s version was also being purveyed at the Jewin Street bookstore in the mid-1850s.[4] The format endured nearly to the twentieth century; George Q. Cannon published a 58-page (!) Sunday School Catechism No. 1 for the Deseret Sunday School Union in 1891.[5] Davis Bitton has written about Mormon catechisms, including the Lectures on Faith which is also structured in the question-answer format, and in his essay he notes that as early as 1848 British saints desired something they could give their children or from which they could teach them. Catechisms were widely used in both Mormon Sunday Schools and Primaries throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and although not called as such, the practice of memorizing as part of religious instruction persists in the missionary lessons, Seminary “Scripture Mastery” verses and children learning the Articles of Faith by rote.

Moffat’s effort preceded Jacques and to a large extent was replaced by it; Jacques’s work was not only vigorously self-promoted but also widely disseminated by the Church and mentioned in the memoirs of at least two subsequent prophets, so it became the “official” catechism. Moffat, a Scottish-born working man, seems to have offered his in the spirit of sharing, envisioning that it might be useful to parents like himself:

Being a father of four children and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am desirous that my children should be taught in their youth the rudiments of those principles that I now entertain. But whether I should be able to abide by the principles of the above church or not, I am willing that my children should, and continue therein. Having asked counsel from the council of the branch, I was permitted to form a Child’s Ladder, whereby they may ascend to a greater height than their progenitors, in the scale of intelligence and truth. I have, therefore, furnished you with about 100 questions and answers, if you deem them worthy let them form a little book, so as a mother can teach her children when she sitteth down, and when she walketh by the way. I have endeavoured to render them as short as possible, in order that they may be attained by the weakest mind; and where a proof was long and tedious, I have shortened it without removing its sense.[6]

Moffat’s catechism is structured into three “Series.” The first series begins with naming, starting with the child’s own name and moving immediately to the “new name,” (do we EVER tell children about that now?) to Jesus Christ and the name of the Lord, to names for fallen angels and unclean spirits, then to names for the “fowls” and “cattle,” and finally to the named stars of heaven. The second series discusses the nature of God as an embodied personage with body, parts and passions, along with Christ as a resurrected being, and the physical nature of angels. Lastly, the third series takes up the destiny of man, revelation, restoration, dispensations, the calling of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon’s coming forth, and how to pray (including an example of a bedtime supplication).

When I first read Moffat’s catechism, I thought that its nearest descendant for today’s LDS children might be “My Gospel Standards,”[7] and if so, the differences are striking indeed. Whereas the Child’s Ladder takes the catechumen through a logical progression of stating his or her inner beliefs—each backed with a Bible reference—MGS enumerates specifically external behaviors or attributes, each of which the child commits to with a rousing “I will” or “I will not” statement (“I will choose the right,” “I will not swear or use crude words,” “I will only listen to music that is pleasing to Heavenly Father,” and so on). This focus on external performances rather than doctrine as such certainly characterizes how we teach young Mormons today. And for some reason I also fixated on the frequent mentions of angels in Moffat’s Child’s Ladder – they show up repeatedly as mediators, messengers, and essential role-players in the restoration. Consider this exchange on p. 14:

83. How did Joseph Smith get in possession of so high and so holy a calling?
Through the ministration of holy angels.
84. What more did angels make known to Joseph?
The Book of Mormon, the fullness of the everlasting gospel.
85. Have you any account of an angel coming with the everlasting gospel?
Yes. Revelations xiv. 6. And I saw an angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to them that dwell on the earth.

In today’s mainstream accounts of the first vision, angels are certainly present, but it seems that Joseph Smith’s relationship to God is constructed nowadays as direct and unmediated (i.e. WITH angels but not THROUGH them). It’s almost as if Moffat is having his readers build from an assumed belief in angels to a testimony of the prophet rather than the other way around. I was recently in a Primary calling, and I notice that in the current Primary curriculum, angels just don’t come up very often. A lesson certainly wouldn’t, er, harp on them in this way.

Let me share the prayer at the end – I’d be interested to get your take on what you’d think if a little kid lisped this one out in a church meeting today.

O God, my heavenly Father, I thank thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, for all the benefits of thy mercy this day; and I ask thee to give me thy fatherly care this night; give thy spirit to them that are weary in thy church, and ready to faint, lest they fall from thy ways and die. Expand my young and tender mind, to behold thy law, that I may know thee in my youth, so that I may be able to withstand the evils of the world in my riper years; strengthen and sustain my father and my mother to provide for my many wants, and may I live to render back to thee the gratitude which I owe, even so, Amen.

[1] See also http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/11/09/lds-church-history-library-internet-archive/ and http://archive.org/search.php?query=church%20of%20jesus%20christ%20of%20latter-day%20saints%20AND%20mediatype%3Atexts

[2] http://archive.org/details/latterdaysaintsc01moff

[3] http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/descriptive-bibliography-mormon-church-volume-2/entries-600-699

[4] http://lib.byu.edu/digital/mpntc/az/C.php

[5] http://www.splendidsun.com/wp/mormon-catechism/

[6] Davis Bitton, “Mormon Catechisms” (Maxwell Institute)

[7] http://www.lds.org/hf/art/display/1,16842,4218-1-6-174,00.html

Article filed under British Isles From the Archives International Mormonism Theology


Comments

  1. This is fantastic, Tona; lots to unpack here. On your final question concerning the closing prayer, the distinction between that and today’s is the classic shift from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, at least in outward reflection.

    This notion of how we taught our children, and how children experienced the gospel, is fascinating, and finally getting more attention thanks to questions like this and the work done by Rebecca de Schweinitz.

    Comment by Ben P — August 4, 2012 @ 8:12 am

  2. On the discrepancy in estimated publication dates: Moffatt’s catechism was published in three issues of the Millennial Star in 1849. In 1853, again in the Star, John Jaques announced his intention to produce his own child’s catechism, one that quickly became so popular among Mormon families and Sunday Schools that nothing else could compete. So I’d say Pete Crawley is closest, but wonder if even his estimate isn’t a year or two late.

    And I think the answer to your question of “was Moffat making a cultural adaptation to the religious world of the British Isles at mid-19th century?” is “yes,” and that if Jaques was either influenced by Moffatt or else took his own ideas from the well-developed British Sunday School tradition; there wasn’t anything like it in the American Mormon culture at the time.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2012 @ 8:31 am

  3. How interesting! As a convert from Roman Catholicism, I still remember much of my catechism, verbatim -from nearly fifty years ago.

    Comment by Don Flynn — August 4, 2012 @ 8:47 am

  4. Wonderful. I use this catechism in my work on baby blessings as a lens through which to approach LDS notions of covenant, family, and church membership. Those first pages are spectacular…but also fairly unique in the way it lays things out.

    Ben, I haven’t read Rebecca de Schweinitz’s stuff. Happen to have a recommendation?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  5. The emphasis on angels and the question/answer format still hang on in one of our hymns: What was witnessed in the heavens

    Comment by Bryan Catanzaro — August 4, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  6. Ha! I hadn’t even connected that hymn with the tradition of catechisms! Thanks, Bryan.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2012 @ 9:35 am

  7. J: she has a great overview of scholarship on children both within and without Mormon studies in the interdisciplinary roundatble Rachel Cope put togethher for te spring JMH issue.

    Comment by Ben P — August 4, 2012 @ 9:57 am

  8. Thanks, Ben. I am behind on all my reading.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2012 @ 10:42 am

  9. Super interesting Tona! And thanks for the shout out Ben. I haven’t really spent any time on this but the use of catechisms for children seems to be fairly common in early America–and the mid-to late nineteenth century is a transitional period for child socialization methods in the US–we shift from methods that call for passive compliance, more overt coercion, to methods more in line with agency and freedom ideals; we move to methods that involve the invisible conditioning of the will. James Block’s The Crucible of Consent is definitely worth reading. Not surprised that George Q would be one to promote the use of catechisms or that the switch away from their use would happen at the same time, for instance, that the Church embraces fiction as a means for teaching its youth. I’m also interested in on-going tensions in Mormonism between agency ideals and the assertion of generational/traditional authority (which more coercive teaching methods such as rote memorization represent) when it comes to child/youth socialization. (something I’m especially thinking about now for the late 1960s and 1970s)

    Comment by Reb — August 4, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  10. Great comments all; Rebecca, thanks for finding the post and commenting! Bryan: YES, well played. Rebecca, would you call a catechism like this 1850 one Moffat wrote an example of “passive compliance” (ie memorize and recite back, no independent thought required)? Or would it be an “invisible conditioning” especially as Moffat envisioned it – taught by a mother as she went about her daily work with her children alongside?

    Comment by Tona H — August 4, 2012 @ 1:50 pm


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