Catechists in the New World

The traditional titles, offices and vocations of the pioneer mainline churches are largely unknown today in rural Nova Scotia, having slowly transitioned into more casual forms of religious observance or, in most cases, into a secular lifestyle with a Christian ethical code. Gone are the days of ruling elders, precentors, Clerk of Session, stewards, etc..   Long gone is the Catechist, the subject of this post.

The term Catechist comes from Greek meaning to teach by spoken word. It was a recognized position in the Catholic laity prior to the reformation and thus migrated into the early Protestant church.

By the 18th century, the Catechists were a highly regarded group of religionists in the North Highlands of Scotland. There were initially appointed from among the laity to assist the Parish Minister with Christian education matters, such as instructing parents on baptism, preparing adults for confirmation and presiding over what we now call “bible study meetings”.   The parishes in the north were geographically large and remote.   People living in the out lying areas would be unable to attend the Parish church on a regular basis therefore the Catechist would be dispatched to those areas to instruct a particular family or group of families in their homes.

These Catechists were chosen from the laity by the minister and occasionally by the people. They were men of unwavering piety, deep thought and high functionality in Gaelic. English was not necessarily required and they often supplemented the preaching of the ministers who were not necessarily as proficient in Gaelic.   Some had basic education and could read in both languages however many relied upon a high capacity to remember everything they ever heard including extensive tracts of scripture.   Some received a stipend from the Church of Scotland for those duties performed under the supervision of the clergy. Others simply served as part of a personal calling.

The Catechists were the core of a unique group in the northern shires known as “The Men”.   The Men would assemble at the various sacrament events in the neighbouring parishes.   During the four day communion, Friday was reserved for “The Men”.   A scriptural passage would be presented by a presiding minister and “The Men” would rise in turn and speak extensively as to the meaning. Some were very eloquent and philosophical. Others used the occasion to speak impressively but without substance. The minister would conclude the day long event by correcting scriptural references and summarizing the debate.   Some Catechists became quite famous over the whole of Highlands for their insight and speaking abilities.

By the start of the 19th century, just prior to the clearances, the Catechists had risen to great prominence, surpassing the elected elders and clergy in popularity. This was particularly true in the Parish of Clyne where the pulpit was occupied by Rev. Walter Ross.   Rev. Ross was an appointee of the Countess and, transparently, was a voice of the Sutherland Estate. He was a cattleman, often absent from his duties.   The Catechists filled the spiritual void and often conducted services in the outlying areas as well as in the school in Strath Brora.   In the messy politics of the Strath Brora clearances, Rev. Ross clearly took sides with the Estate.

It will come as no surprise that the Catechists received no special treatment during the upheavals of 1819 to 1822 in Clyne and beyond.   They were among those evicted from their homes and sent elsewhere to start over.   Three such men found their way to Earltown. They came from separate parishes and at different times. But none the less, they came as a result of social upheaval during which their church remained silent.

In Northern Nova Scotia, particularly in North Colchester, Pictou County and parts of Cape Breton, the Presbyterian population exploded in the first decades of the 19th century.   Ministers were scarce and of those that were established in the towns, most did not adhere to the Church of Scotland.   Although disappointed with the Church of Scotland, (The Kirk), the settlers out of the far north of Scotland still clung to it. It would be many years before the infant settlements, such as Earltown, would receive a settled minister.   In the mean time they traveled to Pictou, New Glasgow or Hopewell for baptisms and marriage. Occasionally a missionary would pass through the settlement and handle the backlog. Weekly worship fell upon themselves.

In the case of Earltown, the three Catechists filled the void. They visited families in their remote homesteads, presided over burials and conducted prayer meetings in homes or barns. By the mid 1830’s, Rev. William Sutherland was living at West Earltown as a farmer. He was never called but availed himself to those who would adhere to him. It appears that some families, for whatever reason, stuck with the Catechists until the arrival of the Free Church and a settled minister in 1846.

Proceedings of the Presbyterian Church indicate that the “Catechist” designation was still recognized as late as the 1860’s but only as it related to trained missionaries sent to labour in remote areas not served by a minister.   These Catechists appear to have been student ministers or experienced teachers aspiring to be in the pulpit. “The Men” in the communions of the new world included some former Highland Catechists but now included the elders who now had Christian education as part of their job descriptions.   As the Catechists of old died off, the elders became the sole leaders in education and outreach.

The three following posts will follow the travels of George Baillie, William Murray and Joseph MacKenzie, all active Catechists in Earltown.


MacPhail’s Edinburgh Ecclesiastical Journal and Literary Reviews:

     Letter to the Editor by anonymous Highland Parish Minister

 Munro, Rev. Donald, “Records of Grace in Sutherland”, Free Church of Scotland 1953 (A biographical collection compiled by Rev. Munro of Rogart in the mid 1800’s)

 Patterson, Rev. George, “A History of the County of Pictou”, Dawson Bros., Montreal 1877

Report of the Proceedings of the General Presbyterian Council, Edinburgh, 1877

 Correspondence: Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie, University of the Highlands & Islands, Dornoch

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