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Pioneer Life in Zorra
Chapter VIII. The Catechising


"All that I have taught of art, everything that I have written, every greatness that there has been in any thought of mine, whatever I have done in my life, has simply been due to the fact that when I was a child my mother daily read with me a part of the Bible, and daily made me learn a part of it by heart."—RUSKIN.

"THE Lord willing, we will have a meeting for catechising in the house of Donald Ross, - line, on a week from first Tuesday, at 3 o'clock p.m." Such was the pulpit intimation which set the whole district referred to astir during the following week.

"Eh, my!" said Mrs. MacTaggart to her neighbor, as they walked home from church, "will yon not put Kirsty Ross all in a flutter? Ye ken she is no verra strong, and she is afeard o' the minister."

"And I doot," said the neighbor, "if she kens the Catechism very well."

Great was the overhauling of things at the house of Mrs. Ross, in preparation for the catechising. One of the three beds was removed to make room for the occasion. There were the usual whitewashing, scrubbing, dusting, and rearranging of furniture, commonly known as house-cleaning. The few simple decorations on the wall were rearranged so as to show to the best advantage; and the broken corner of the looking-glass was ingeniously concealed by a drape. All this work Mrs. Ross did unaided, for her husband, though a kind-hearted man, was occupied from dawn till dark, either threshing in the barn or chopping in the woods. The evenings were occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Ross renewing their acquaintance with the Catechism and the metrical Psalms. The two eldest children, Robbie and Maggie, were also drilled on the "questions" as far as the commandments, but the other three, Donald, Jennie, and Roddie, were taught only the creed and the Lord's Prayer, or a part of it. Similar preparation was made during the week throughout the whole district, and the candle or the rush light was kept burning in many homes till a much later hour than usual. Even the programme of studies in the public school was arranged with a view to the catechising.

The day announced has come, and for fully one hour before the time appointed the people can be seen coming from all directions to the place of meeting. The children accompany their parents, for there is no school to-day.

These catechisings were not all public; some of them were in private. If a man who was not in the full membership of the Church desired baptism for his child, he was required to undergo special examination as to his religious knowledge and character. And the examination was not always satisfactory. One, whom we shall call Donald, went to the minister for such examination, but failed to pass. On his way home he met another going to the minister on the same errand.

"Ah!" said Donald, "the minister was hard on me th' day. She canna get no baptism."

"And what for no?" said his neighbor. "What did he ask you?"

"Why, he axed me how mony commandments there are."

"And why did ye no say ten?"

"Ten! ten!" cried Donald, "She tried him with a hun'r (hundred), and he was no satisfied. Ye needna try him wi' ten."

Unconsciously beautiful, however, was the answer of a poor woman. Being asked a number of questions, none of which she was able to answer, she made this reply: "Minister, I canna speak weel for my Saviour, but I can live for Him, and I think I could dee for Him."

In order to understand the interest attaching to the catechising, it must be remembered that no person in the world is prouder of his nationality than the Highlander. It was a Highlander who said of the Queen, when her daughter was married to a clansman, "She'll be a prood woman noo." The typical Highlander is also intensely self-conscious, and wishes to stand well in the esteem of his neighbors for his religious intelligence. Hence the close, patient study of the Catechism before a public examination, and the chagrin when a question was asked which he could not answer, and the many expedients resorted to in order to avoid committing himself when in doubt as to the correct answer. Back seats and concealed corners of the room were at a premium. Persons well posted were in good demand as prompters. "You sit beside me, Johnnie, and gie me a word when the minister speirs me the question, for you see my memory is no sae gude as aince it was."

"Now" said the minister, "John McDonald, we'll begin with you, as you are the man of the house."

"Oh, minister, please don't; ask Peggy, my wife here, for she has more scripture nor me."

On another occasion a somewhat difficult question was asked a woman. Contrary to expectations she answered correctly. Then a still more difficult one was put. Again the reply was quite correct. And so question after question followed, each more difficult than the preceding, and every time came the correct answer. At length it dawned upon the minister that there must be in the neighborhood of his catechumen some unusually clever prompter. Quietly, and without the slightest sign of surprise or disapproval, he asks, "Am Veil Eachann Ros na shuidhe an sin?" ("Is Hector Ross sitting there?") Of course Hector Ross, an intelligent and sympathetic elder, was sitting there, and, concealed from the minister, was assisting the poor woman in her theological examination.

"Don't be bothering me," said a short, stout, middle-aged man to those around him, when the question was put to him. "If I go wrang will the minister himsel' no tell me?" This was said as" a blind"; the man did not know the question, and as a matter of fact there was no one prompting him; but he wished to convey the idea to his examiner that his failure was owing, not to ignorance, but to the too great eagerness of those around him to assist. The trick worked well, for the minister at once said, "That's right, John, depend on yourself; here's the question," and with this the good man repeated nearly the whole answer for John, while a grim smile played over John's countenance, and his eye twinkled at the thought of how he had cheated the minister.

Sometimes the answer to a question was exceedingly though unconsciously droll, causing ill-concealed amusement among the younger portion of the audience, while the old people looked more than ordinarily grave. A boy, who had been specially trained by his mother in good manners, was being examined on the following passage:

"We have all sinned."

"Now, my boy," said the minister, "does that mean that every one of us has sinned?" putting the emphasis on "every one."

The boy hesitated, fearing an affirmative answer, lest he might cast a reflection on the character of his pastor. But, upon a repetition of the question, the lad replied:

"Every one has sinned except yoursel' and the elders." He saved his manners at the expense of his theology.

It may here be explained that while the minister presided at these meetings, putting such questions and making such remarks as he saw fit, the questions were usually asked, not by the minister, but by one of the elders. There was tact and wisdom in this. The elder selected on this occasion was one who could not read, but who was, nevertheless, thoroughly conversant with the Catechism and with his Bible, and a man of intellectual power and native eloquence.

"Johnnie Dougall," said the elder, "give us, the twenty-third Psalm."

The Psalm is repeated from beginning to end without a slip:

"The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by."

"Now," said the minister, addressing himself to the father of the young man who had just recited, "your son has done well. I trust the words he has repeated are the testimony of his heart concerning the Lord's goodness. But you are a man of experience; you can look back upon a life of many ups and downs. Can you give us this beautiful Psalm, changing the time of it from the present to the past?" With some kind help from his minister, and an occasional word from young Willie Saunders, the father repeated as follows:

The Lord has been my shepherd, and I have not been in want.
He hath made me to lie down in green pastures; he hath led me the quiet waters by.

"My soul he bath restored again,
And he hath made me to walk
In the paths of righteousness,
Even for his own name's sake."

The change in the tense of the Psalm conveyed an entirely new idea. The minds of the aged men and women present went across the ocean to the heather hills of Scotland and the old kirk, to the parting with friends, and the long sea voyage, and the journey into the unbroken forest, and the varied experiences of years. And, as they thought of these things, tears came to the eyes of some while the testimony was borne, "The Lord has been (not 'is') my shepherd."

"Well," said the minister, "if Jehovah has been your Shepherd in the past He is your Shepherd to-day, and He will continue to care for you unto the end, and you will dwell in His house for evermore."

Among the Shorter Catechism questions, of course, "effectual calling" was not overlooked.

"Catherine Macintosh," said the elder, "will you tell us what is effectual calling?"

At once, in a clear, sweet voice, that could be heard distinctly by everyone in the house, came the answer:

"Effectual calling is the work of God's Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel."

"This," said the minister, "is a great question, and contains a complete account of the scheme of human redemption." Then in a plain, simple way he comments upon each clause of the question. "And now let us see how many here can bear personal testimony to these blessed truths. Let us use the singular number and the past tense, instead of the plural number and the present tense, as in the Catechism. Who can repeat the question with these changes, and thus make it the expression of their own experience?" The pastor's idea was a little further explained, and then it was quickly apprehended. One head after another was bowed in humility. Still none ventured to respond. Again the question was asked:

"Is there no one who can bear clear personal testimony to the truth of his effectual calling?"

Slowly a young man rose from his seat. His frame shook with emotion. His voice trembled, and tears filled his eyes, while he repeated the question with the change suggested.

"Effectual calling is the work of God's Spirit, whereby He hath convinced me of my sin and misery, enlightened my mind in the knowledge of Christ, and renewed my will and persuaded and enabled me to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to me in the Gospel."

While the young man was speaking there was a solemn silence, and as he sat down there was an audible sigh of praise, with here and there an expression of" Thank God." A profound impression was produced, for all present knew the lad as one of noble Christian character. He had a genuine spiritual experience, and he told it. "Go home to thy friends," said Christ to the man healed, "and tell them what great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee."

And now the benediction was pronounced. There was much handshaking, and many were the inquiries as to the welfare of the children away from home, and "friends ayont the sea." The minister, one or two elders, and a few of the more intimate friends of the family, remained and partook of the "hamely" but hospitable meal.

These occasions are gone, and few of those who took part in them are now with us, but the good effects are still to be seen. We have occasionally heard Mr. Mackenzie charged with remissness in looking after the young of his congregation. This is a great injustice to the memory of a good man. Mr. Mackenzie carefully sought the godly upbringing of the young, and that he sought it not in vain the history of the congregation amply testifies, But he secured this end, not so much through the Sabbath school, as by taking pains, in private and in public catechising, to teach parents and children their duties to God and each other.

The men from Zorra who have become missionaries, ministers, lawyers, doctors, and Christ tian workers, of all kinds, received their early religious education, not so much in the Sabbath school as at the fireside, and from their parents, God's own specially appointed teachers. It is quite possible to abuse a good thing, and there is reason to fear that we are at the present day allowing the Sabbath school to supersede parental effort.

Dr. Guthrie ascribes the mental vigor and business tact of the Scottish people largely to their familiarity with the Book of Proverbs. And so we hesitate not to ascribe a large measure of the material, mental, and moral worth of Zorra to the faithful training of their children by the pioneers, an important part of which was connected with the catechising, so faithfully attended to by the Rev. Donald Mackenzie.


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