Decatur, Ga.

In the midst of all of the studying, soul searching, yearning and praying in which students typically engage during their final years of college, every year a few brave and ambitious juniors and seniors at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related colleges and universities choose to add to what is demanded of them by diving into the rigorous process of memorizing and reciting all 107 answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. 

Why students like Heather Wallace and Daniel Lewis would willingly subject themselves to the memorization of this celebrated Reformation creed turns out not to be such a mystery after all.  There is, first and foremost, the satisfaction of achieving the Shorter Catechism's purpose, which is to guide teacher and pupil in deepening their discussion of the Christian faith. There is also the opportunity to earn the annual, prestigious Samuel Robinson Award, offered to undergraduate junior and senior students enrolled full time in one of the colleges or universities related to the PC(USA).

Headshot of Daniel Lewis

Daniel Lewis

In addition to the rote memorization of the catechism, applicants for the award are required to write a 2,000 word original essay on an assigned topic. Wallace and Lewis – representing Whitworth University – along with fellow 2010 recipients from Agnes Scott College, Queens University, Trinity University, Eckerd College, and Alma College, were asked to select the question and answer pair from the catechism that speaks most directly to the PC(USA) today and explain why.

Of the 66 PC(USA)-related colleges and universities, perhaps none takes on the challenge of the Samuel Robinson Award like Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash.  Wallace and Lewis were the highest scoring among the nine students who received the award in 2010.

Because Wallace – currently a senior at Whitworth – has always had an interest in the way the church uses Scripture, she engaged Q.90, which asks, "How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?"  According to Wallace the answer, that "we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love; lay it up in our hearts; and practice it in our lives," also speaks to the need of the church to "offer people outside of the church a place to come and engage, rather than necessarily get answers."

"That's been an important part of my own journey of faith and something that I have also experienced firsthand with others through volunteer work," said Wallace, a member of Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in Lake Oswego, Ore.  Wallace, who attends Knox Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Wash., near the Whitworth campus, has led a Bible study for a small group of high school girls for a couple of years.

"They come from kind of a rough background and don't necessarily profess their own faith and relationship in Jesus Christ," said Wallace.  "But when I engage them in Bible stories every week in a way that's not saying 'I'm trying to convince you that this is right!' but rather 'how can you participate in this story?' it bears some really cool fruit."

It was her passion for theology and engaging the world through Scripture – as well as a chance to win the $2,500-$5,000 award – that sparked Wallace's interest in the Samuel Robinson Award.  "I always keep my eye out for scholarships to help with school and having it specific to the Presbyterian Church definitely made it feel like a really good opportunity to work really hard as well as see that reward," she said.

According to Laura Bryan, associate for Financial Aid for Studies for the PC(USA), "The Samuel Robinson award is challenging for students. The program tests the student's ability to manage the memorization, work with a recitation partner, think critically about the catechism as it relates to the essay topic, and optimally to synthesize what they have learned from the catechism in the essay. In recognition of their hard work and commitment, Samuel Robinson Award winners receive the largest single year award we offer to undergraduates."

Toni Sutherland, program coordinator for Chaplain Services at Whitworth, says that she looks forward to announcing the opening of applications every year.  "All I do is send out a campus wide email saying what the Samuel Robinson Award is and what the criteria are," Sutherland said. "I ask the theology professors to announce it in their classes and then the students take it from there.  They do all the work."

Sutherland, who regularly reads the catechism's questions for Whitworth students' recitations, has witnessed many students undergo the process.  "I have heard comments from them that it’s a lot of work but very beneficial in helping them to learn more about the catechism and what it means," said Sutherland, "I think the fact that Whitworth is so strong speaks to the quality of our students."

2010 Whitworth graduate, Daniel Lewis – who is now employed through Northwest Medical Physics Center as an intern as he prepares to apply for graduate schools in medical physics – was another student who took up the challenge.  "I figured it was a good way to earn extra cash for school," said Lewis.  "I would spend half an hour twice a week memorizing ten of the questions."

Sutherland recommends the successful memorization technique utilized by both Lewis and Wallace.  "It seems like a lot of work, but if you break it up and spread it out over the time frame that’s available, it makes it so much easier," Sutherland said. "It's well worth it, considering the reward !"

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The Samuel Robinson Award program opens for applications on November 1, with recitation to be completed by April 1. The deadline for the essay is April 1 (postmark). For complete information, visit the website     

The 2011 essay topic is, "The Shorter Catechism says that our 'chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.' How would you define the term 'enjoy' especially in light of Q.2.?  What role does prayer, as defined in Q. 98, play in such enjoyment?"