I was asked at puritanboard.com about the history of catechizing. Although I have focused on the broader question of how Christians educated their children over the centuries, I still have much information on this narrow question.
Below was my very short answer:
If you are referring to Divided, please see the comments at the puritan forum here. And my review here.
It is important to know that the organization behind the movie actually has two problems with the modern "youth programs": separation from parents and age-segregation. Thus the history of Christian schooling as well as catechizing are both relevant in showing the gross inaccuracies of this movement.
[To fully understand the NCFIC and her leaders please read my article, What is a Family Integrated Church? (According to a current church member of Mr. Brown's church and one-time intern for Mr. Brown and currently employed with the NCFIC, Mr. Glick, my article was accurate).]
Here is a sample of the history of catechizing (and school class divisions).
"In this period a synagogue presupposed a school, as with us a church implies a Sunday school. Hence the church and Sunday school, not the church and the district school, is a parallel to the Jewish system. The methods in these schools were not unlike those of the modern Sunday school. Questions were freely asked and answered, and opinions stated and discussed: any one entering them might ask or answer questions. Such a Jewish Bible school, no doubt, Jesus entered in the temple when twelve years old...in the apostolic period teachers were a recognized body of workers quite distinct from pastors, prophets, and evangelists (see 1 Cor. xii. 28, 29; Eph. iv. 11; Heb. v. 12, etc.). The best commentators hold that the peculiar work of teachers in the primitive church was to instruct the young and ignorant in religious truth, which is precisely the object of the Sunday school." (A Religious encyclopaedia, Schaff, 2262)
“These catechetical classes and schools were intended to prepare neophytes, or new converts, for church-membership, and were also used to instruct the young and the ignorant in the knowledge of God and salvation. They were effective, aggressive missionary agencies in the early Christian churches, and have aptly been termed the 'Sunday schools of the first ages of Christianity.' The pupils were divided into two or three (some say four) classes, according to their proficiency. They memorized passages of Scripture, learned the doctrines of God, creation, providence, sacred history, the fall, the incarnation, resurrection, and future awards and punishments..." (Schaff, ibid)
Reformation and Post-Reformation:
The Geneva Academy had two divisions: schola privata and schola publica (the Academy proper). The schola privata (the lower school) was divided into seven grades, admitting children as young as age six. Most boys stayed in each grade a year, but could advance earlier. School began at six in the summer and seven in the winter and lasted until four in the afternoon. Children went home under escort from nine to eleven in the morning. Classes were on Saturday as well and included an afternoon recess. The children sung Psalms one hour a day as well. Catechism classes were held Sunday afternoons. (The History and Character of Calvinism, John T. McNeil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 194ff. cp. Calvin and the Biblical Languages, John Currid (Christian Focus Publications) 2007).
Article 21 of the Dutch Church Order of Dordt (1618) orders that:
"In order that the Christian youth may be diligently instructed in the principles of religion and be trained in piety three modes of catechizing should be employed I. In the houses by the parents II. In the schools by school masters III. In the churches by ministers elders and catechizers those specially appointed for the purpose." (Full quote here).
It also stated:
"That these may diligently discharge their trust the Christian magistrates shall be requested to promote by their authority so sacred and necessary a work and all who have the oversight and visitation of the churches and schools shall be required to pay special attention to this matter."
[This civil enforcement was also enacted in New England and similar oversight in Geneva. Pastor oversight was neigh universally encouraged.]
Now, for the parts more germane to the movie:
"The schoolmasters shall instruct their scholars according to their age and capacity at least two days in the week not only by causing them to commit to memory but by instilling into their minds an acquaintance with the truths of the Catechism. For this end three forms of the Catechism adapted to the three fold circumstances and ages of the young shall be used. The first shall be for the young children comprising the Articles of Faith or Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Institution of the Sacraments and Church Discipline with some short prayers and plain questions adapted to the three parts of the Catechism. The second shall be a short compendium of the Catechism of the Palatinate or Heidelberg used in our churches in which those who are somewhat more advanced than the former shall be instructed. The third shall be the Catechism of the Palatinate or Heidelberg adopted by our churches for the youth still more advanced in years and knowledge."
[Radical nuts following evolutionary though? I think not. But godly men using the light of nature to differentiate between babes, children, youths and adults--broad categories followed by many cultures.]
"John Knox devised a system of Sunday schools, at the very beginning of the Reformation in Scotland, which system has been in operation in that country more or less extensively ever since. So that the Sunday schools which now exist in Scotland are derived, not from the system of Raikes in England, but are only a revival of the old system of the Reformer. These schools are frequently referred to in the records of that Church, and in the biographies of good men connected with it. In 1647, the General Assembly recommended to all universities to take account of their scholars on the Sabbath dny of the sermons, and of their lessons in the catechism [students at "universities" could be as young as twelve]. John Brown, the godly carrier, had in his day a Sabbath school at Priesthill. It is stated, on the authority of Rev. John Brown, D. D., of Langton, Berwickshire, that Sunday schools were in existence in Glasgow, and other places, in 1707. Ihey were in operation in Glasgow, and other places, in 1759, and also in many places in 1782." (The Congregational Quarterly, 1865, p.20)
The pastors and elders of the Bohemian Unity of Brethren church would assemble the older children of the church after the worship services to examine how well they retained the sermon; “hence our ancestors held separate addresses to the different classes, the beginners, the proficients, the perfect; also to the single, and again to the married by themselves: which practice it is evident was not without its advantage.” "At the conclusion of the noon and afternoon service, the elder youths and girls remain, and are examined by the preacher (one of the elders assisting him with the former, and one of the matrons with the latter) to ascertain what attention they have paid that day in hearing the word of God, and how much each has retained. Moreover, during the Lent season, on Wednesday and Friday evening, meetings are held, termed salva (from the hymn Salva nos Jesu, rex cmli, "Save us, Jesus, heavenly King,") in which the mystery of redemption is diligently inculcated, especially upon the young." (Church Constitution of the Bohemian, 136ff.)
The church in Norwich, Connecticut, in the Spring of 1675 covenanted together to instruct their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord: “We do therefore this Day Solemnly Covenant to Endeavour uprightly by dependence upon the Grace of God in Christ Jesus our only Saviour. First, That our Children shall be brought up in the Admonition of the Lord, as in our Families, so in publick; that all the Males who are eight or nine years of age, shall be presented before the Lord in his congregation every Lord’s Day to be Catechised, until they be about thirteen years in age. Second. Those about thirteen years of age, both male and female, shall frequent the meetings appointed in private for their instruction, while they continue under family government, or until they are received to full communion in the church.” (The Ecclesiastical History of New England, p.665 )
"It is well known that every respectable family had a regular weekly exercise in the catechism [in early New England]; and also that once a week in some towns, or once a month in others, the minister gather the children and youth of his parish, at two o’clock, on Saturday afternoon to catechize them." (The Congregational Quarterly, 1865, 21)
As late as 1808 (before Sunday Schools reached critical mass), the General Association of the Congregationalists in Connecticut, “That they [parents] require them to attend public catechisings till they are fourteen years of age, and thenceforward, during their minority, to attend seasons, that may be appointed by their pastor, for the religious instruction of youth.” (Panoplist, 1808, p.159.)
"My first acquaintance with Mr. Donnelly [early 1800s] was when I became a pupil in his school in my father's neighbourhood, in Chester District, S. C. I entered his school at an early age; and as he was my first teacher, (my parents excepted,) so he was also among the last. Under his tuition I studied the elementary branches, such as reading, spelling, etc., and recited to him the Larger Catechism. The Bible was not then excluded from the school, on the ground of its being a sectarian book…the afternoon of every alternate Saturday was spent in reciting Catechisms and portions of Scripture, which had been previously committed to memory- IIe was a rigid disciplinarian of the Old School…” (Letter, 1862, Rev. McMillan to William Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, vol. 9, p. 26.)
If you have any more questions please ask.