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A Catechism is a manual of Christian doctrine drawn up in the form of questions and answers, especially one for religious instruction. The first such manual was compiled by the English scholar Alcuin in the 8th century and was followed in the next 100 years by many others, among them those of Notker Labeo, monk of the Abbey of Saint Gall, in Switzerland, and of the German monk Otfried of Weissenburg in Alsace. At an early period in the history of the Reformation, catechisms became important because of Martin Luther's insistence on the religious instruction of children. After Luther published his primer of religion, A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer (1520), several catechisms were prepared by leading Protestant theologians. Luther's visitation of the Saxon churches in 1528 led to preparation of his Larger and Smaller Catechisms (1529). The Reformed churches also published catechisms. The most noteworthy are the Geneva and Heidelberg catechisms, and those of the German theologian Johannes Oecolampadius, in Basel in 1526, and of the Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger, in Zürich in 1555. The Geneva Catechisms, Larger and Smaller, were the work of the French Protestant theologian John Calvin. The Smaller was published in French in 1536; the Larger appeared in French in 1541 or 1542, was translated into various languages, and became an acknowledged standard of the Reformed churches.

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The Heidelberg, or Palatinate, Catechism was compiled in Heidelberg by the German theologians Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, at the request of the Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. It was published in 1563 and has been translated into all the languages of Europe. It is the standard of the Dutch and German Reformed churches of America. The Protestant religious doctrines of the Socinians are embodied in the greater and smaller Racovian Catechisms (Raków, Poland, 1605). Besides a catechism of 1660, in the form of a conversation between father and son, said to have been written by the English founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox, the Quakers have that of the Scottish writer Robert Barclay, which appeared in 1673.

In the Roman Catholic church, the first official catechism, prepared by the Council of Trent and published in 1566, was known as the Roman Catechism, or the Catechism of Pius V. It was not a textbook, but a compendium of doctrine for the guidance of pastors and teachers. Catechisms for popular use were prepared by the German Jesuit Peter Canisius and published in 1555-58. In the United States, a committee of American bishops of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Maryland, published the Baltimore Catechism in 1885.

The catechism of the Church of England in the smaller form, published in the Book of Common Prayer, is in two parts. The first contains and explains the Baptismal Covenant, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer; and the second explains the two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. The catechism was originally published in the reign of King Edward VI, was condemned as heretical in the reign of Queen Mary I and underwent several modifications from 1549 to 1661. The first part of the catechism, once known as the Shorter Catechism, at the Hampton Court Conference (1604) was considered too short. Accordingly, at the suggestion of King James I, the explanation of the two sacraments that now form the second part of the church catechism was added.

The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which, with the Westminster Confession of Faith, are the standard catechisms of the Presbyterian churches throughout the countries of the former British Empire and the U.S., were compiled by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster (1645-52). In July 1648, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland adopted both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

Emphasis on the use of a catechism, particularly its memorization by rote, has diminished in recent years.


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A catechism is a popular manual of instruction (Gr. Katecheo, to instruct) in Christian beliefs, normally in question and answer form. The word is not used in this sense until the early sixteenth century.

Catechesis originated very early as the teaching given to converts before baptism and developed into the formalized catechumenate (cf. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition). It reached its heyday in the fourth and fifth centuries, incorporating quasiliturgical ceremonies like the oral transmission (traditio) by the catechist and rendition (redditio) by the catechumen of the Creed and Lord's Prayer. The system was designed to safeguard the integrity of the church and the secret discipline (disciplina arcani) of its inner life. From the weeks of concentrated preparation prior to the baptism at Easter (the origin of Lent) there survive series of catechetical addresses by Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Augustine wrote How to Catechize the Uninstructed and Gregory of Nyssa a summa for catechists, his Great Catechetical Oration.

As infant baptism became the norm, the catechumenate declined. During the medieval era no regular ecclesiastical catechesis was provided for children, but various forms of popular teaching materials, based chiefly on the Apostles' Creed, Decalogue, and Lord's Prayer, were produced, from Alcuin's question and answer explanation of the Creed and Lord's Prayer to John Gerson's ABC des simples gens. In the late Middle Ages confessional manuals multiplied, e.g., The Mirror of a Sinner (ca. 1470), requiring of penitents responsive participation. In these the Decalogue was dominant, but other formulas were involved, such as the Hail Mary, lists of virtues and vices or capital sins, works of charity, and sacraments. Devotional dialogues, such as The Mirror of a Christian Man (Faith) of the 1480s, the first lay catechism in German, also used questions and answers. The Waldensians had a cathechism in print by 1489, incorporating the traditional formulas but structured around faith, hope, and love (a pattern derived from Augustine's Enchiridion). The Bohemian Brethren's Questions for Children (1522), which was known to Luther, was almost certainly based on the Waldensians' book.

With the Reformation an explosion of catechism production took place, with many a Lutheran pastor compiling his own. Thousands never got beyond manuscript form, and no listing has ever approached completeness. Most of them were detached from any precise connection with baptism or Communion. By far the most influential was Luther's Small Catechism of 1529, published a month after his Great Catechism, which was based on a series of sermons of 1528. Both were intended as aids to pastors. The Small Catechism dealt with the Decalogue, Apostles' Creed, Lord's Prayer, and sacraments, the standard ingredients of subsequent Protestant catechisms. In gestation since his popular exposition of the Decalogue beginning in 1516 and anticipated especially by A Short Form of the Ten Commandments ... the Creed ... and the Lord's Prayer of 1520, it was also a response to the lamentable ignorance exposed by visitations in Saxony in 1528. Espousing the principle of habituation by verbal repetition, it represented a partial shift of conviction in Luther from the freedom of word and spirit to discipline and regulation. He had no doubt of its significance: "I have brought about such a change that nowadays a girl or boy of fifteen knows more about Christian doctrine than all the theologians of the great universities used to know." He was happy to remain forever "a child and a disciple of the catechism." Teaching children recalled the gospel summons to become like little children, and these catechisms inculcated the Lutheran gospel, reflecting in content its law-faith-prayer sequence. They also stressed social behavior, especially on the fourth and seventh commandments, expanding the narrowly religious focus of late medieval manuals.

Luther's productions had been preceded by some thirty Lutheran catechisms, notably by Johann Brenz, Melanchthon, Wolfgang Capito, Urbanus Rhegius, and Johann Agricola. The first to be entitled "Catechism" was by Andreas Althamer of Brandenburg-Ansbach in 1528. An extraordinary profusion followed Luther's example of 1529, until in the later sixteenth century his Small Catechism became the norm virtually everywhere in Lutheranism. Church ordinances normally legislated for the use of catechisms in church, especially compulsory Sunday afternoon classes for children, and in home and school. They were turned into primers, dialogues, hymns, and pictures for use with children. Other major target audiences were the rural populance and the urban hired laboring class.

Catechisms were anti-Roman from the outset. From around 1530 a catechism for the young was regarded as a salient mark of the reform movement's break with the past, and was regularly one of the first innovations of reformed states and cities. All this is observable in the Genevan Reformation. Calvin produced a French catechism in 1537 (Latin 1538), but far more significant was its simpler 1541 successor (Latinized in 1545). He claimed to be recovering ancient practice long corrupted. He reordered the four sections so that Decalogue followed Creed, indicating his understanding of the law as a guide for Christian life. Despite the tendency to verbosity which became typical of Reformed catechisms, his catechism served as prototype of numerous others, such as John a Lasco's 1554 Emden Catechism, used in East Friesland until superseded by the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, which has had the widest appeal of all Reformation catechisms. Produced at the order of Elector Frederick III by Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus, professors at Heidelberg University, for use in the churches and schools of the Palatinate, it is predominantly Calvinist but has enough of Luther in it to constitute a mediating document, "a happy blend of Calvinist precision and comprehensiveness with Lutheran warmth and humanity" (W.A. Curtis). It has three parts: misery (brief), redemption (the Creed, including word and sacraments), and gratitude (including Decalogue and Lord's Prayer). It was approved unrevised by the Synod of Dort (1618), and has been widely used in numerous languages.

In Reformed Protestantism catechizing was often viewed as leading to an evangelically reformed confirmation (cf. Calvin, Institutes 4.19.4, 13). This issued in part from a response, especially by Bucer, to Anabaptist criticisms of infant baptism. The reformed Anglican Catechism appeared simply as part of the confirmation service in the first Prayer Book of 1549. It was probably largely Cranmer's work, drawn partly from popular manuals such as the Bishops' Book (1537) and the King's Book (1543), and William Marshall's A Goodly Primer in English (1534), which contained material from Luther's Small Catechism. It had a shortened version of the commandments and, exceptionally, nothing on the sacraments. The full Decalogue appeared in 1552, a section of the sacraments was added after the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, and further minor changes took place by 1662. It retained a commendable brevity and a much less confessional tone than most sixteenth century catechisms and was well suited for worldwide use in the spread of Anglicanism.

Continental productions such as Oecolampadius's and Bullinger's also circulated in England. Cranmer translated in 1548 Justus Jonas's catechism for Brandenburg-Nuremberg, in successive editions diluting its Lutheranism and revealing his transition to Swiss Reformed theology.

A Short Catechism... for All Schoolmasters to Teach by John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester, was printed with versions of the Articles from 1553, and Alexander Nowell's two forms of 1570 and 1572 likewise met the need for a longer catechism than the Prayer Book provided. The Church of England approved a Revised Catechism in 1962.

Catechisms came thick and fast in Scotland. Archbishop Hamilton's Catechism (1552) was a reforming Catholic document, giving too little too late. Already circulating were the metrical catechism sections of largely Lutheran origin published in The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, probably largely the work of John Wedderburn and his brothers. The 1541 Genevan Catechism was replaced by the Catechism of the Scottish Reformer John Craig (1581). This first successful Scottish production was superseded partly by the Heidelberg Catechism and conclusively by the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Through lengthy, it is distinctive in presenting only oneline answers. Answers had tended to become either longer and longer or simply affirmatives responding to statements masquerading as questions. Craig's Short Catechism of 1592 was explicitly "A Form of Examination before Communion," indicating a distinctive role in a kirk which had no equivalent to confirmation.

The Shorter and Larger Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly (1647) largely displaced all others in Reformed/Presbyterian churches. They abandon the Creed but incorporate other traditional ingredients, while purveying the Calvinists' distinctive Calvinism in matters such as God's decrees and the Christian Sabbath. The Shorter Catechism is a work of great dignity, and has exercised unparalleled influence in Scotland.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation also stimulated the production of catechisms, although the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), while based on traditional formulas, is a polemical confession and manual for clerical use. Among popular catechisms the most serviceable proved to be The Sum of Christian Doctrine (1555) of the Jesuit Peter Canisius. The Roman Church has produced normally local catechisms, with none attaining general use. In the wake of Vatican Council II the General Catechetical Directory issued by Paul VI in 1971 laid down guidelines for local hierarchies to follow. The controversial Dutch volume of 1968, A New Catechism, is not a catechism in the normal sense.

Other traditions have had their own catechisms. Robert Browne's pioneer Statement of Congregational Principles (1582) consists of 185 questions and answers. Robert Barclay's Catechism of 1673 reflects the convictions of the first Quakers, while William Collins and Benjamin Keach were responsible for the Baptist Catechism of 1693, often known as Keach's Catechism. William Nast complied two popular nineteenth century Methodist catechisms.

In the Orthodox world Peter Mogilas, the metropolitan of Kiev, produced around 1640 in the form of a catechism the Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church, which from the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) became standard throughout the Greek and Russian churches. Directed against both Jesuit Romanism and Cyril Lucar's Calvinism, its three heads are faith (Nicene Creed), hope (Lord's Prayer and Beatitudes), and love (including the Decalogue). It was eventually superseded in the nineteenth century by the Christian Catechism of the Orthodox Catholic Eastern Greco-Russian Church complied in 1823 by Philaret, the scholarly and saintly metropolitan of Kiev. After revisions it was finally approved in 1839. It follows the pattern of Mogilas's work. Philaret produced a shorter catechism in 1840.

The formality of catechetical dialogue has scarcely survived the diversification of teaching methods in recent years. So far as their use persists, catechisms are more aids for teachers than precise patterns for learning.

D F Wright
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Danielou and R. du Charlat, La Catechese aux premiers siecles; E. W. Kohls, Evangelische Katechismen der Reformationszeit vor Luthers kleinem Katechismus; S. Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities; G. Strauss, Luther's House of Learning; T. F. Torrance, The School of Faith; H. Bonar, Catechisms of the Scottish Reformation; A. F. Mitchell, Catechisms of the Second Reformation; P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols.; J. Geffcken, Bilderkatechismus des funfzehnten Jahrhunderts; F.E. Brightman, The English Rite, I, 35-36, 120ff., 177ff., II, 779-91; J.M. Reu, Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism: A History of Its Origin, Its Distribution and Its Use and Quellen zur Geschichte des kirchlichen Unterrichts in der evangelischen Kirche Deutschlands zwischen 1530 und 1600, I.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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