1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Catechism

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CATECHISM (from Gr. κατηχεῖν, teach by word of mouth), a compendium of instruction (particularly of religious instruction) arranged in the form of questions and answers. The custom of catechizing, common to all civilized antiquity, was followed in the schools of Judaism and in the Early Church, where it helped to preserve the Gospel narrative (see Catechumen).

The catechism as we know it is intended primarily for children and uneducated persons. Its aim is to instruct, and it differs from a creed or confession in not being in the first instance an act of worship or a public profession of belief. The first regular catechisms seem to have grown out of the usual oral teaching of catechumens, and to have been compiled in the 8th and 9th centuries. Among them the work of Notker Labeo and of Kero, both monks of St Gall, and that of Ottfried of Weissenburg in Alsace deserve mention. But it is not until the first stirrings of revolt against the hierarchy, which preceded the Reformation, that they became at all widespread or numerous. The Waldenses of Savoy and France, the Brethren (small communities of evangelical dissenters from the medieval faith) of Germany, and the Unitas Fratrum of Bohemia all used the same catechism (one that was first printed in 1498, and which continued to be published till 1530) for the instruction of their children. It was based on St Augustine’s Enchiridion, and considers (a) Faith, i.e. the Creed, (b) Hope, i.e. the Lord’s Prayer, and (c) Love, i.e. the Decalogue.

The age of the Reformation gave a great stimulus to the production of catechisms. This was but natural at a time when the invention of printing had thrown the Bible open to all, and carried the war of religious opinion from the schools into the streets. The adherents of the “old” and the “new” religions alike had to justify their views to the unlearned as well as to the learned, and to give in simple formulas their reasons for the faith that was in them. Moreover, in the universal unrest and oversetting of all authority, Christianity itself was in danger of perishing, not only as the result of the cultured paganism of the Renaissance, but also through the brutish ignorance of the common folk, deprived now of their traditional religious restraints. To the urgency of this peril the reformers were fully alive; and they sought its remedy in education. “Let the people be taught,” said Luther, “let schools be opened for the poor, let the truth reach them in simple words in their own mother tongue, and they will believe.”

Catechisms of the Chief Religious Communions.—(a) Evangelical (Lutheran and Reformed).—It was the ignorance of the peasantry, as revealed by the horrors of the Peasants’ War of 1524–25, and his pastoral visitation of the electorate of Saxony 1525–1527, that drew the above exclamation from Luther, and impelled him to produce his two famous catechisms (1529). In 1520 he had brought out a primer of religion dealing briefly with the Decalogue, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer; and Justus Jonas, Johannes Agricola and other leaders had done something of the same kind. Now all these efforts were superseded by Luther’s Smaller Catechism meant for the people themselves and especially for children, and by his Larger Catechism intended for clergy and schoolmasters. These works, which did much to mould the character of the German people, were set among the doctrinal standards of the Lutheran Church and powerfully influenced other compilations. The Smaller Catechism, with the Augsburg Confession, was made the Rule of Faith in Denmark in 1537.

In this same year (1537) John Calvin at Geneva published his catechism for children. It was called Instruction and Confession of Faith for the Use of the Church of Geneva (a reprint edited by A. Rilliet and T. Dufour Was published in 1878), and explained the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments. Though it was meant, as he said, to give expression to a simple piety rather than to exhibit a profound knowledge of religious truth, it was the work of a man who knew little of the child mind, and, though it served as an admirable and transparent epitome of his famous Institutes, it was too long and too minute for the instruction of children. Calvin came to see this, and in 1542, after his experience in Strassburg, drafted a new one which was much more suitable for teaching purposes, though, judged by modern standards, still far beyond the theological range of childhood. It was used at the Sunday noon instruction of children, on which Calvin laid much stress, and was adopted and similarly used by the Reformed Church of Scotland. The Reformed churches of the Palatinate, on the other hand, used the Heidelberg Catechism (1562–1563), “sweet-spirited, experiential, clear, moderate and happily-phrased,” mainly the work of two of Calvin’s younger disciples, Kaspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus. The Heidelberg Catechism, set forth by order of the elector, is perhaps the most widely accepted symbol of the Calvinistic faith, and is noteworthy for its emphasis on the less controversial aspects of the Genevan theology. As revised by the synod of Dort in 1619, this catechism became the standard of most of the Reformed churches of central Europe, and in time of the Dutch and German Reformed churches of America. Other compilations were those of Oecolampadius (Basel, 1526), Leo Juda (Zürich, 1534), and Bullinger (Zürich, 1555). In France, after Calvin’s day, the Reformed church used besides Calvin’s book the catechisms of Louis Capell (1619), and Charles Drelincourt (1642), and at the present time Bonnefon’s Nouveau Catéchisme élémentaire (14th ed., 1900) seems most in favour. In Scotland both Calvin’s Geneva Catechism and then the Heidelberg Catechism were translated by order of the General Assembly and annotated. In 1592 these were superseded by that of John Craig, for a time the colleague of John Knox at the High Church, Edinburgh.

Since 1648 the standard Presbyterian catechisms have been those compiled by the Westminster Assembly, presented to parliament in 1647, and then authorized by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (July 1648) and by the Scottish parliament (January 1649). The Larger Catechism is “for such as have made some proficiency in the knowledge of the Christian religion,” but is too detailed and minute for memorizing, and has never received anything like the reception accorded to the Shorter Catechism, which is “for such as are of weaker capacity.“” The work was done by a committee presided over first by Herbert Palmer, master of Queens’, Cambridge, and then by Anthony Tuckney, master of Emmanuel. The scriptural proof texts were added at the request of the English parliament. In his negotiations with the parliament in 1648 Charles I. offered to license the printing of the catechism, but, as the negotiations were broken off, this was not done. The Shorter Catechism, after a brief introduction on the end, rule and essence of religion, is divided into two parts:—I. The doctrines we are to believe (1) concerning the nature of God, (2) concerning the decrees of God and their execution—(a) in creation and providence, (b) in the covenant of works, (c) in the covenant of grace; II. The duties we are to perform (1) in regard to the moral law, (2) in regard to the gospel—(a) inward duties, i.e. faith and repentance, (b) outward duties as to the Word, the sacraments and prayer. It has 107 questions and answers, while that of the Anglican Church has but 24, grouping as it does the ten commandments and also the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, instead of dealing with them singly. Though the Shorter Catechism, closely associated as this has been from the first with Scottish public elementary education, has had very great influence in forming and training the character of Presbyterians in Scotland, America and the British colonies, it is, like most other catechisms drawn up by dogmatic theologians, more admirable as an epitome of a particular body of divinity than as an instruction for the young and the unlearned. Its use is now generally preceded by something more adapted to the child-mind, and this is true also in other communions and in the case of other catechisms.

(b) Roman Catholic.—There was no universal catechism published by the Latin Church before the council of Trent, but several provincial councils, e.g. in Germany and Scotland (where Archbishop Hamilton’s catechism appeared in 1552 and was ordered to be read in church by the parish priest), moved in self-defence along the lines already adopted by the reformers. The council of Trent in 1563 resolved on an authoritative work which was finally carried through by two small papal commissions, and issued in 1566 by Pius V. (Eng. trans, by Donovan, Dublin, 1829). Being uncatechetical in form and addressed to the clergy rather than to the people, it missed its intention, and was superseded by others of less exalted origin, especially by those of the Jesuit Peter Canisius, whose Summa Doctrinae et Institutionis Christianae (1554) and its shorter form (1556) were already in the field. The catechisms of Bellarmine (1603) and Bossuet (1687) had considerable vogue, and a summary of the former known as Schema de Parvo was sanctioned by the Vatican council of 1870. But the Roman Catholic Church as a whole has never had any one official catechism, each bishop being allowed to settle the matter for his own diocese. In England the Roman Catholic bishops have agreed on the use of what is known as “The Penny Catechism,” which is very lucid and well constructed.

(c) Orthodox Eastern Church.—Peter Mogilas, metropolitan of Kiev, drew up in 1643 the Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church. This bulwark against the encroachments of the Jesuits and the Reformed Church was standardized by the synod of Jerusalem in 1672. A smaller catechism was drawn up by order of Peter the Great in 1723. The catechisms of Levshin Platon (1762) and V. D. Philaret (1839), each in his day metropolitan of Moscow, are bulky compilations which cannot be memorized, though there is a short introductory catechism prefaced to Philaret’s volume (Eng. trans, in Blackmore’s Doctrine of the Russian Church, 1845). These works are not to any extent in the hands of the people, but are used by the Russian clergy and schoolmasters as guides in giving instruction. The Coptic and Armenian churches also have what H. Bonar describes as “mere pretences at catechisms.”

(d) Anglican.—The catechism of the Church of England is included in the Book of Common Prayer between the Orders for Baptism and Confirmation. It has two parts: (i.) the baptismal covenant, the Creed, the Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer, drawn up probably by Cranmer[1] and Ridley in the time of Edward VI., and variously modified between then (1549) and 1661; (ii.) the meaning of the two sacraments, written on the suggestion of James I. at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 by John Overall, then dean of St Paul’s, and afterwards bishop successively of Coventry and Lichfield and of Norwich. This supplement to what had become known as the Shorter Catechism established its use as against the longer one, King Edward VIth’s Catechisme, which had been drawn up in 1553 by John Ponet or Poynet, bishop of Winchester, and then revised and enlarged in 1570 by Alexander Nowell, Overall’s predecessor as dean of St Paul’s. The Anglican catechism with occasional modification, especially in the sacramental section, is used not only in the Church of England but in the Episcopal churches of Ireland, Scotland, the British dominions and the United States of America. By the rubric of the Prayer Book and by the 59th canon of 1603 the clergy are enjoined to teach the catechism in church on Sundays and holidays after the second lesson at Evening Prayer. This custom, long fallen into disuse, has largely been revived during recent years, the children going to church for a special afternoon service of which catechizing is the chief feature. Compared with the thoroughness of most other catechisms this one seems very scanty, but it has a better chance of being memorized, and its very simplicity has given it a firm hold on the inner life and conscience of devout members of the Anglican communion throughout the world.

(e) Other Communions.—Almost every section of the church, e.g. the Wesleyan Methodist, has its catechism or catechisms, but in addition to those already enumerated only a few need be mentioned. The Socinians embodied their tenets in the larger and smaller works drawn up by Fausto Sozzini and Schmalz, and published at Rakow in Poland in 1605;[2] modern Unitarians have modern catechisms. The Quakers or Friends possess a kind of catechism said to have been written by George Fox in 1660, in which father and son are respectively questioner and answerer, and an interesting work by Robert Barclay, in which texts of Scripture form the replies. Congregationalists for some time used Isaac Watts’s Catechisms for Children and Youth (1730), since superseded by the manuals of J. H. Stowell, J. H. Riddette and others. In 1898 the National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches in England and Wales published an Evangelical Free Church Catechism, the work of a committee (convened by Rev. Hugh Price Hughes) comprising Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists (Wesleyan, Primitive and others), and Presbyterians, and thus representing directly or indirectly the beliefs of sixty or seventy millions of avowed Christians in all parts of the world, a striking example of inter-denominational unity. More remarkable still in some respects is The School Catechism, issued in 1907 by a conference of members of the Reformed churches in Scotland, which met on the invitation of the Church of Scotland. In its compilation representatives of the Episcopal Church in Scotland co-operated, and the book though “not designed to supersede the distinctive catechisms officially recognized by the several churches for the instruction of their own children,” certainly “commends itself as suitable for use in schools where children of various churches are taught together.”

Catechisms have a strong family likeness. In the main they are expositions of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Decalogue, and thus follow a tradition that has come down from the days when Cyril of Jerusalem delivered his catechetical Lectures. Even when (as in the Shorter Westminster Catechism and the School Catechism) the Creed is simply printed as an appendix, or where (as in the Free Church Catechism) it is not mentioned at all, its substance is dealt with. The order in which these three main themes are treated is by no means constant. The Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms are of a more logical and independent character. The former is based on the Epistle to the Romans, and deals with the religious life as (1) Repentance, (2) Faith, (3) Love. Under these heads it discusses respectively the sin and misery of men, the redemption wrought by Christ (here are included the Creed and the Sacraments), and the grateful service of the new life (the Decalogue).

It may be noted that Sir Oliver Lodge has adopted the catechetical form in his book, The Substance of Faith Allied with Science (1907), which is described as “a catechism for parents and teachers.”

See Ehrenfeuchter, Geschichte des Katechismus (1857); P. Schaff, History of the Creeds of Christendom (3 vols., 1876–1877); Mitchell, Catechisms of the Second Reformation (1887); C. Achelis, Lehrbuch der prakt. Theologie (2 vols., 1898); L. Pullan, History of the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 207-208; E. A. Knox, Pastors and Teachers (1902), chs. iii. and iv.; W. Beveridge, A Short History of the Westminster Assembly (1904), ch. x.  (A. J. G.) 

  1. Cranmer had published a separate and larger catechism on the basis of the work of Justus Jonas in 1548; note also Allen’s Catechisme, A Christen Instruccion of the Principall Pointes of Christes Religion (1551).
  2. A Latin edition in 1609 was dedicated to James I. of England. The British Houses of Parliament passed a resolution ordering all copies of it to be publicly burned, and again in 1652 when another edition appeared. An English translation, probably by John Bidle, was printed in Amsterdam and widely circulated.