Making Good Protestants: The Importance of Catechisms

By Drew Thomas |

In 1528 the Protestant reformer Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right hand man, returned from a series of parish visitations convinced that both the clergy and the laity were spiritually illiterate. In response, Luther developed a series of sermons on the fundamentals of Christian belief. These sermons became the basis for his Large and Small Catechisms, which were published the following year.

The Small Catechism was a great success. Its question and answer format outlined basic Christian doctrine and provided instruction to ministers on how to teach the material. Before his death in 1546, Luther’s catechisms were published at least thirty times. By the end of the century, there were over 125 editions in German alone.

Following Luther’s lead, many Protestant reformers published their own catechisms, often based on Luther’s, but adapted for local needs. Our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partner, the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School, possesses a variety of catechisms from the sixteenth century.

Title page of Luther's Small Catechism
The title page of Luther’s Small Catechism printed in 1569. Berlin Staatsbibliothek, Eo 6450. USTC 650488.

One of the finest is a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism printed in 1569. Other than a copy held in Berlin, this is the only known copy.  It was printed by the Nuremberg printer Valentine Neuber (R.B.R. 608.2 L97.3 1569n; USTC 650488). He preserved Luther’s section divisions, beginning with the Ten Commandments, followed by the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. He also included numerous full-page woodcut illustrations, suggesting that while intended as an instruction manual for ministers and heads of households, the text could also be used while teaching. At the end of the book, there are a number of “Catechism songs” printed with musical notation.

Harvard Divinity School also has a copy of John Calvin’s catechism (USTC 450030). Calvin was tasked with reforming the church in Geneva and wrote his catechism in French for the local youth. Within a year, it was translated into Latin. Although he first published his catechism in the 1530s, he issued revised editions in 1540 and 1545. Harvard has a copy from Geneva printed in 1550 by Jean Girard (R.B.R. 608.2 C16.3 1550g). Rather than being printed alone, this catechism was included in an edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was a pedagogical pairing, as the Institutes instructed ministers on the tenets of the Reformed faith and the catechism provided the means of teaching it.

John Calvin's Catechism
John Calvin’s Institutes from 1550, which include an excerpt from his catechism at the end. Bibliothèque de Genève, Bc 3318. USTC 450030.

Many Protestant reformers published their own catechisms, including Johannes Spangenberg, Joachim Mörlin, Tilemann Heshius, Johannes Brenz, and Johann Tettelbach. Harvard Divinity School possesses copies of both Spangenberg’s and Brenz’s catechisms, printed in 1568 and 1555 respectively (USTC 620586 and 620409). Brenz’s edition includes many explanatory illustrations accompanying the text.

“Catechisms were an important tool in early modern Europe, as ministers from competing confessions sought to instil their beliefs in the laity and provide them with a denominational identity.”

Noticing the popularity and effectiveness of catechisms among Protestants, the Jesuit Peter Canisius wrote his own, which eventually became the most widely used catechism in the Catholic world. Following Luther’s lead, it was simple, brief and clear. Although it does not possess a copy of Canisius’ Small Catechism, Harvard Divinity School does possess a copy of Canisius’ Institutiones et exercitamenta christianae pietatis, which include a question and answer excerpt from his catechism on the Apostles’ Creed (R.B.R. 605.7 C22.4in 1574; USTC 406025).

Catechisms were an important tool in early modern Europe, as ministers from competing confessions sought to instil their beliefs in the laity and provide them with a denominational identity. Such pedagogical texts find a natural home at Harvard Divinity School where modern students of religion can study the tools of the past.


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Drew Thomas is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant for Preserving the World’s Rarest Books and a 2012 alumnus of Harvard Divinity School. He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews, focusing on the rise of the Wittenberg printing industry during Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He is currently the Technical Editor for Pubs & Publications and the Project Manager of the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on

Image from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International) and E-Rara (Public Domain).

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