The Importance of The Small Catechism in 1580, 2 of 3

luthercatechismWe continue to look at how the Small Catechism was used in 1580; the year the Lutheran Book of Concord was published and adopted as the confession of what Scripture teaches.

Martin Luther’s Small Catechism is included in the Book of Concord as one of the Lutheran Confessions.

How did they use the Small Catechism?

The official Church Rules for the Electorate of Saxony (Kirchenordnung fuer Kursachsen) published in 1580 discusses the use of the Small Catechism in three different sections:

  • “Of the Catechism,”
  • “Of the Annual Examination of the Catechism Which Shall Be Held in the Lenten Season with the Young Servants,” and
  • “Of the Office of the Sacristan or Verger.”

The second of these three sections says this:


Of the Annual Examination of the Catechism Which Shall Be Held in the Lenten Season with the Young Servants


In the cities the superintendents (if there be any), or the pastors shall demand of the council a list of the citizens and inhabitants of the city arranged according to the districts in which they reside, which the council everywhere shall furnish.



On the Sunday Estomihi [this is Quinquagesima, or the Sunday before Ash Wednesday] the pastor shall announce to the congregation that the remaining Sundays in Lent the examination of the children and servants shall be held after the midday-sermon. Wherefore the parents shall send their children and servants that they may learn to give an account of their faith.



That this may be done properly and without confusion, they shall not all be heard on one Sunday, but the citizens of each district shall be heard on different Sundays…. Where, however, the city is so large and the districts so thickly populated that the children and servants belonging to one district cannot all be heard on one Sunday, then the clergymen shall arrange to divide the people so that the examination may be held everywhere in the Lenten season.



As some have been frightened away from this examination because at some places when the young people, especially servants and maids, cannot answer all the questions quickly, the clergy are in the habit of using harsh words, thus embarrassing them before the people, and as pastors and clergymen occasionally ask difficult questions–ofttimes unfamiliar not only to the young but even to the old–so that it is impossible for them to answer, the visitors shall seriously admonish the pastors in cities and villages to speak to the young people in a friendly, fatherly manner, with all mildness and restraint…. Thereafter they shall praise the children and servants who are able to answer from their Catechism, and shall admonish the others, where they have failed that they should learn it from those who knew it before the next examination.



The pastors and clergymen, however, shall ask the young people no other questions than those contained in D. Luther’s Catechism, always using the same words…. And finally, if there be children who have learned the Catechism at school, and are sure of it, there is no need of a long examination and questioning, but when these have been questioned about several parts of the Catechism, now about one, then about another part, the clergyman can easily see whether the child remembers the Catechism or not. But those who have learned it only partly, he shall ask how far they have progressed, and then ask of the children of the same grade one question after another, in which way he can easily learn how far they have progressed. He should praise them for what they have learned, and also in a friendly and fatherly manner admonish them to continue their studies and not cease till they have learned the whole Catechism.

But if there are people who never have been at school and therefore have not learned the explanation of the Catechism, they shall nevertheless be questioned as to whether they know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the words of the institution of Holy Baptism, of the Lord’s Supper, and the Holy Absolution as these are publicly read in the churches to the people on all the Sundays and feast days. Afterwards they shall admonish them with gentle words inf a fatherly way that they learn the questions and explanation of the Catechism from the children who have been at school. A whole year should be allowed for this purpose and if they will apply themselves with diligence, they can easily learn these portions from others.


That the parents, masters, and mistresses may not only see how their children and servants are questioned, but also hear what they answer, especially as some are not able to answer satisfactorily and there is so much more reason for urging their children to diligently study the Catechism at home … the parents, if not both, at least one …, as well as the master or the mistress shall themselves bring their children and servants to this examination …. And as the parents in the cities have probably learned the Catechism in their youth, though they no longer retain the exact words in their memory on account of their age, and also are timid about speaking publicly so that if they miss only in one word, they are in danger of being mortified before the servants and ridiculed by the young people who would be tempted to apply less diligence to the learning of the Catechism, because they see their parents no longer know how to recite it word for word–they shall be exempted from this examination.

In the villages, however, it is to be held with young and old alike, though with a similar consideration of the conditions, especially as far as the older people are concerned, whose religious knowledge can be ascertained in the Confession. Since not only young children, but frequently the grown sons and daughters, servants and maids are also afraid to speak publicly and for that reason cannot recite what they have learned and know well, the Visitors [pastors who helped to supervise several churches in a region] shall make it a rule in all churches, especially the small ones that the pastor shall direct the servants to remain in their usual pew, or, when the churches are large, outside of the choir so far from the clergyman that they cannot hear what the pastor speaks with the others or what they answer. Afterwards through the custodian, district master, or anyone who most opportunely can be charged therewith, he shall summon through a note one group of servants after the other to come to him into the choir; then he shall examine them as above indicated.

Where, however, the congregation is large and the clergymen numerous, they shall station themselves in the choir in different places, that nobody may overhear another, confuse him or the servants, or disturb him in the examination. So the people will not be detained too long and all will be done with good will and to the profit of the Church.

The clergymen will subsequently be spared much labor in the Confessional if they thus learn to know their parishioners’ and hearers’ understanding of their faith by this public examination…. And the pastors and clergymen shall diligently instruct the people that this is the right Christian confirmation or firmung, that is the affirmation of the faith which the sponsors have confessed in the place of the new-baptized infant, and in which the child was baptized, and remind them that they are to live according to this faith all their lives.


Found in:

Reu, M.

1929 Luther’s Small Catechism: A History of Its Origin, Its Distribution and Its Use. Wartburg Press, Chicago. Pages 157-159

See also Luther’s Small Catechism and Lent from March of 2014


[I added paragraphing and typographic styles to make the text easier to read]

About Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

Pastor Joseph Abrahamson serves Faith Ev. Lutheran Church, Clara City, Minnesota (E.L.S.). He and his wife, Mary, have 10 children. Pastor Abrahamson is a graduate of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, and of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies. He has served on the Faculty/Staff at Bethany Lutheran College teaching Religion, Linguistics, Archaeology, and Self-Defense; and was on Staff at the University of Wisconsin as an Information Processing Consultant (Computer Geek) while doing graduate work in Semitics. Pastor Abrahamson served Clearwater Lutheran Parish (ELS) from 2001 to April 2015.


The Importance of The Small Catechism in 1580, 2 of 3 — 18 Comments

  1. Thanks Pastor Abrahamson,

    This is eye-opening for me. I’ve often heard it said (and I think I’ve said it myself) that it is the parents’ job to catechize and the pastor is merely doing the job of the parents by taking on the catechetical instruction as his duty. But that does not seem to be the idea of these Church Orders.

  2. Of course parents are responsible for teaching their own children also, but I think we often like to think of 16th century Germany as some golden age where everyone who went to church also catechized their kids at home “in a simply way as the head of the family should teach his household.” This nostalgic thinking is clearly mistaken, though. And these Church Orders, by what they order and by what they assume about church life in the late 16th century in Germany, show that it has always fallen on the pastors to do simple catechesis for many, if not most, children in the congregation.

    Correct me if I’m wrong on this.

  3. As I understand it, the parents were to see that the children memorized the Small Catechism and the pastor was to explain it and expand on it.

  4. @Elizabeth Peters #4
    To teach the Catechism, people first have to learn it… “by heart” since many of the people then could not read or afford the book. So the teaching in the churches was often a memorization class. (Luther encouraged schooling, even the shocking idea that girls should be educated, a very new idea for German farmers. They didn’t completely believe it in the 20th century.)

    Most of us cannot be excused by inability to read or lack of funds for a catechism. [It’s beginning to be shocking what CPH wants for a catechism in English, though, compared to what they can sell it for in a foreign language! I wonder if they are modeling on the pharmaceutical companies!]

    It would be well to go back to memorization from early childhood. What is learned early is retained late, as any Pastor ministering to supposedly mindless elderly persons can tell you. If they are addressed with the translations they learned in youth, they respond.

    [What the generations who “couldn’t memorize” (except baseball statistics, rap and other pop culture) will do in their old age is not to think about.]

  5. @Richard Lewer #5

    That’s the ideal, I think, that parents should teach it at home and then the pastor quiz them, but did it happen often? That’s the question. I think that Luther’s prefaces to his catechisms and this Church Order for Electoral Saxony suggest that they had the same problem we have today – parents neglecting to teach their children and most of it falling on the pastors.

  6. From this reading it sounds to me as if Luther instructed parents to teach the Catechism at home and pastors to read it aloud each Sunday. I am ashamed to say that even now I stammer whenever Pastor asks what the explanation to Article … is during Bible class. I took instruction as an adult and never had to memorize. I would be thrilled if the Catechism were read in its entirety each Sunday, but I know a lot of people who would not. We would all memorize it, I’m sure. Most already know the new orders of service, and we have just had that hymnal a few years.

  7. @helen #9 Agreed. My point was that all parishioners benefit from repetition, as our common liturgy proves. This is another reason for pastors to quit creating their own liturgy and stick to the hymnal.

  8. @LadyM #10
    My point was that all parishioners benefit from repetition, as our common liturgy proves. This is another reason for pastors to quit creating their own liturgy and stick to the hymnal.

    I sang TLH 15 this morning mostly without the book, after a seven year “break”. Except in intervals for “the newest greatest thing” I have sung the common service most of my life, in four synods. [There was a time when you could go into any Lutheran church and not be surprised by much in the liturgy.] Those were the days…. 🙂

  9. @helen #6


    You can still buy Luther’s Small Catechism in a simple pamphlet form, pretty inexpensively. You get everything Luther wrote (i.e., the whole Small Catechism,) without the fancy binding, and several hundred pages of additions and expanded explanations made by CPH to justify the higher cost.

    I keep stacks of these around, and hand them out regularly. There’s a similar edition of the Augsburg Confession… a little more expensive in pamphlet or booklet form, but still far easier to keep around by the stacks, and hand out regularly. We keep the more expensive, pertier ones around for new confirmands or new members.

  10. The several hundred extra pages were not made to “justify the higher cost.” They have been around for at least a century and first written by President Schwan and once were used by almost all pastors to teach the Catechism and are still used by many. In fact, many still call it referring to the Catechism when they are really talking about the “explanation.”

    Good point about the small pamphlets being cheap and easy to pass out.

  11. @Richard Lewer #13

    The Schwan “explanation” along with all the proof texts was not only the basis for confirmation instruction/memorization.  For me it has continued to be an excellent reference to which I return often.  

  12. @Richard Lewer #13

    My suggestion may have been too severe. However, my main point is that the Small Catechism is, as was intended by Luther, a short and easily memorable synopsis of the cardinal doctrines of Holy Scripture. While longer “explanations” can be helpful, they don’t add to helping people memorize the Six Chief Parts.

    Contextualization is good, as is contemporary application (what pastors and catechists have been adding in every generation, whether written or spoken.) But the genius of Luther’s Small Catechism is best shown in it’s original elegance and simplicity… and most easily memorized (and inwardly digested) that way.

  13. While longer “explanations” can be helpful, they don’t add to helping people memorize the Six Chief Parts.

    Agreed. Isn’t memorizing and inwardly digesting the main proof texts equally important?

  14. @John Rixe #16

    To my estimation, all of Holy Scripture is equally important, because of the Author. However, I think the purpose for which a particular text is given helps provide focus and utility. In the case of the Small Catechism, Luther could have made it an exhaustive exercise, but he didn’t– he left it simple and concise. And I think this is part of the genius of it, particularly when used with children.

    Of course, I don’t advocate that the Small Catechism is the end of parish catechesis. As we progress in our studies, expansion is necessary.

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