Free the Catechism

My congregation recently ran into an obstacle concerning use of the 1986 LCMS English translation of Luther’s Small Catechism. This was not about the Explanation. This was about the translation of the German text as Luther himself published it.

Mrs. Heidi Sias, wife of the Rev. Dr. Pastor John Wollenburg Sias, Concordia Lutheran Church in Forsyth, Montana, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Colstrip, Montana, and Trinity Lutheran Church  in Hysham, Montana (a 120 mile round trip) has prepared children’s bulletins that track the one year historic lectionary. Each bulletin contains a “Catechism Corner.”

The “Catechism Corner” quotes a portion of Luther’s Small Catechism. Here is an example.

catechism corner

The bulletins have many fine qualities. At the risk of oversimplifying, “Lessons for Lambs is not meant to serve as a way to keep kids busy and quiet during the service, but rather to involve them in what’s going on in the service so they can begin thinking about it.” The bulletins having that character, this Catechism Corner element would cement our desire to use them. One of the chief problems in many of our churches is that we are under-catechized. Catechism Corner puts digestible bites of Luther’s Catechism before children every week, and it shows parents that the Catechism should be taught to their children.

In our Board of Directors, each Director has a portfolio. Mine is Christian Education. As Christian Education Director, I showed these Lessons for Lambs to our Pastor, Rolf Preus, so that they could be given qualified, pastoral doctrinal review for our congregation. Having cleared that qualification, I then brought the Lessons for Lambs before a regular meeting of our Board. Pastor Preus told the Board he would like to use them, but there was one fly in the ointment. It is too big of a fly to ignore. What is that fly?

Mrs. Sias uses the 1912 translation authorized by the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, published by Concordia Publishing House.

Why is that a fly? Because of what Dr. Luther says in his Preface to the Small Catechism.

In the first place, let the preacher above all be careful to avoid many kinds of or various texts and forms of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Sacraments, etc., but choose one form to which he adheres, and which he inculcates all the time, year after year. For [I give this advice, however, because I know that] young and simple people must be taught by uniform, settled texts and forms, otherwise they easily become confused when the teacher to-day teaches them thus, and in a year some other way, as if he wished to make improvements, and thus all effort and labor [which has been expended in teaching] is lost.

(Dr. Martin Luther, Preface, Small Catechism.)

If we use the 1986 LCMS text in Wednesday School, Sunday School, Confirmation, Adult Bible Class, Catechism Review Class, Confessional Reading Group, as responsive reading in the Divine Service, in parental catechization at home, but then introduce the 1912 text, good as it is, in the children’s bulletin, we would be using different texts and mixing them in the children’s minds. Then, as Luther says, we introduce confusion and risk that all effort and labor expended in teaching the Catechism be lost. Pastor Preus is right. We have to pick one text or another, stick with it, and not mix texts.

Pastor Preus himself practices what he preaches. Before he came to our congregation last spring, he had been using the 1943 text in his prior call. When he came to our congregation, he saw that we have been using the 1986 text. He switched to our text to avoid the dangers against which Dr. Luther warned.

So, why doesn’t Mrs. Sias just use the 1986 text? Wouldn’t that be problem solved? No, because according to Concordia Publishing House, that would violate its copyright in the 1986 text.

In some editions of the 1986 Small Catechism, the copyright notice includes the grant of a license for congregations to use small excerpts within the congregation, so I am told. I have 5 editions and have not found that in mine. But, supposing that grant were there, it does not solve this particular problem.

Under that grant, when Mrs. Sias originally created Lessons for Lambs for use in her own congregations, that was fine. That was within the grant. But, when she published them on her churches’ website for others to use, that is prohibited. In that case, the author is “storing in a retrieval system” portions of the Catechism text that are then “transmitted” to people not of the original congregation. That is why she had to use some other text.

In that scenario, a person has a number of options. She can use an old text in the public domain. She can use a text that is copyrighted by some other synod, translator, publisher, or organization who is willing to grant a license for the use.

If we are to follow Dr. Luther’s pedagogical admonition, the copyright claim puts us to choosing between mutually exclusive alternatives.


  • We are forced to avoid using any materials created outside our own congregations no matter how high the quality and no matter how suited to our setting, if they contain portions of the current synodical text.


  • We are forced to reinvent wheels and dissipate congregational human resources in redundant labors to generate our own materials, if we want to use the current synodical text.


  • If congregations, authors, and other organizations want to share resources that help teach the Catechism, they must withdraw the current synodical text from the resources, because at the point of sharing them, they would become alleged copyright infringers.


Mrs. Sias provides Lessons for Lambs free of charge to congregations, but also stipulates that they be used intact. Therefore a workaround that we have in mind would require her permission. We would take Lessons for Lambs, blot out the 1921 text Mrs. Sias used, and paste our Synod’s text into the Catechism Corner. Then she would be innocent of “storing in a retrieval system” portions of the Catechism text that are then “transmitted” to our children. I can just hear my Dad, who owned and managed multiple enterprises employing many people in his lifetime, reverting to Norwegian to say what he would think of an organization requiring their people to waste time like that.

The Small Catechism is sui generis. It is of its own kind, in a class by itself. It is unique. Even though, according to the laws of the civil state, the ordinary rules of property might apply,[1] we of the Church should not apply them to the Catechism. The Catechism is a gift to the saints. Here, in this class unto itself, the small catechetical class, copyrights, corporatism, and business models should not stand between the Catechism and little children. Let those restraints be applied to other things, but not the Catechism.

We should be giving the Catechism away free to everyone. We should be against withholding the Catechism from anyone.

This issue is much broader than the sphere in which I have personal knowledge. I know what has just happened in my congregation. I know what the copyright claim is doing to hamper me as Christian Education Director of a congregation of the Synod. In turn, I know that it is taking bread out of children’s mouths in my congregation. O sure, you can say, just do the cut, copy, and paste to Mrs. Sias’ bulletins. But that time and labor displaces other things I should be doing to also put the Catechism before the children. The wasted time does not get replaced. This makes me wonder, in what other scenarios are others also blocked from using our own text. I have heard this called the Babylonian Captivity of the Catechism. I do not know what all that refers to, but we need to look into it.

Catechists of the Church unite. Free the Catechism. The Catechism belongs to the saints.



[1] The claim that the 1986 Concordia Publishing House version of the English text of the Small Catechism is protected by copyright seems thin. Copyright protects expression. Expression, to be expression, must be, well, expressive. To be copyrightable, it must have a degree of creativity. When we examine the English text through its pedigree, the changes from prior, public domain texts to the 1986 text fall somewhat short of being creative or expressive themselves. What, exactly, did the so-called translation committee add? The corporatists might be the Wizard of Oz.

If it were to be suggested by someone supporting the CPH position on the Small Catechism that Mrs. Sias remove the limitation that Lessons for Lambs be used intact, that would be rich. Except for quotations of Scripture and the Catechism, Lessons for Lambs are works of her authorship. She created them. They are her expressions of her creativity. She has every basis to claim copyright and CPH has little basis. She gives Lessons for Lambs away free to congregations, and only asks that, in return for the 5 years it took to create them, they be used for their intended, stated purpose, which is best accomplished by them being used intact. If they are sliced and diced, the object is lost.


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