7: Tools of the Trade 3: Catechism

The Reformers understood themselves not to be creating a new faith, but as recovering the true religion of Jesus and the early church. Their passion for their mission is palpable in examining of the kinds of transformations that were implemented in England. For transformation to occur, education was central not only for clergy but for the whole of the population.

In the sixteenth century there was no distinction between the secular and the religious spheres. All spheres of life were thoroughly infused with religious discourse and religion was the language through which people worked out the various issues of their world. As such there was no division between education in letters and education in religious thought and love of God.

Similarly people in sixteenth century England were not concerned about the separation of church and state, with each relegated firmly to its own domain. Instead the political understanding held that church and state were coordinates in a healthy society spurring it on to greater heights of power and of righteousness.

There was a century-long preoccupation in England with edifying the citizens and enforcing religious uniformity to this effect. Religious education was designed to create loyal citizens for the English commonwealth and an essential part of this formation was the catechism.

The catechism has a long history in the Christian faith, although the Reformers injected real novelty into its character. Protestants viewed medieval religious instruction as misleading and ineffective, and hence they sought to recover the methods used by the early church. In examining changes to the catechism and catechetical techniques we can glimpse an important intersection of religious and social change in sixteenth century England.

I. Medium and Intention

Theological Education and the Loyal Citizen

One of the major motivations for catechetical education in sixteenth century England was to produce loyal citizens for the kingdom. By recovering and unifying what Reformers understood to be the true religion, they hoped to encourage Christian virtue and encourage the people to avoid vice. This personal morality was understood to have far reaching social consequences.

A variety of methods were employed to educate the people about Protestant beliefs and the Christian religion generally. These included:

  • reading the Bible and listening to it read aloud;
  • learning the basic principles of the faith through the catechism; and
  • participation in services and communal worship.

Catechism as the Evolving Foundation

Ultimately, the catechism came to be the foundation upon which all the other elements of religious education were built. Reformers expected serious biblical exegesis to be done by families and individuals in Tudor England, as demonstrated by their commitment to the Commentaries of Erasmus. The Commentaries were a complex work of humanist biblical scholarship. This high expectation meant that catechetical education needed to be thorough, as it would provide the foundation for building the godly kingdom.

The royal injunctions of 1536 [see here for full text] mandated religious education and were catechetical in intent, but were not yet a catechism per se. Rather they mandated use of a primer. In 1538 appeared A goodly prymer in Englysshe newely corrected and prynted, with certeyne godly meditations [and] prayers added to the same, very necessarye and profytable for all them that ryghte assuredlye vnderstande not the latine [and] greke tongues (London). A primer was a devotional text popular in the Middle Ages that the Reformers adopted. They typically contained the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, the Ave Maria, psalms, and other devotional texts. Henry published his own primer that excluded the Ave Maria and the seven deadly sins and other classically Catholic prayers and texts.

Edward VI King of England. During his reign the Church of England moved in a more Protestant direction (Wikimedia Commons)
Edward VI King of England. During his reign the Church of England moved in a more Protestant direction (Wikimedia Commons)

Henry’s son Edward VI (1537-1553) published his own authorized primer as well, demonstrating the commitment of Reformers to format. Thus in 1545 was published, The primer, set foorth by the Kynges maiestie and his clergie, to be taught lerned, [and] read: and none other to be vsed throughout all his dominions.[Link: here]

The primer became one of the central texts used for constructing the foundation of religious belief and knowledge deemed necessary by the Reformed authorities. Primers were influential for, but were not yet, a catechism.

The texts we today call catechisms were still relatively new in the sixteenth century, and the style they were written in still varied widely. But they fulfilled a very crucial role in the construction of Christian life that was taking place at the time. Catechetical education was intended to bridge the gap between the vows of baptism, and the affirmation of those vows by an individual at confirmation.

Title Page of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was an extremely influential Protestant catechism that was frequently translated into English (Wikimedia Commons)
Title Page of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was an extremely influential Protestant catechism that was frequently translated into English (Wikimedia Commons)

The Education of Youth in England and New Catechetical Style

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop and composer of the Book of Common Prayer, wrote that there was nothing more important than the education of the youth. This sentiment was widely shared. Reformers were convinced that the youth represented the future of the godly kingdom, and the royal authorities shared this sentiment. There was an increasing availability of primary and secondary level education for English youth in the period.

In the years between 1536 and 1553, an ambitious program of religious education for children and adolescents was planned on a nation wide basis. It was during this period that Cranmer penned the first official English catechism [here] published in his 1549 prayer book. Cranmer’s catechism was innovative, as it was constructed in a dialogue-based question and answer style.

Title page of the 1536 edition of Martin Luther, Small Catechism, originally published in 1529. (Wikimedia Commons)
Title page of the 1536 edition of Martin Luther, Small Catechism, originally published in 1529. (Wikimedia Commons)

Luther had used the question and answer style earlier in his Small Catechism. However it was not constructed as a dialogue and was to be learned by rote (for the full text with commentary see here]. His style was less organic and many of the answers were quite long making memorization difficult, especially for less well-educated pupils. The dialogic question and answer style was unique, although Reformers did not see it this way; they understood it to be a long overdue recovery of the proper styles used by the early church.

As such Cranmer’s catechism had a lasting influence and was printed unchanged in the 1552 (here ) and 1559 (here) prayer books, as well as in Edward’s primer. At the time translations of catechisms used on the continent were also very popular, such as those written by Luther and Calvin, and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Learning and Social Stability

Good learning was thought to be essential for social stability, and there was concern for virtue and loyalty amongst the people of England. As such, during their reigns, Edward VI and Elizabeth I (1533-1603) it was enforced that every young person had to attend for catechetical instruction. Priests were to teach catechism on Sundays and Holy Days before Evening Prayer.

It was a shared social and ecclesial responsibility to carry out instruction in the catechism. There were legal penalties in place for parents whose children failed to attend, and it was very much understood as a cornerstone for building loyal subjects. The catechism underscored the reformers’ belief that good learning was basic to inculcating social stability. This is clear in the following passage:

My duty toward my neighbour is, to love him as myself. And to do to all men as I would they should do unto me. To love, honour, and succor my father and mother. To honour and obey the king and his ministers. To submit myself to all governors, teachers, spiritual pastors, and masters. To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters. To hurt nobody by word nor deed. To be true and just in all my dealing. To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart. To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongues from evil speaking, lying, and slandering. To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity. Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods. But learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me. (Cited in Thompsett. “Godly Instructions in Reformation England” in Westerhoff, John H., and O. C. Edwards, ed. The Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis. 1981, 192).

What can be clearly seen in this passage, which is the answer to the question ‘What is thy duty toward thy neighbour?’ is a manifest commitment to a hierarchical society. Each catechism offered a worldview, and social pronouncements were imbedded in theological exposition which encoded proper behaviour.

Alexander Nowell (Wikimedia Commons)
Alexander Nowell (Wikimedia Commons)

Later Catechisms for a Variety of Needs

As children progressed through their education, they would encounter other catechisms. John Ponet (or Poynet) (1514-1556) and Alexander Nowell (1517-1602) were influential catechists in the second half of the 16th century. A catechism added by Ponet to the 42 Articles of 1553 (text here] formed the basis of a later catechism of Alexander Nowell. Their catechisms were published in 1563 (for full text, see here] and 1570 respectively. These catechisms were different than Cranmer or Luther’s catechisms in that they had a dual function and were Latin textbooks as well as religious documents. They were designed for use within the Latin and Grammar schools of England. They were also significantly longer.

The 1570s saw the second big push of the sixteenth century for catechetical education. During this period and beyond hundreds of new catechisms were written. Many more were written in England rather than being translations of continental catechisms. Hundreds of thousands of catechisms were printed in hundreds of editions, demonstrating rapid growth of catechetical techniques and a desire to experiment and serve different needs. Catechetical instruction was a necessary part of English life in the sixteenth century and the sermons, public debates, and other study, which composed the ongoing formation of the Christian, were built on its foundation.

Title page of A catechisme
Title page of A catechisme, or first instruction and learning of Christian religion. Written in Latine by A. Nowell. And translated into Englishe , At London : Printed by Iohn Daye dwelling ouer Aldersgate. Cum priuilegio Regiae Maiestatis per decennium, An. 1571. (Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery)

II. Content of Catechisms

The content of the catechisms generally revolved around three or four primary elements and their meaning. For Protestants these included the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed. The catechisms would not only offer prohibitions but would include exhortations to right action, and prescriptions for behaviour as well.

Why Catechism?

Catechizing was meant to do five things:

  • first to instill in someone the basic religious knowledge necessary for salvation;
  • second, to enable members of the church to be able to understand and engage the scriptures more deeply;
  • third, to prepare parishioners for a fuller engagement with the life of the church;
  • fourth, to enable parishioners to distinguish true doctrine from falsehood; and
  • fifth, to promote Christian virtue and dissuade people from a life of vice.

Catechists generally agreed upon all five of these intentions. They had other disagreements, however. The theological position a certain writer tried to stake out was often correlated to the structure of their catechism. However, this was not always the case. The nimble minds of the Reformers were capable of expounding upon the various theological issues that concerned them from within discussions of any of the major components of catechism.

Different Catechetical Structures

There were different advantages to the different orders the catechists employed. One structure that recurred frequently was the sequence of Apostles Creed, the Decalogue, followed by the Lord’s Prayer and perhaps the Sacraments. The advantage of this order was that it outlined the basic logic of the Reformed theological position and rooted it in the scriptures and doctrinal positions of the ancient church. The Apostles Creed described what faith meant. The Decalogue introduced the law and demonstrated that the human being unaided could not attain it, hence showing the need for salvation. The Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments then introduced grace, and gave knowledge of the saving power and work of God.

John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester, Bishop of Rochester, Marian exile, and a controversial Protestant religious leader. A catechism added by Ponet to the 42 Articles of 1553 formed the basis of a later catechism by Alexander Nowell. (Wikimedia Commons)
John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester, Bishop of Rochester, Marian exile, and a controversial Protestant religious leader. A catechism added by Ponet to the 42 Articles of 1553 formed the basis of a later catechism by Alexander Nowell. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many other structures were employed, however, either rearranging the elements or doing away with some or all of them altogether. From the 1570s onwards Ponet’s structure became particularly popular. He placed the Decalogue first, followed by the Apostle’s Creed, and then the Sacraments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

More sacramental forms of the catechism came to be developed towards the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. A section on the Sacraments was officially added to Cranmer’s 1549 catechism in the first decade of the seventeenth century. These sacramental developments provoked surprisingly little reaction from Calvinists despite their opposition to traditional sacramental religion.

William Perkins (Wikimedia Commons)
William Perkins (Wikimedia Commons)

In one interesting case, William Perkins (1558-1602) felt that in order to prevent religious error in unlettered lay people, rather than explain what Creed, Decalogue, and Lord’s Prayer really represented, it would be better to start fresh and extract the essentials from these items. This, he claimed, would provide a better basis for the self-critical behaviour he hoped to inculcate in Christians. Perkins would be an outlier, and generally catechisms were based on the contents outlined previously.

Elements of the Catechism

Given this remarkable similarity in content, it will be worthwhile to examine the four central elements of the catechism and outline their significance.

The text of the Apostles Creed painted on the wall of a Welsh church dating from the early modern era. Paintings like these would be common sights on the walls of parish churches during the Reformation.
The text of the Apostles Creed painted on the wall of a Welsh church dating from the early modern era. Paintings like these would be common sights on the walls of parish churches during the Reformation.

The Apostles Creed

The Apostles Creed was generally a central component of catechetical education. Although it is not based directly in scripture the authority afforded it by the early church was respected by Reformers. The Apostles Creed was generally used to introduce the concept of faith, and describe theologically who God is. It outlines the doctrine of the Trinity, the role of the Holy Spirit, and what Jesus has done.

We will see in the next section that the sustained meditation on the Creed sparked by the proliferation of catechetical writing was a mediator for different theological positions. However some Puritans took issue with the fact that it was not scripturally based, and so did away with it in their catechisms. Nonetheless they usually began their catechisms with similar content, the character of God, the meaning of faith, etc.

The Decalogue

The Decalogue [link: here] is a consistent staple of Protestant catechisms. It served as an effective alternative to the seven deadly sins emphasized by the Catholic Church. This distinction is not quite accurate as by the sixteenth century Catholics had become increasingly comfortable using the Decalogue in their primers and catechisms in place of or as a supplement to the seven deadly sins.

The Decalogue was an effective way of introducing the law to students. It provided thereby the logical basis for why it is that we need the saving grace of God. Its rationale is the prohibition of idolatry. A major advantage of the Decalogue pedagogically was that it introduced both sin and the idea of covenant. While some catechisms stressed covenant more than others, it effectively calls attention to the fact that fallen human beings cannot keep the law unaided, and hence require the grace of God.

The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer is the most ubiquitous and best-known element of the catechism. The translation used at the time is in some cases still used liturgically today. The Lord’s Prayer reinforced the other elements of the catechism and had the advantage of being scripturally grounded to the point of being spoken and recommended by Jesus himself.

Catechists of all stripes loved the Lord’s Prayer and wrote of it warmly. They considered it the perfect model for prayer: displaying gratefulness and appropriate attitudes towards God’s work in the past and the hope for his ongoing presence and saving work. Furthermore, the tone of the prayer was much more optimistic than either the Decalogue or the Apostles Creed, which catechists appreciated. For all the emphasis on guilt and shame in the Christian tradition, Reformers were anxious to ensure their students that the gospel really is good news, and that Jesus provides reason to be joyful and relief from the dangers of sin and death.

The Sacraments

Of all the Sacraments, the Lord’s Supper was the target of the most sustained attention during the sixteenth century and was considered the most important, if contentious. However, theological issues around the significance of the Eucharist did not spark much debate when it came to the catechism. It was simply not considered the appropriate place for such discussion. The Westminster Divines, authors of an influential catechism, wrote that the Lord’s Supper was a means of testifying and renewing mutual love and fellowship as members of the same mystical body.

It was agreed upon by catechists that the sacrament should be taken as often as it was offered, to reinforce an individual’s faith and to strengthen the Christian community. The Eucharist was the rite of communion not only with Christ but with his church. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ makes us not simply one body, but his body. Thus it is a coming together of what Christians should do, what they should believe, how they should thank God for what he has done for them, and strengthen their faith.

III. Unities and Divisions

Of all the theological writings of the sixteenth century, the catechisms caused the least debates. In general catechists were unified in their foregrounding of the importance of teaching young people the basics of Christian religion. Even if they did vary in their approaches and estimations of what counted as the most important.

Puritans and Establishment Catechism

Cranmer’s 1549 catechism said nothing of the doctrines of election, for example. This was a serious issue in theological debate, but frequently catechisms composed by Puritans would avoid the issue as well. Catechisms were generally not polemical documents, as they were meant to introduce new people to the faith.

One of the major complaints about Cranmer’s 1549 catechism was actually that it was too short, while Nowell’s catechism was too long and complex for young and uneducated students. Educators sought a catechism that would fall somewhere in between, and so often took to writing their own.

Engagements with Source Materials

The fact that authors shared common source materials, carried out mutual borrowings, and generally attempted to ‘temper the wind for the shorn lambs,’ meant that they tended to eschew the more contentious theological issues. Contributing to this tendency as well was the fact that ecclesial and state authorities were concerned about the destabilizing effect of exposing people to the full force of predestinarian debate.

Conscious and thoughtful engagement with the twelve articles of the Apostles Creed led to shared norms and emphases between various theological camps. This engagement provided a broader view of divine power, a fuller picture of Christ’s life, a more rounded view of the role of the Holy Spirit, and a stress on the visible church as the locus wherein salvation is secured. At the humbler level of society, as tensions between conformists and non-conformists cooled, one was more likely to encounter creedal-based, church-focused catechism.

Role of the Family

The family played an important role in the Reformers’ vision for sharing catechetical education. Although women were forbidden from preaching in church, they were encouraged to teach the fundamentals of religion in the home to their children and for the benefit of their whole family. The family provided the focal point for the intersection of institutional and cultural changes which really solidified the process of catechization as a widespread social phenomenon.

Social Unifications and Social Divisions

The catechism was a complex phenomenon encompassing spiritual as well as social and cultural goals. It was at once invented and recovered by the Reformers. It transformed education at every level of English society while consolidating English national identity. At the same time that the catechism consolidated identity and smoothed over divisions between different theological perspectives, it enshrined a hierarchically divided social order into the very basic teaching of the meaning of the gospel, such that the response to Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour is articulated to reinforce the existing structure of society. In this, as with their claim to recovery of dialogical catechism, the Reformers were blind to the novelty they had produced.