Comfort and Joy
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This document contains a modern English version of the
one of the most famous catechisms of the Reformation.
What is a Catechism?
“Catechise” comes from the Greek word
meaning “instruct”. It refers to theeducation in the faith of Children, young people and adults. In the early Church the termindicated the oral instruction about central Christian truths given before baptism and admissionto the Lord’s Supper. The whole course lasted two or more commonly three years and wasdesigned for adult converts from paganism. As the Church grew, this material was writtendown in brief creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed) or manuals. Such books of instruction aboutbasic Christian beliefs eventually came to be called “catechisms”.
The Middle Ages
Catechisms continued in use during the Middle Ages. Often they were used in connection withthe sacrament of Confession. In the later part of the period their content typically included whatwere called the “four pillars”:– the
(the baptismal profession of faith):– the meaning and use of the
; and– the
At this time, too, catechisms were designed with the needs of children in mind. One of thebetter known is the
prepared by John Colet (c. 1467–1519) for the use of the boysat St Paul’s School in London.
The Reformation, with its insistence on religious instruction, brought a flood of newcatechisms, commonly in the form of questions and answers. They aimed to give a unified viewof the Church’s teachings on matters of belief and Christian living. Lutherans, Reformed,Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists all made active use of them.Teaching the catechism took place in a number of settings: at home, at school, in churchservices and in universities. Adults were expected to be familiar with the catechism and study itregularly. Parents were responsible to teach it at home. Special classes for children wereprovided by the minister. After instruction, those who confessed for themselves the faith whichit taught were admitted to the Lord’s Supper.
In the eighteenth century John Wesley encouraged catechising, but in many other circles theteaching of catechisms degenerated into rote learning of questions and answers. Churchmembers frequently came to know them only as boring material imposed by authority.Rationalists and Liberals no longer accepted the orthodoxy that the catechisms represented.Many ministers came to see them as historical monuments rather than living witnesses. Fromthe middle of the nineteenth century they progressively fell into disuse in the major Protestantchurches. In the United States, for example, 130,000 copies of the Westminster Shorter