By all accounts, the very first catechism—a manual of Christian doctrine drawn up in the form of questions and answers for the purpose of instruction in the faith—was compiled by the English scholar Alcuin sometime in the 8th century. It was followed in the next 100 years by many others, among them those of Notker Labeo, monk of the Abbey of Saint Gall, in Switzerland, and of the German monk Otfried of Weissenburg in Alsace. Nevertheless, catechisms remained relatively rare until the time of the Reformation.
Because of Martin Luther's insistence on the religious instruction of children, the venerable tradition of the catechism was revived—indeed catechisms became one of the distinctives of Reformation renewal. After Luther published his first little primer of religion, A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer in 1520, several other catechisms were prepared by leading Protestant theologians. Luther's visitation of the Saxon churches in 1528 led him to prepare his Larger and Smaller Catechisms the following year.
The Swiss, English, Dutch, and Scottish Reformed also made wide use of catechisms—and a number were published in the 16th century. The most noteworthy were the Geneva and Heidelberg catechisms, and those of the German theologian Johannes Oecolampadius of Basel. The Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger produced a catechism in Zürich in 1555. Likewise, John Calvin produced catechisms for the church in Geneva. The Smaller Catechism was published in French in 1536 while the Larger Catechism appeared in 1541—both of which were translated into various languages, and became an acknowledged standard of the Reformed churches.
The Heidelberg, or Palatinate, catechism was compiled in Heidelberg by the German theologians Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, at the request of the Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. It was published in 1563 and was translated into all the languages of Europe. It became the standard of the Dutch and German Reformed churches of America. Soon, even the Roman Catholic church, began producing catechisms—the first was prepared by the Council of Trent and published in 1566.
The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which, with the Westminster Confession of Faith, became the standard catechisms of the Presbyterian churches throughout the countries of the former British Empire were compiled by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster between 1645 and 1652. The very familiar Shorter Catechism opens with the words, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Amazingly, this little didactic device became the means by which the very foundations of Western culture were reshaped. As Samuel Johnson asserted, “The little questions and answers of the catechisms afford us a glimpse at the inner framework of the Western view of the world.”