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The Origin of the Small and Large Catechisms

In Luther’s day, there were any number of catechisms and catechetical materials. They were often extremely extensive and required the young people to memorize not only the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed, but also a list of seven spiritual gifts, seven cardinal virtues, the seven Sacraments, seven words of mercy, the eight beatitudes of God, and on and on and on. Luther cleared away the medieval clutter with his Small and Large Catechisms.

Early Writings

Martin Luther was first and foremost a Bible professor at the University of Wittenberg, but he was also a parish preacher who served at both the city and castle churches in Wittenberg. In 1516, Luther preached a thorough sermon series on the Ten Commandments. In 1517, he preached a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer and wrote a short explanation of the Ten Commandments to help the members of the parish confess their sins. In 1518, Luther published his exposition of the Ten Commandments. In the next two years, he published other short tracts based on his catechetical sermons. In 1520, he gathered these resources together and had them published under the title A Short Form of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

New Approach to Catechesis

Luther wanted this book to serve the laypeople. While Luther built on catechetical customs, his work stood out as a clear departure from much of medieval catechesis. There were three key reasons for this: First, Luther removed a lot of the additional materials that had accumulated throughout the Middle Ages and focused primarily on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, urging that if these three things were learned well, the most important truths of Christianity would be known. Second, Luther very intentionally arranged the catechism so that the Commandments would be first, then the Creed, then the Lord’s Prayer. Third, Luther divided the Apostles’ Creed into only three parts, not the traditional twelve parts. Luther wanted to focus clearly on the three persons of the Holy Trinity and their respective saving work. Luther’s little 1520 book was the foundation for his later catechetical work. In 1525, Luther formally commissioned what he called the “children’s catechism” (catechismus pueroum), using the term catechism for the first time.

Luther continued preaching each year on the basic parts of the catechism and added sermons equally clear and simple on the Sacraments: Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. In 1528, he again took over catechism instruction in the parish church in Wittenberg and preached three series of sermons that year—in May, September, and December—each containing about ten sermons. These thirty sermons would serve Luther well a year later, in 1529, when he finally wrote the catechisms.

The Catechisms in Print

What ignited Luther’s passion to put the catechisms in writing was a visit he had made to Saxony at the urging of its Elector. Luther was horrified to see how bad things were in the Saxon churches. He realized how essential it was for him to get to work on his catechisms.

Luther finished the Large Catechism in March 1529, and in mid-April the first copies were in print. The title was simply German Catechism, Martin Luther. He finished the Small Catechism in May 1529. Its title was The Small Catechism for Ordinary Pastors and Preachers. Martin Luther. Wittenberg. It was an instant best-seller, printed and reprinted many times in Wittenberg and other cities throughout Germany. In early 1529, Luther also had large posters printed containing the chief parts of the catechism. These posters were hung up on walls in churches, schools, and homes for the people to recite together.

After the first printing of the catechisms, Luther added a few things, such as a short form for Confession, and orders for baptismal and wedding services. The main portions of the Small Catechism, first produced in 1529, were never essentially changed.

Adapted from the introduction to Martin Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, pages 8–12 © 2019 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Luther’s hope was that students who had mastered the Small Catechism would move on to the Large Catechism.

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