The Small Catechism was not created for Confirmation Class

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Luther actually expected the Catechism to be taught in the home.

The Small Catechism (1529) has been a primary resource for Lutheran catechesis for almost five hundred years and today is often the only source for such instruction. Its pithy proclamation of the good news of Christ has penetrated many readers’ hearts because of Martin Luther’s down-to-earth language that makes his dogmatic Evangelical claims accessible. Despite the Catechism’s iconic status, many Lutherans and other interested Christians have only read a censored version. 

At the beginning of each section of the Catechism, Luther claimed that the following was “how a father of the house should present the same [the Ten Commandments or the Creed, etc.] to his servants [household] in a simple way.” This sentence, repeated five more times along with two similar sentences related to Luther’s morning and evening prayers and table blessing has been removed from many editions widely used in confirmation over the last several decades. 

No doubt, many editions of the “Small Catechism” have removed the “house father” and the original Catechism’s table of duties with its traditional gender roles because of political correctness. [1] But this application of modern values to Luther’s text has actually made the Catechism less relevant. As a result of the censorship, today’s reader misses the context Luther prescribed for the Catechism’s use. Thereby, present readers have been less likely to experience the liberating use of the Catechism at home.

Although Luther’s preface to the Small Catechism is addressed to “pastors and preachers,” the main text makes more references to use within the household or family than it does in direct relation to the public preacher. Luther actually expected the Catechism to be taught in the home.

He most certainly did not write the Catechism to be learned in confirmation class. Lutherans had nothing remotely resembling a twenty-first century confirmation class until centuries after the Reformation. In the sixteenth century, Lutheran pastors preached on the Catechism during Lent and perhaps other periods of the church year, but this was only the tip of the iceberg. Many parishes held a service every Sunday afternoon or evening that children were expected to attend, in which the pastor preached on the Catechism. This form of catechesis went on for years and years, unlike confirmation class.

Lutherans knew the Catechism and the Christian faith before confirmation class was created because these public sermons were often reinforced in homes. Luther’s admonition to fathers used the law in its first use (the political or coercive use of the law), which often spills over into the second use (the theological or condemning use of the law), to get the good news of Christ preached in homes. While the law never works in its first use one hundred percent of the time, the best evidence that Luther’s orders were often followed is the massive number of Catechisms printed in the sixteenth century along with other catechetical and devotional materials, namely, hymnals filled with Luther’s hymns and postils (collections of sermons written by Luther and other Evangelicals).

Luther saved the printing industry, which was dying after its initial post-Gutenberg (d. 1468) expansion. He created a printing juggernaut, which British Reformation historian Andrew Pettegree coined “Brand Luther.” [2] The Small Catechism was printed in well over one hundred German editions in the sixteenth century alone. These editions often survive in only one or two copies. A conservative estimate for the average print run at the time is one thousand copies. If one or two copies survived out of one thousand or more, how many more editions have simply been lost to history? While there are many reasons for a booklet printed nearly five hundred years ago to disappear, the greater than ninety-nine percent destruction rate of known Catechism editions testifies to their usage: books that are continuously read eventually fall apart.

Churches were not purchasing scores of Catechisms for non-existent confirmation classes. Nor were they purchasing copies of the equally mass-printed hymnals and postils. Sixteenth-century churches did not have hymnals in the pews. [3] No pushy denominational publishing houses were trying to force congregations to purchase their censored Catechisms or lousy hymnals. The market for Catechisms and hymnals was truly free. Printers published these documents to earn a profit. The constant reprinting indicates massive popular demand. 

Although modern denominational publishing houses believe that censoring the Small Catechism makes it more relevant today, their censorship prevents the Catechism from encouraging families to study it at home. The good news is that families are free to do so whether churches and pseudo-catechisms encourage them to, or not. 

In fact, learning the faith at home has never been easier with resources like and other websites producing podcasts and articles every day. Calvinists have done us all a great service by creating, which catalogs almost every Christian hymn ever written and provides an audio file of the melody for most. Along with other websites, families are free to sing hymns together like never before, and parents have many no-cost resources through which to learn how to preach the Catechism to their children.

This should give us hope for the future of our faith in this world. Christopher Boyd Brown retells the heroic story of the seventeenth-century Lutherans of Joachimsthal in Bohemia, who, by means of their families, kept the local Evangelical-Lutheran faith strong despite public Lutheran services being banned for several decades. [4] In the present age in which church bodies and congregations are generally struggling and shrinking if not actively abandoning the faith, the family, God’s bulwark against the Zeitgeist, [5] will be instrumental in preserving the true faith and hopefully a bridge to better days to come.
[1] I was recently surprised to find these sentences missing from an English translation published all the way back in 1960, with the copyright shared by Augsburg Publishing House and Concordia Publishing House and a claim on the copyright page that it was prepared for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod along with the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America.
[2]  Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).
[3] Sixteenth-century churches also lacked pews, but that’s a story for another day.
[4]  Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005).
[5] Ferdinand Mount, The Subversive Family (New York: Free Press, 1992).