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Catechism is the designation for the booklets in which the main outline of Christian doctrine is presented (usually with Scripture references) in the form of questions and answers, for the instruction of youth. The term originated in the Reformation period, apparently having been used first by Johannes Brenz in 1528, although the practice of catechetical instruction goes back to early Christian times. The oldest Protestant catechism was probably Luther's Kurze Form der 10 Gebote, des Glaubens, des Vaterunsers of 1520. Well known are Luther's large and small catechisms, both of 1529. With these and the Brenz catechism must be ranked the Reformed Heidelberg Catechismus of 1563. The first Roman Catholic catechism appeared in 1535. The standard Anglican catechism is dated 1604, and the Presbyterian (Westminster) 1646 and 1647.

Among Anabaptist publications, Balthasar Hubmaier's may be considered the oldest catechism, bearing the title, Ein Christennliche Leertafel, die ein yedlicher mensch, ee vnd er im Wasser getaufft wirdt, vor wissen solle (Nikolsburg 1526). In it Hubmaier treats the various points of doctrine in the form of a conversation between Hans and Leonhard von Liechtenstein.

It is not probable that Hubmaier's catechism was actually used as such. For a long time there is no indication that a catechism was used by the Anabaptists (except among the Hutterian Brethren, Walpot's catechism) in addition to the Bible in youth instruction. The Dutch Mennonites were the first known to use them, and produced over 140 different forms 1633-1950, none of which became universally accepted or dominant.

The Swiss and South German Anabaptists, and their later descendants as Mennonites, never produced a catechism of their own (except a Swiss Katechismus der christlichen Lehre, Basel 1830 and Langnau 1879), and did not use a catechism booklet of any sort, even a borrowed one, until the later 18th century. It was the North Germans, under Dutch influence, who introduced the catechism among the German-speaking Mennonites, and two of their productions became very popular among the South Germans and the Pennsylvania Mennonites as well as among the Russian Mennonites.

The first German catechism, very brief, called Kurze Unterweisung aus der Schrift, with 36 questions and answers, which appeared in Danzig in 1690, has been very popular. It has appeared attached to all American editions, both German and English, of the Christliches Gemüthsgespräch (first edition, Ephrata 1769; first English edition, Lancaster 1857) and in condensed form in Christian Burkholder's Anrede an die Jugend (Lancaster 1804, first English edition, Lancaster 1857). It appeared in Spanish in 1927 (Breve Catecismo) along with the Dordrecht Confesion de Fe at Pehuajo, Argentina.

However, the first comprehensive German catechism was this same Christliches Gemüthsgespräch of Gerrit Roosen, minister of the Hamburg church, first published at Ratzeburg in 1702, containing 148 questions and answers. It was reprinted five times in Germany 1727, 1766, 1783, 1816, and 1838 (all without indication of place), after which it went out of use there, being supplanted by Molenaar's Katechismus der christlichen Lehre of 1841 for the Palatinate and by the Christliches Lehrbuchlein of 1865 in Baden. In America there were 14 German editions of it (1769, 1770, 1790, 1811, 1836, 1839, 1846, 1848, 1868, 1871, 1873, 1891, 1902, 1930), and six English (1857, 1870, 1878, 1892, 1921, 1941). Strangely the book also contains the Prussian catechism of 1690, and for several editions a third short catechism by A. Z. It was not used by the Amish. It was reprinted in Biel, Switzerland, in 1877.

A third popular catechism, Kurze und einfältige Unterweisung aus der Heiligen Schrift, though first published in Elbing in 1778, became the catechism of the Amish congregations in both Europe and America, with German editions in Waldeck 1797, Strasbourg 1801, Giessen 1834, Zweibrucken 1856, 1880, Regensburg 1877, Montbéliard (Mümpelgart) 1855, 1860, and 1891. French language editions appeared at Nancy 1862, Neufchateau 1869, Baccarat 1898, and Montbéliard 1922, under the title Catechisme ou Instruction tirée de l' Ecriture Sainte. Meanwhile the West Prussians themselves were constantly reprinting it: Elbing 1794, Marienwerder 1802, 1862, Marienburg (n.d.), Elbing 1806, ----, 1833, 1837, 1890, Marienburg 1935 (tenth edition). The West Prussian immigrants published it at Odessa 1851, 1865, St. Petersburg 1870, Berdyansk 1874, 1879, Odessa again in 1890, Halbstadt 1898 and 1912, and at Stuttgart, Germany, in 1860. There was an edition of 1845 published by Philip Machold, but no place given.

1824 ElbingCatechism

In America the Elbing catechism was first printed at Ephrata (Pa.) in 1824 (for the Mennonites of Waterloo County, Ont.), with reprints Doylestown 1844, Berlin 1845, Schippach 1848, Milford Square 1863, 1879 (2), Elkhart 1869, 1872, 1878, 1881, 1888, 1892, 1898 (Evangelical Mennonite Brethren), 1900, 1907 (MB), 1914, 1918, Scottdale 1929 (11th edition), Berne (revised) 1897, 1898, 1901, 1924, and 1926, 1935 (revised edition for Canada). There was an Amish edition at Berne, 1925, "Im Auftrage der Amisch Christlichen Gemeinde von Berne." The Old Colony Mennonites of Mexico published it in 1943 and 1950 (Cuauhtemoc). The Rundschau (Mennonite Brethren) Publishing House of Winnipeg, now the Christian Press, began to publish the catechism in German about 1924; the 1927 edition is labeled the l3th, with the 1940 edition, issued for the Kleine Gemeinde, labeled the 19th. The Old Order Amish publisher, L. A. Miller, Arthur, Illinois, issued editions in 1928 and 1940. English editions appeared as follows: (Rupp Translation) Lancaster 1849, Milford Square 1878, Quakertown 1889, and (revised Elkhart translation) at Elkhart 1874, 1881, 1883, 1889, 1898, 1905; at Berne (new translated from revised German) 1897, 1904, 1917, 1922, 1925, 1928, 1931; (again revised) 1934, 1937. It is worth noting that this catechism thus became not only the catechism of the Amish in America, but also of the Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (now Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), and the Kleine Gemeinde (now called Evangelical Mennonites). It is nothing short of astounding to discover that the Elbing-Waldeck catechism became the standard source of doctrinal, prebaptismal instruction for such widespread groups as the American groups just listed, the Mennonites of Russia (except the Mennonite Brethren group 1860ff.), those of West Prussia, and those of France; further that it is still in widespread use in North America wherever catechisms are used, in both English and German; and finally, that no other catechism, except the much larger and somewhat different Gemüthsgespräch -- and that only among the Mennonite Church (MC) of Eastern Pennsylvania -- has ever successfully competed with it in any language in these countries. Does this not explain, in part at least, the widespread doctrinal agreement among these groups? Since it contains a strong article on nonresistance one may assume that it also contributed to the steadfast maintenance of this doctrine.

Numerous other catechisms of lesser popularity were produced and used in Germany. Among them are Johannes Molenaar's Katechismus der christlichen Lehre, Leipzig 1841, 1854; revised and condensed as Katechismus der christlichen Lehre, Worms 1861 and Karlsruhe 1922; Christliches Lehrbüchlein, Heilbronn 1865, 1868, Sinsheim. 1893 (condensed), 1913, Stuttgart 1922, Langnau (edition for the Swiss churches) 1943. At Krefeld in 1836 and 1852 appeared Christliche Lehre, revised by Ernst Weydmann in 1888, the same further revised in 1898. The Dutch Mennonite preacher Joannes Deknatel's Anleitung zum Christlichen Glauben (Dutch editions 1746, 1747, and 1764) appeared in German editions in 1756 (Amsterdam), Neuwied 1790, Worms 1829, Alzey 1839. A number of catechisms were issued in West Prussia: Georg Hansen, Ein Glaubensbericht vor die Jugend, Danzig 1671; Joh. Peter Sprunk, Katechismus (1723-43); Konfession oder kurzer, einfältiger Glaubensunterricht der altflamischem Taufgesinnten Gemeinde in Preussen im Jahre 1730 in Fragen und Antworten, 1768; Hermann Jantzen, Confession oder kurzer Glaubensunterricht derer bekannten Taufgesinnten Gemeinden in Preussen, Zur Erbauung der Jugend . . . in 92 Fragen und Antworten, 1741; Jakob de Veer, Catechismus oder biblischer Religionsunterricht in Frage und Antwort, Danzig 1791. The Conference of East and West Prussian churches in 1935 authorized the preparation of a new catechism based on the Palatine-Hessian and the Flemish-Frisian-West Prussian booklets and appointed a commission for this purpose. In 1936 the attempt was given up and the congregations were advised to use whatever catechisms they pleased.

Two regular new catechisms were attempted in America. The first was Katechismus der Christlichen Lehre prepared by a committee appointed for that purpose by the General Conference of the Mennonites of North America in 1868 and published in 1882 by Christian Schowalter at Primrose, Iowa. If it was designed to displace the older Elbing catechism already in time-honored use in the congregations of the conference, it failed, for no further editions appeared, while the Elbing catechism has continued in use to the present day. The Old Order Amish Katechismus für kleine Kinder, prepared by S. D. Guengerich of Johnson County, Iowa, and first published at Elkhart in 1888, was more successful. It has gone through five editions (Elkhart 1888, 1903, 1916, and Arthur, Illinois, 1928 and 1940) and is still in use. The full title is Katechismus für kleine Kinder. Zum Gebrauch für Schulen, Sonntagsschulen und Familien. Besonders bearbeitet für die Kleinkinder-Klassen zur Grundlage eines evangelischen Religions-Unterrichts. In spite of the group's rejection of the catechetical method, a book of doctrinal instruction very similar to a catechism was been published in the 1940s by the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, Kansas, 1943 and 1946) bearing the title Fundamentals of Faith in Questions and Answer Form (prepared under the direction of the Board of Home Missions of the Southern District Conference), 66 pages. David H. Epp, minister in the Chortitza Mennonite congregation in South Russia, published in 1896 (new edition at Odessa-Ekaterinoslav in 1899, Canadian edition at Rosthern 1941) an extensive commentary on the Elbing catechism entitled Kurze Erklärungen u. Erläuterungen zum "Katechismus der christlichen, taufgesinnten Gemeinden so Mennoniten genannt werden" (258 pp.) to which is attached a brief survey of Mennonite history (36 pp.) and a list of Mennonite periodicals. C. H. Wedel, professor at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas, did much the same thing in 1910 in his Meditationen zu den Fragen und Antworten unseres Katechismus (322 pp.). In 1951 Walter Gering wrote a Catechism Workbook (Newton, Kan.) to be used as an aid for ministers in teaching the catechism.

A number of short pamphlets similar to catechisms have been published in America. H. D. Penner's Kurzer Leitfaden für den Religionsunterricht in der Kinderlehre (Hillsboro 1912), the Hutterite Einige Fragen und ihre Beantwortung für die reifere Jugend (before 1928), and Chester K. Lehman's Junior Catechism (Scottdale 1933, reprinted as late as 1944) should be mentioned here.

As has been noted, many of the catechism editions did not appear as separate publications, but in combination, usually with a confession of faith, sometimes with a collection of prayers and hymns added.

Theologically the various catechisms reflect the current climate  in the Mennonite churches where they were composed. Mostly they reveal some departure from the earlier strict Anabaptist doctrinal and ethical position in the direction of Pietism (Deknatel's Anleitung for instance) or standard Lutheranism (Roosen's Gemüthsgespräch). The Elbing-Waldeck catechism remained closer to original Anabaptism than any other.

It has been the policy of the Mennonite Brethren Church to reject all catechisms and catechetical instruction from its beginning in Russia, in favor of an emphasis on evangelistic preaching and conversion. This and the obvious non-use of the catechetical method and non publication of a catechism by Anabaptist-Mennonites in any country for the first century and a quarter of their history poses the question as to whether catechisms are an importation, foreign to the genius of Anabaptism, whose use indicates a spiritual decline of the brotherhood and departure from its original character and type of piety, or whether it was actually a fruitful adaptation from the outside, useful and beneficial throughout the long history of its use in the Amish and Mennonite churches of Germany, France, Prussia, Russia, Holland, and North America.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Harold S. Bender
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. "Catechism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 25 Jul 2024.

APA style

Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. (1953). Catechism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 529-531. All rights reserved.

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