“The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach… Yet, everyone says they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs… O bishops! What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office [James 3:1]?”
So says Martin Luther in the preface to his small catechism published in 1529. Luther was appalled at the ignorance of most people about the faith they claimed to profess. In response, he wrote the Large and Small Lutheran catechisms which are still used today (although additions have been made). The idea of a catechism was not new, so Luther was building on an existing heritage.
The Large Catechism was designed to be used by pastors for study; it reads like a series of sermons. The Small Catechism was meant for fathers to use in instructing their families. It is in the form of a set of questions and answers, and was meant to be memorized. Both cover the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, basics of the faith. If you were confirmed in the Lutheran Church, you probably own a copy of the Small Catechism, which you used during your confirmation classes.
Luther believed strongly that all Christians should know and understand these fundamentals of the church. He led by example, saying:
“But for myself I say this: I am also a doctor and preacher; yes, as learned and experienced as all the people. ..Yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning—and whenever I have time—I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must still read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so.”