Christian catechisms of the question and answer variety came into their own in the sixteenth century. The German Reformer Johannes Brenz developed a Q. & A. catechism for propagating the (revised) Christian faith as early as 1527. Luther followed suit two years later with his Large and Short Catechisms. The Reformed wasted little time in jumping on the Q. & A. catechesis bandwagon, with notable offerings eventually made by Calvin, the Heidelberg divines Ursinus and Olevianus, and -- a century later -- select members of the Westminster Assembly. The catechisms produced by the persons just named are, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Q. & A. catechisms were written during the period, each propagating some specific version of the historic Christian faith (Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, etc.).
In general, early modern Christian catechisms fall into one of two categories: there are those directed at young children and/or beginners in doctrine; and there are those directed at more advanced believers, perhaps even ministers/clergy. The Short(er) Catechisms of Luther and Westminster would fall into the first category. The Large(r) Catechisms of Luther and Westminster would fall into the second.
In Protestant traditions, the Church assumed primary responsibility for administering catechesis to believers in need of such. In Scotland, for instance, Sunday afternoon services were specifically devoted to catechesis, with ministers (when available) catechizing the youth in the prescribed presence of their parents. But catechesis also occurred in private homes (i.e., parents catechizing their children) and, at least in Lutheran Germany, in state-sponsored schools, which proliferated throughout the country following Luther's 1524 appeal to civil authorities to establish the same.
In 1545, the Englishman Robert Legate wrote a catechism explicitly intended for use within the home, though with an interesting twist. Legate intended his catechism to be administered not by parents to their children, but by husbands to their (own) wives (and perhaps vice versa). The title of his work says as much: A breife catechisme and dialogue betwene the husbande and his wyfe: contaynynge a pyththy declaracyon of the Pater noster, Crede, and tene Commaundementes, very necessary for all men to knowe.
The body of Legate's catechism, true to its title, comprises a scripted dialogue between a married pair, the husband consistently asking the questions and his wife providing sound theological answers. It begins thus:
The Husband: What arte thou my most deare wyfe?
The Wyfe: I am a Christen woman (ryght wel-beloved husbande) and God's chylde.
The Husband: How knowest thou that?
The Wyfe: Because I do believe the worde of God, and also am baptised in Christes name.
The Husband: What is your beleve?
Wyfe responds to the last with a polished rehearsal of the Apostles' Creed. The reforming tendencies of the catechism as a whole become apparent as specific articles of the Creed are unpacked. So, for instance, Wyfe accents the exclusive role that faith plays in justification in response to Husbande's question "What is it: the forgeveness of synnes?"
The Wyfe: That is, all we that beleve in Christe, have through him forgyvenesse of all our synnes, whiche forgyveness is declared & promysed unto us in the holy Gospell, through the onely grace & mercy of God promysed unto us in Christe. Therfor whosoever with an earnest beleve dependeth upon the Gospell, hath forgyvenesse of all hys synnes.
In his opening letter to the "Christen reader" Legate provides a brief apology for his catechism. He notes that many parents fail to properly instruct their children in the knowledge of the Lord because they "knowe not themselves wherein the ryght and true Chrstendome consysteth." "How is it than possyble," he continues, "that they shulde instructe and geve good example to their chyldren, whan they knowe not themselves the wholsome learnynge and will of their loadesman & master Jesus Christ, of whose name not withstandynge they boaste and bragge themselves?" Part of the problem, he seems to think, lies in Christian folk's gravitation towards tomfoolery and entertainment over thoughtful theological conversation. "Ye fathers and mothers, learne your children these [Christian] thynges, and not tales of robyne hood with suche other vayne fables." Legate's goal, in sum, is to see parents sufficiently versed in Christian doctrine to fulfill God's command to bring children up "in the instruction and discipline of the Lord" (Eph. 6.4).
Having examined Legate's work this morning, I'm feeling duly convicted for the rehearsal of Robin Hood I had planned for the family after supper tonight. For what it's worth (and in my defense), I had planned to conclude this evening's festivities with some catechesis. And, despite the obvious merits of Legate's work, I'm likely to continue using the Westminster Shorter Catechism for our family's catechetical needs (or at least my perception of them), not least because switching to Legate would entail the awkwardness of one or several of my kids prematurely playing the role of a spouse. I might, however, try to convince my wife to give Legate's catechism a go, if only to hear her call me, just this once, her "ryght wel-beloved husbande."