milk for babes illus

One evening recently, while I was reading Little House in the Big Woods to my six year old, he asked what a catechism is (I believe some small children had just been forced to spend all Sunday reading one). I realized that I didn’t quite know. Our friend the internet quickly clarified that catechisms are books explaining core doctrine in question and answer format, generally religious and intended to be memorized.

Things might have stopped there, except that the next day, while immersed in some nineteenth century book at the bunker, I ran across Talcott Williams’ (class of 1873) catechism and got curious about this genre that was once so ubiquitous.

Talcott Williams' catechism
Talcott Williams’ catechism

The earliest catechism we have in the archives is a 1623 Heidelberg catechism in Latin:


Next, a Westminster catechism from 1658, eleven years after it was first published. The Westminster catechism was written in both long and short form, for the more and less sophisticated religious student.


Note how the Westminster catechism was recommended “for the benefit of Masters of Families”. This Protestant catechism (and Amherst College, being the institution that it was, has no Catholic catechisms) was intended for household use; for the “Master” of the family to use in the instruction of his children and servants.

Tellingly, the majority of the eighteenth century book that turn up in our catalog when you search for catechisms are lectures, sermons or other explications of catechisms – apparently even the masters were somewhat perplexed.

sermons on westminster

In the nineteenth century, the balance of our holdings shifts to simplified catechisms intended for use directly by children, the earliest ones included in the various editions of the New England Primer.

New England Primer 1836
New England Primer 1836
New England Primer 1822
New England Primer 1822
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Milk for Babes, or, a Catechism in Verse 1840
goodrich catechism
Watt’s Plain and Easy Catechism for Children 1820

What particularly fascinates me are all the secular catechisms in our collection, from botany to anti-slavery to political economy (plus one Buddhist catechism for good measure), these show the familiarity and fondness that people felt for catechism as an instructional genre in the nineteenth century.

Botanical Catechism 1819
Botanical Catechism 1819
Anti-Slavery Catechism 1839
Anti-Slavery Catechism 1839
political economy
Catechism of Political Economy 1817
A Buddhist Catechism by Henry S. Olcott 1881
A Buddhist Catechism by Henry S. Olcott 1881 – a very interesting example of a westerner reaching first for a familiar tool… and not necessarily the best suited one.

And last, my most favorite, Noah Webster’s 1798 Little Reader’s Assistant, which includes both a Federal Catechism and a Farmer’s Catechizm! To quote from the latter: “Q. Why is agriculture the most agreeable employment? A. Because it brings the fewest cares, with the greatest certainty of food and clothing…”

Little Reader's Assistant 1798
Little Reader’s Assistant 1798

Additional images can be found on our flickr site

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