The Catechism or Instruction in the Christian faith received its name from the place of its origin, Heidelberg, the capital of the German Electorate of the Palatinate. That the Reformed Protestant faith might be taught and maintained in his domain, the godly elector Frederick III commissioned Zacharias Ursinus, professor at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, court preacher, to prepare a manual for instructing the youth and guiding pastors and teachers in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Prepared with the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty, the result was a new Catechism. It was heartily approved by the Elector himself and the Synodical gathering of prominent Reformed preachers and theologians at Heidelberg, Germany.
The plan of the Catechism, following the outline of Paul’s letter to the Romans, is an eminently practical condensation of evangelical doctrine. The answer to question one is the Gospel in a nutshell: salvation in Christ is our only comfort in life and death.
The Great Synod of Dort (1618–1619) declared that the Heidelberg Catechism was in all respects in harmony with the Word of God and required office-bearers to subscribe to it. It was called “an admirably com-posed compendium of the orthodox Christian doctrine, wisely adapted to the comprehension of tender youths, and also to the more elaborate instruction of adults.” The Synod issued directives that it was to be used by parents in teaching their children, by instructors in the schools, and by pastors on each Lord’s Day afternoon.
It has been deservedly the most widely used and influential catechism of the Reformation period. The Reformed Churches of Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland adopted it. Among the thirty languages into which the catechism has been translated include Dutch, English, French, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Italian, Bohemian, Javanese, Arabic, Singalese, Hebrew, and Malay. In North America it was adopted as a standard of the Reformed Church in the United States from the very beginning of its history.