The second of our Doctrinal Standards is the Catechism. It is called the Heidelberg Catechism because it originated in Heidelberg, the capital of the German Electorate of the Palatinate, at the behest of the Elector, Frederick III. In order that the Calvinistic Reformation might gain the ascendancy in his domain, this pious ruler charged Zacharius Ursinus, professor at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olivianus, the court preacher, with the preparation of a manual for catechetical instruction. The result was a new Catechism, which, after having been approved by the Elector himself and by a gathering of prominent Calvinists, was published in the beginning of the year 1563. Its immediate popularity was indicated by the fact that the same year three more editions had to be printed. Moreover, the book was made to serve a new purpose, namely, to be used as a manual for doctrinal preaching on the Lord’s Day. In the third edition the questions and answers were grouped into 52 sections, called Lords’ Days, that the entire Catechism might be explained to the churches once a year.
In the Netherlands this Heidelberg Catechism became generally and favorably known almost as soon as it came from the press, mainly through the efforts of Petrus Dathenus who translated it into the Dutch language and added this translation to his Dutch rendering of the Geneva Psalter, which was published in 1566. In the same year Peter Gabriel set the example of explaining this Catechism to his congregation at Amsterdam in his Sunday afternoon sermons. The National Synods of the 16th century adopted it as one of its Forms of Unity, the office-bearers being required to subscribe to it and the ministers to explain it to churches. These requirements were strongly emphasized by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19, and are still in force in the Christian Reformed Church and some other Reformed communions. At the present day the Heidelberg Catechism still has the distinction of being the most influential and most generally accepted of the several catechism of Reformation times.