Reform in the Palatinate
Rising up from the banks of the Nekar River, the city of Heidelberg was once the capital of a territory called the Lower Palatinate. Together with its upper regions, the Palatinate (German Pfalz) was one of the most important territories in the Holy Roman Empire.
The governor of the Palatinate, also called the count or more commonly the Elector, was one of seven electors who held the responsibility of choosing a new emperor when that was necessary. In addition, the Elector of the Palatinate served as the interim emperor, or imperial steward, whenever there was a vacancy in the imperial office due to death or other tragic circumstances.
Suffice it to say, then, that the city of Heidelberg was not only a prominent city within the Palatinate, but given the weighty responsibilities of its Elector within the Holy Roman Empire, its influence far outstripped its size.
Clearly, the Heidelberg Catechism was born in a city that was as significant as it was beautiful.
Although the Heidelberg Catechism was not written until 1563, spiritual reformation had been occurring within the Palatinate for many years before then. In fact, what began with Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door of Wittenberg on Oct 31, 1517, soon made a brief apperance in Heidelberg as well. In April of 1518 Luther travelled to Heidelberg to have a debate, or disputation, at the annual meeting of the Augustinian monks. Here he presented the Heidelberg Theses, forty in all, which call for a clear and sustained focus on the cross of Christ as the only means of salvation.
Luther's Heidelberg Theses do not appear to have had much of an immediate effect on the city or citizens of Heidelberg itself. Perhaps this was due, in no small part, to the fact that the Elector at that time, Ludwig V (1478-1544), was non-commital on the whole matter of spiritual reform in his territory. He was more interested in politics and hunting than doctrine and sanctified living.
However, during the 1520s some reformed-minded leaders began to call for change. Heidelberg was a university town, and some of the faculty at the University of Heidelberg began to teach from a Protestant perspective. In addition, Wenzel Strauss, one of the preachers at the main church, the Heiliggeistkirche, was not afraid to preach salvation only by true faith in Christ. He became known popularly as "the evangelical trumpet." Heinrich Stoll was another preacher in Heidelberg who was not afraid to call for, and work towards, reform.
Elector Ludwig V's successor, Frederick II, was far more open-minded to the Reformation. In 1546 he even promoted a number of religious reforms in the Palatinate. However, even though Elector Frederick II was an influential man, he was not nearly as powerful as the emperor himself, Charles V, who was staunchly Roman Catholic. Especially after an alliance of Protestant princes, called the Schmalkaldic League, lost a battle against the imperial army, Charles V ensured that the Reformation would be suppressed, both in the Palatinate and elsewhere. In 1548 he enacted the Augsburg Interim which essentially required all territories under his rule to return to the teachings and practices of Rome.
While the Interim was a setback for the Reformation, it certainly did not stop it. Resistance to the Interim finally culminated in the Peace of Augsburg (1555). This decree allowed each local prince to decide the religious direction of his region. This policy was summed up in the Latin phrase, cuius regio, eius religio (loosely translated, "whoever [rules] the region, he [decides] the religion").
The following year, in 1556, Elector Frederick II was succeeded by Otto Henry (Ottheinrich). He was a stronger supporter of the Reformation. Not only did he bring in a new church order and promote the use of the Württemberg Catechism for education, he also sent a church visitation team around to all the local congregations to determine what the actual, spiritual state of affairs was in his territory. The results that came back were not encouraging. Ministers were not well-trained; congregations were not well-fed; superstitions and traditions were more prominent than the knowledge of Scripture and holy living. Elector Otto Henry was eager to change all of that, and he made a good start, but his noble efforts were cut short when he died only three years after becoming elector. It was left to the new Elector, Frederick III, Otto Henry's nephew, to continue what his uncle had begun.
In the sixteenth century substantial changes were taking place, not only in the churches, but also in the schools. For a long time, formal education was predominantly a privilege of the rich. The teaching in these schools was done in Latin. However, as the sixteenth century progressed there was a growing awareness that education should not be restricted only to the Latin language or simply to the rich. As a result, many German schools were started. At these German schools both boys and girls had three main components in their curriculum: reading, writing, and... catechism!
Considering the religious and educational reform that was taking place in the Palatinate, it is not surprising that there was a demand for a good, solid catechism. Such a catechism could unify and solidify the religious reform, while at the same time filling a basic need within the curriculum taught to the young citizens–and future leaders–of the Palatinate.