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A 1545 John Calvin Genevan Catechism
December 14, 2004

A small book is getting a sizeable welcome at Calvin College where the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies has acquired a Latin edition of John Calvin's 1545 Genevan Catechism.

Maag and CatechismPrinted by Wendelin Rihel in Strasbourg, a printer of several of Calvin’s works, the book measures about four by six inches, but its size belies its significance.

"It is a very rare book," says Meeter Center director Karin Maag (right), "and it really gives us a window into how the faith was transmitted to early generations of Reformed believers."

This new purchase, acquired from a rare book dealer in the Netherlands, is the only known copy of the catechism in North America and one of only four worldwide. The other three known copies of the catechism (copies may also exist in private collections) reside in London, Geneva and Zurich. Interestingly no known copies of Calvin's original 1542 version of the same catechism exist.

Calvin wrote the catechism after his return from exile in Strasbourg to teach the emerging generation of Reformed believers the fundamentals of their faith.

"Catechisms were particularly important for young or new believers," Maag says.

Composed in a question-and-answer format (like its later competitor, the Heidelberg Catechism), the Genevan Catechism was taught mainly to children and servants in Sunday afternoon catechism services and was used extensively in Geneva, France and Scotland.

"It was really a foundational catechism for the Reformed community," says Maag.

The catechism is a rarity not only because of its scarcity but because it still exists in good condition. Small books are more easily lost as the years pass, Maag says, especially those which have been handled by children. This book, made of sturdy rag paper has endured intact and readable.

"It's amazing when you think that something so old (has) such clean text," says Meeter Center curator Paul Fields.

Which isn't to say the Genevan Catechism won't be handled carefully.

The book will be stored in a climate-controlled room with other rare volumes like the Italian version of the same catechism (discovered by Calvin librarian Conrad Bult in the Hekman Library basement in 1998), the 1542 Vivere Apud Christum and Calvin's 1532 Seneca Commentary.

Security measures aside, the Meeter Center (an internationally recognized center for Calvinism scholarship) is prized by scholars because of the accessibility of its collection.

A comparable collection of Calvinist volumes in Europe, Maag says, would probably not be openly shelved.

"In many European libraries," she notes, "you have to fill out a form and wait two hours to get a book - if you’re lucky."

Maag herself is especially gratified to have access to the rare, Calvin-authored work.

She is currently preparing a critical edition of the 1545 Genevan Catechism - an edition that will contain a scholarly introduction, the Latin and French version of the texts on facing pages and explanatory notes running along the bottom.

Prior to this, she says, "I was working from a photo copy."

~words and photo by media relations staff writer Myrna Anderson