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An elementary book containing a summary of the principles, especially of religious doctrine, reduced to the form of questions and answers.   — Webster, 1882

In Little House in the Big Woods, Pa tells Laura and Mary a story about when his own father was a little boy, in order to show how children’s allowed behavior on Sundays has changed over the years, even though Laura still finds it particularly confining. (See Chapter 5, “Sundays.”)

Charles Ingalls’ father, Lansford Ingalls, was born in Canada in 1812, the youngest of ten children. On Sundays, following a two hour sermon in church, Grandpa Ingalls and his brothers were to sit the long afternoon on a bench and study their catechism until sundown. Mention of the catechism first occurred in the manuscripts for Little House in the Big Woods on pages typed and inserted by Rose Wilder Lane. Names used in the story are “James, George, and Grandpa.” Lansford Ingalls (Laura’s grandfather) didn’t have a brother named George, and his brother James was fourteen years his senior. It is not known if the story is purely fictional, names were changed, or if the story refers to Charles Ingalls’ siblings, since he did have brothers named James and George.

A catechism is a printed manual used to present a summary of specific religious doctrines. Most often, catechisms are organized in the form of questions and answers to be memorized and recited. It is not known which specific catechism Laura Ingalls Wilder’s paternal ancestors may have studied. As a point of reference, text below is the first nineteen questions (and answers) from the catechism used in many Methodist Episcopal churches at the time Almanzo Wilder was a child and attending services. The first of three parts of this catechism contained 112 questions and answers.

1. Who made you? (God.)
2. Who is God? (The Creator of all things.)
3. What is God? (An uncreated Spirit.)
4. Where is God? (God is everywhere.)
5. What does God know? (God is all-wise; he knoweth all things, even the thoughts in our hearts.)
6. What can God do? (God is almighty; he doeth whatsoever he will.)
7. How long has God existed? (God is eternal; he has lived always, and will live forever.)
8. What is the character of God? (“God is love.”)
9. Is God holy? (God is holy; he hateth all workers of iniquity.)
10. Is God merciful? (“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.)
11. Is God just? (The Lord is just, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.)
12. Is God true? (He is “the God of truth.”)
13. Are there more Gods than one? (“There is none other God but one.”)
14. Are there more persons in the Godhead than one? (There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one.)
15. Is the Father God? (“To us there is but one God, the Father.”)
16. Is the Son God? (Christ “is all over, God blessed forever.” He is the true God.)
17. Is the Holy Ghost God? (The Hold Ghost is “the eternal Spirit.”)
18. In what name are Christians baptised? (In the name of the Holy Trinity– the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.)
19. Can you repeat the first verse of the Bible? (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”)

In These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 14, “Holding Down a Claim”), Wilder wrote that “Mr. McKee was such a strict Presbyterian that on Sunday no one was allowed to laugh or even smile. They could only read the Bible and the catechism and talk gravely of religious subjects.” This is slightly different than the existing manuscript for These Happy Golden Years (page 115), in which “Laura and Mattie were not allowed to play; nor even to laugh aloud. They must read the Bible for an hour, then answer questions from the catechism. With all this Mr. McKee was very kind and likable and there was never a cross word.”

The catechism used by the Presbyterian Church at the time was called The Westminster Question Book. Click on the link to read a copy from 1884; at the prompt, select Open to view; it may take several minutes to load. According to the 1881 and 1885 minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, The Westminster Question Book was “a complete manual for the study of the International Bible Lessons of the year. The Shorter Catechism [was] given systematically in it, one question for each Sabbath.” It was intended for use in the Sunday school classes.


     As studied by Lansford Ingalls and his brothers (BW 5)
     Mr. McKee as strict Presbyterian who allowed only Bible reading and study of the catechism on Sunday (THGY 14; PG)