Saturday, September 09, 2006

EDUCATING CHILDREN - Education and the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a time of spiritual renewal and awakening that brought the world out of the Dark ages. However, it wasn’t a time of peace; it was a time of great conflict and struggle. It was a time when many faithful men and women gave their lives in the fight to return the truth of God’s Word to the common man on the street. This was a war that was waged on many different fronts, but none more important than the front of education.

For hundreds of years, men had allowed themselves to be lied to because of their lack of education. They had lost the ability to read and understand the scriptures for themselves, and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were able to hold them captive in ways that would not have been possible if more people had been armed a proper education. But it was through the efforts of certain brave Christian men, many of whom were Catholic clergy, that years of ignorance was about to end. This was the time of the reformation, a reformation of education.

So who were these reformers; who were those who had the greatest impact on education during the reformation? Well, the first of the noted reformers was a man named John Wycliffe. He was known as "The Morning Star" of the reformation.[1] Though he lived almost 200 years before the reformation officially began, the role he played was still crucial in bringing about reform. Wycliffe was a Catholic priest and an Oxford professor who disagreed with many of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church.[2] But none of these did he disagree more with, than the Church’s stand on the availability of scripture for the common man. The church practically held the common man captive with its tight reign on who was allowed to read the Bible and who was not. But Wycliffe believed that everyone should have an opportunity to read the scripture for himself. So he took on the challenge of translating the scripture from the Latin Vulgate, into the English language. The finished work however did not receive any wide spread distribution, mainly because it had to be copied by hand[3], but it did have a serious impact on future translations. Being the first English translation of the Bible, it encouraged the likes of Tyndale, Luther, Calvin and others to put the scripture in the hands of the common man. This was one of the leading factors that allowed the reformation to begin. The common man and woman once again began to read and understand the scripture for themselves, and because of this, they could no longer be held captive by any pope or church.

Now while Wycliffe had a profound impact on the students of Oxford University, his reach did not stop there. His doctrine had spread as far away as Bohemia, into the hands of a man named John Huss. Huss, like Wycliffe, was also a Catholic priest and a professor. However, Huss taught at the University of Prague in Bohemia. Because of some of the students, who had come from Oxford,[4] he became familiar with the works of Wycliffe and accepted them with great zeal. Huss used his position as a professor and later as president[5] of the university to propagate Wycliffe’s teachings throughout the educational community. Huss was extremely popular among the student body but much less so among most of the faculty, and because of this, he was eventually excommunicated. However, through a relationship with the Bohemian aristocracy he was allowed to live for a short while in exile and was not immediately condemned to die. Though exiled, he was still very active in promoting the teachings of Wycliffe. Then finally in 1415 at the Council of Constance, he was condemned as a heretic, and on July the 6th, he was burned at the stake.[6] Though this was the end of Huss the man, his legacy lived on long after his death. His supporters were so outraged, that they started what is now known as the Hussite revolt,[7] which tore the Bohemian country away from the grip of the Catholic Church for the next several hundred years.

Although men like Wycliffe and Huss had a profound impact on education, their roles were small in comparison to the man known as the Father of the Reformation. Martin Luther was without a doubt the most influential of all the great reformers. From the nailing of his famous 95 Thesis to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg Germany, until the time of his death in 1546, Christian education had no greater champion than Martin Luther.

Luther was a young Augustinian monk who did not start out to be a reformer. But through the study of scripture, he was led to question many of the teaching of the Catholic Church.[8] First and foremost, was the churches teaching on soteriology; the doctrine of salvation. But it didn’t stop there. Luther began to challenge the church in many different areas. But no area was Luther more passionate about than the area of Christian education. While the church tried to keep strict control over who could attend school and what they could be taught while they were there, Luther thought that everyone should enjoy the benefits of a proper education. Luther actually wrote more on Christian education than any other reformer of the sixteenth century.[9] He was a passionate proponent of Christian education, and always encouraged parents to take seriously their role in the education process. In one letter; the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther wrote:

"I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God's word becomes corrupt. Because of this we can see what kind of people they become in the universities and what they are like now. Nobody is to blame for this except the pope, the bishops, and the prelates, who are all charged with training young people. The universities only ought to turn out men who are experts in the Holy Scriptures, men who can become bishops and priests, and stand in the front line against heretics, the devil, and all the world. But where do you find that? I greatly fear that the universities, unless they teach the Holy Scriptures diligently and impress them on the young students, are wide gates to hell."[10]

Luther also wrote many other letters and sermons addressing the subject of education, but was almost always met with staunch opposition. But on this issue, the opposition didn’t come as much from the Church as it did from apathetic parents[11] and leaders. It was Luther’s idea that education should be a partnership between the home and the church. A partnership where the parents would take the lead and the church would assist. However, the vast majority of ex-catholic parents were content to turn over all the responsibility of educating their children to the church, and when the church could no longer do the job, the parents were content to do nothing as well. The problem was; these parents had been trained by their educational system to think that way, and they didn’t realize that there was another, better, way to educate their children. But Luther was so overwhelmed with the idea of the need for Christian education that he compromised his original plan, and invited another member into this educational partnership, the city government.[12] But even this arrangement proved to be an uphill battle. In another letter written to the mayors and councilmen of all the towns of Germany Luther wrote:

"Beloved rulers, if we find it necessary to expend such large sums as we do yearly upon artillery, roads, bridges, dykes, and a thousand other things of the sort, in order that a city may be assured of continued order, peace, and tranquility, ought we not to expend on the poor suffering youth therein, at least enough to provide them with a schoolmaster or two?"[13]

His new educational partnership was eventually semi-successful. It was a reform that would last for several hundred years and also impact other public education systems for years to come. It was a three way partnership between parent, church, and government. Yet he would not live to see how this new partnership would become corrupted in the years that would follow. He would never see how it would be used to lead countless children away from the savior that he so desperately wanted them to know.[14]

Although Martin Luther was known as the "Father of the Reformation" and was the proverbial spark that started the wild fire of reform burning, it was John Calvin that kept the blazes burning far and wide. Luther’s doctrine had spread across Germany and into many of the educational establishments of the day, and in that way continued to spread. But Luther took a more haphazard approach to spreading his message than Calvin did. He knew where he wanted to go, but didn’t really have a formal plan for getting there.[15] But Calvin, on the other hand, knew exactly where he was going, and he had a very systematic plan for getting there. Calvin’s teaching would eventually influence Switzerland, France, England, Hungary, Holland, Scotland, and even America.[16] But while their approaches were different, their goals were still vary similar. Like Luther, Calvin devoted as much of his time reforming education as he did to reforming the church. In reality, to Calvin, the two could not be separated. Even though each had its own function, one could not survive without the other.[17] While Luther’s final approach to education was a three way partnership between parents, church and state, Calvin’s system was a bit different.

Calvin proposed a mandatory system of education through an autocratic[18] type of government. Here, the government not only controlled the social life, but also the religious life as well. In this form of government, there was no separation between church and state at all. It was a system where the state totally controlled the schools and parents were obligated to send their children there. But unlike our modern day schools where the state controls both the school and curriculum from a totally secular prospective, in Calvin’s state system, the state did its best to perform its duties according to the precepts of God. In Calvin’s system, the church and state were more like partners, with the church being the senior partner. So while the church and state both helped with funding and enforcement of the laws, the church was the one that decided what should be taught and even who would do the teaching.

So Calvin, Luther, Huss, and Wycliffe all had a great impact on the direction that education took during the reformation period, but they were not alone; there were many others. Men like William Tyndale who also translated the Bible into English. With the aid of the printing press, he was able to distribute fifteen thousand copies of the New Testament to England between the years of 1525 and 1530.[19] The 1611 King James Bible, which is the most widely distributed and widely read translation of the Bible in the world, is almost a 90% word for word copy of Tyndale’s translation. There were others too, men like the Swiss theologian, Ulrich Zwingli,[20] who in his essay "Of the Education of Youth", wrote of God’s providence in the education process, and of our responsibility to God to learn all we can in order to know him better. And John Knox[21] who, under the leadership of John Calvin, wrote many works dealing with the education of children. He also, along with many others, was able to reform the entire educational system of land of Scotland prior to his death.

So the reformers had a profound effect on the educational system of their own day. But it didn’t stop there. Many of those effects are still felt today. Not only in the educational systems of their European homes, but also in the educational of America as well.

[1] Paul A. Kienel, A History of Christian School Education (The Association of Christian Schools International, 1998), 137.
[2] Edward McNall Burns, Robert E. Lerner, and Standish Meacham, Western Civilizations Volume 1, Tenth Edition (W W Norton, 1984), 386.
[3] Kienel, 137.
[4] Burns, 386.
[5] Kienel, 139.
[6] John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Grinton W. Berry editor (Spire, 1999), 134.
[7] Burns, 387.
[8] Burns, 466
[9] Elmer L. Towns, A History of Religious Educators (Baker Book House Company, 1975), 104.
[10] Martin Luther, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate, 1520, (The Harvard Classics, 1909–14).
[11] Kienel, 171.
[12] Kienel, 172.
[13] Martin Luther, Address to the Councilmen of all towns of Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools, 1524. Translated from the German of Karl von Raumer (Henry Barnard’s American Journal of Education).
[14] Kienel, 173.
[15] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, Third Edition. (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984), 469-470.
[16] Kienel, 212.
[17] Kienel, 221.
[18] Towns, 168.
[19] Philip W. Comfort Ph.D., Essential Guide to Bible Versions (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2000), 139.
[20] Towns, 124-134.
[21] Kienel, 175,


Friend of Mercy said...

This is a great article. Do you know where Marin Luther's quote is that says, something like this.."God help us if we leave the education of our children up to the state...."
I need it for my church on Sunday. Please help. Thank you.

RevK said...

Great resource. Thank you.

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