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The Reformation’s early and urgent concern for the Christian education of the children was due in part of the threats that endangered this education. One threat was the existing schools. During the Middle Ages, the Church established and controlled the schools. The teachers were priests and monks. As a result, the increasing corruption of the Church infected the schools. The teaching and life in the schools made attendance by children of the newly reformed Church impossible. Luther flatly denounced sending children to these schools:

It is perfectly true that if universities and monasteries were to continue as they have been in the past, and there were no other place available where youth could study and live, then I could wish that no boy would ever study at all, but just remain dumb. For it is my earnest purpose, prayer, and desire that these asses’ stalls and devil’s training centers should either sink into the abyss or be converted into Christian schools. (To the Councilmen of Germany) 

Where the Holy Scriptures do not rule, there I advise no one to send his son. (An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility)

The response to this warning by some of the princes and people became another threat to the cause of Christian education, against which Luther had also to fight. Some of the princes that nominally sided with the Reformation gladly seized the existing schools and shut them down, but only in order to enrich themselves with the property and funds of these schools. Many of the people likewise used Luther’s warnings against the existing schools as a pretext not to educate their children at all. The result was that instead of bad education there was no education. Some of the people who refused to support the schools and who withheld their children did so out of mercenary motives. Theysimply did not want to pay what it might cost, or they put their children to work for financial gain. Against this greedy materialism, Luther loosed his heaviest artillery. He spoke of “shameful, despicable, damnable parents who are no parents at all but despicable hogs and venomous beasts, devouring their own young” (“Luther’s Works,” Fortress Press, Philadelphia, Vol. 46, p. 211). In A Sermon on Keeping Children in School, he wrote:

The common people appear to be quite indifferent to the matter of maintaining the schools. I see them withdrawing their children from instruction and turning them to the making of a living and to caring for their bellies. Besides, they either will not or cannot think what a horrible and un Christian business this is and what great and murderous harm they are doing everywhere in so serving the devil.

Still another threat was the attitude of others among Luther’s followers of disparaging learning altogether. It was a popular proverb in those days that “the educated are crazy” (Gelehrte sind verkehrte). Some could see no reason why they, as Christians, should educate their children. What does knowledge of history, knowledge of languages, and ability to read and write have to do with a believer, they asked. Did not the Reformation itself teach that all that mattered was that one was justified by faith? Such thinking was encouraged by certain fanatical preachers who for a short time allied themselves with the Reformation, e.g., Karlstadt and Munzer. These radicals spread among the people the notion that all learning was foolish, if not sinful. Luther refers to this threat to Christian education in his work, To the Councilmen of Germany:

“All right,” you say again, “suppose we do have to have schools; what is the use of teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the other liberal arts? We could just as well use German for teaching the Bible and God’s word, which is enough for our salvation.” I reply: Alas! I am only too well aware that we Germans must always be and remain brutes and stupid beasts, as the neighboring nations call us, epithets which we richly deserve.

Luther and the entire Reformation repudiated the disparagement of education. Just as much as corrupt education, the lack of education was viewed by the Reformation as a threat to the God given calling to rear the children of believers. It made no difference what form the attack on education took, whether that of greedy princes seizing school funds, or that of covetous parents interested only in their own and their children’s bellies, or that of the inability to see the relationship between salvation and Christian education in arts, sciences and languages, or that of fanatical preachers proclaiming a false spiritualism—every attack on education as such found in the Reformation, both as represented by Luther and by Calvin, an implacable foe. So serious a danger was the prevailing sentiment against all education in Luther’s judgment that he ascribed it to the Devil and analyzed it adjust another assault of Satan on the Church and the true faith.

you see with your own eyes how that wretch of a Satan is now attacking us on all sides with force and guile … Among his wiles, one of the very greatest, if not the greatest of all, is this-he deludes and deceives the common people so that they are not willing to keep their children in school or expose them to instruction … This seems to me to be a real masterpiece of the devil’s art …Before our very eyes he is preparing them (the children—DE) so that they will learn nothing and know nothing. Then when we are dead, he will have before him a naked, bare, defenseless people with whom he can do as he pleases. For if the Scriptures and learning disappear, what will remain in the German lands but a disorderly and wild crowd of Tartars or Turks, indeed, a pigsty and mob of wild beasts?

It is not only a characteristic of the Reformation to demand an educated ministry, but also to demand an educated laity, men and women. Only, that education must be thoroughly Christian, based on and centered about the Word of God. The reasons for this demand for an educated laity, and the reasons why the Reformation so strongly resisted every attempt to abolish education, can best be learned from a study of the purposes of education, as the Reformation set them forth.

(to be continued)