How Protestant Reformation Shaped Modern Education

Τhe first modern movement for compulsory state education came from the Protestant Reformation, which marked a period of socio-political changes in Europe.

Jan 20, 2021By Stella Polyzoidou, BA Archaeology and Art History
protestant reformation reformers painting
Protestant Reformers by an unknown artist, ca. 1660, via Society of Antiquaries of London


From the Renaissance era of creativity and learning to humanism and new ideas about religion, Protestant Reformation followed and changed the intellectual landscape. In the Middle Ages, education was a privilege of those who were attending ecclesiastical schools and universities, private colleges, and vocational training establishments. Ιn this context, the lack of state education, among others, led to the Protestant Reformation. A primary force of this was Martin Luther. He mainly rejected those who wanted to maintain school education only for the intellectual elite by laying the foundations for a new order in the education system.


The Birth Of Protestant Reformation

lucas cranach law and gospel
Law and Gospel by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529, in the Schloss Friedenstein Museum, Gotha, via Cranach Digital Archive


The Protestant Reformation is considered a pivotal movement in the history of the 16th-century in Europe that represented a political and religious challenge for papal authority and the Catholic Church. At that time, Roman Catholicism was the only religion commonly accepted throughout Europe. During the Middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church was challenged and faced with a lot of disappointments and criticism. Τhe protestant movement spread rapidly because people were tired of the church’s corruption


The Reformers aimed at being mainly religious pedagogues, able to provide people a Christian education based on the Bible (Sola Scriptura), Christ (Solus Christus), God’s Glory (Soli Deo Gloria), Faith (Sola Fide), and Grace (Sola Gratia). Only these fundamental principles, without good deeds, could bring justice, freedom, happiness, moral and spiritual education. Furthermore, Protestants saw abuses and errors in the Catholic Church. Thus, they wanted to assure that any Christian would be literate and capable of reading the Bible to find salvation through God’s Word. Protestant reformation was closely associated with educational reform.


Martin Luther’s Key Role In The Spread Of Education


martin luther portrait lucas cranach
Martin Luther Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529, via the Uffizi Galleries, Florence


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Martin Luther was a German monk, priest, professor, theologian, and leader of Protestant Reformation in Germany. He was a spirit ahead of his time and at the same time imprisoned in the Middle Ages. He was convinced that Jesus Christ was the only representative of God on earth and rejected the church’s claim that the Pope was the divinely appointed head of Christianity. By supporting his ideas, he came into conflict with Catholics. Luther tried to reshape the structure and function of the church, not to change it completely. Thus, in October 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.


posting martin luther 95 theses
Posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hubner, 1878, via Web Museum Julius Hübner


Among his innovative ideas was the proposal for a solid education to which all people should have access, regardless of gender, age, or social status. He also set out the theological and socio-political reasons for the creation of new schools and the reformation of the already existing ones. With his teaching, Martin Luther gave the masses the impetus to question every form of authority, to realize that God’s Word is accessible to them too and therefore liberating. For that reason, he decided to translate the Bible into a simplified German dialect. It was a fact that the majority of the German population was illiterate at that time, meaning that only the nobility and priests could access biblical scripture. It was not the first time that the Bible had been translated into German, nor was it the first time that the German Bible appeared in printed form.


“Every Christian can interpret freely and individually the Bible, thus acquiring the role of a priest of himself in terms of both his salvation and his interpretation of the Scriptures.”


Although others before him had translated the sacred texts into German,  Luther’s translation was particularly spiritual. With a view to the widespread dissemination of the Bible, he selected elements of the spoken language. The Old and New Testament were then comprehensible and accessible to a wider group of readers who couldn’t read it from the original or Latin translation. With its release in September 1522, Luther’s Bible forged a sense of independence and national identity that helped evolve his revolution from religious to political. The Protestants praised the importance of the studies of Old and New Testament, as the basis for a better understanding of theological issues. 


The Importance Of The Bible

luthers bible
Luther’s Bible, 1550, via the International Museum of the Reformation, Geneva


Martin Luther needed 11 weeks to complete the translation from the original Greek and Hebrew texts into German. He accomplished this magnificent work at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, former East Germany. The outcome proved him right. Those countries that embraced the Protestant doctrines finally changed their educational systems. Since the Bible sounded natural when spoken, its readability has made it popular last until today. Luther laid the foundation for modern German and gave new life to literature and performing arts. 


In the excerpt below, Luther says how important it is for Christians to study the Bible. 


“If the ruler […] commanded you to separate your books [the translated Bible], you would have answered: ‘[…] My lord, I owe you

obedience to my body and my goods. […] But if you order me to believe this or that and deny the books [the translated Bible], I will not obey […]. After this, if he confiscates your property and punishes your disobedience, then you are blissful […]. If you don’t protest and allow him to take the faith or your books [the translated Bible], then you have truly renounced God.’”

Martin Luther, For worldly power and how far our obedience extends to it, the year 1523 


He emphasized in the vernacular for the people rather than in scholarly Latin. He said that his studies referred to:


  “the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace.”

Luther’s Works, vol. 35, 189


Philip Melanchthon’s Contribution

double portrait martin luther philipp melanchthon
Double Portrait of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1558, via North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh


The first modern public schools were founded by the German state Gotha in 1524, followed by Thuringia in 1527. Later, Luther conceived the Saxony School Plan, which became the principal state education system for most of Germany’s Protestant states. Apart from Luther, one of his prominent pupils, Philipp Melanchthon, played also a vital role in the evolution of the Protestant Reformation. During the 19th century, Melanchthon organized many Lutheran and Reformed churches in most German states. Specifically, he created a reformed philosophical system based on Aristotle and Lutheran authorities. His method can be described as a plan in which he extracted the good out of Aristotle, illustrated it by the aids of literature and genuine criticism, and adapted it to the principles of true religion. After all, he was a deeply educated man, a genuine humanist, and a Professor of the University of Wittenberg for forty-two years. 


The Printing Press And Its Impact

invention of book printing
The Invention of Book Printing, Plate 4 by Jan Collaert I, ca. 1600, via The Met Museum, New York 


Before the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century by Johannes Gutenberg, the Bible was available in Latin, which was mainly spoken by the clergy. All the books were handmade and extremely expensive. If typography hadn’t been invented, the Protestant Reformation would remain short-lived. In that way, Luther’s ideas were more easily disseminated around the world. The release of the German Bible became closely related to the German language. In other words,  Luther’s Bible influenced the linguistic models of German people. The discovery of typography and the reproduction of books benefited the reform movement more, almost identified with it, because one of the principles of the Protestants was to disseminate the gospel to the wider masses.


“The art of typography will spread knowledge so much that the ordinary people, because he will know their rights and privileges, will not accept being ruled in an oppressive manner.”

Samuel Hartlieb, Description of the famous kingdom of Macaria, the year 1641


Protestants quickly adopted a tool that was quite recent and didn’t use to a great extent, and that’s typography. Both the Protestant Reformation and printing press modernized Western society by making the Bible and books readable and available to the masses around the world. These practices led to a more literate and enlightened population who read and knew the Bible. In that way, the people were able to discern Biblical doctrines and truths for themselves. We may say that typography proved as a way of conveying thoughts and ideas, similar to the internet today. 


The Legacy Of The Protestant Reformation

Pope Leo X vs. Martin Luther, 1568, via Pitts Theology Library, Druid Hills


Finally, the thoughts and ideas of Martin Luther and other Protestants were incomplete in many regards. Nonetheless, they were significant and influential. We can not ignore that Luther had drastically changed the relationship between priests and believers, and his desire to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the common language of the people. Protestant Reformation was the reason for hundreds of state-sponsored schools opening in Germany in the 16th century that sought to implement Luther’s educational vision. Let us consider whether Martin Luther received recognition as a forerunner of classical Christian schooling or his writings on education were recognized as valuable resources in and for that movement.


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By Stella PolyzoidouBA Archaeology and Art HistoryStella is a writer, fashion editor, website owner of Silk Pastelle and a cat lover with a BA in Archaeology and Art History from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. When she doesn't write about fashion and art, she watches biographical films and reads about different cultures. She completed her internship at MOMus Museum and she's currently doing her MA in Museum Studies.