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Martin Luther and Christian Education

For you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, and it is hard to reform old sinners, but it is easy to train and bend young trees.

Martin Luther recognised the importance of establishing Christian schools as part of the work of Reformation. It is sometimes forgotten that the Reformation was as much concerned with schooling as it was with reforming the church or the home. The Reformers were committed to the schooling of the young. It has been said that one of Martin Luther’s first acts as a Reformer was to propose that monasteries be turned into schools, while one of his last was to establish a school in Eisleben, where he died in 1546.

Not only Luther, but also Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger and Calvin actively promoted reformed education in their writings and works. All played significant parts in the establishment of schools for the instruction of the young. As a result of the Reformation, public education was radically altered by the end of the sixteenth century.
In 1524 Martin Luther wrote to leaders in the Protestant cities of Germany urging them to set up Christian schools [Vol. 4 of his works]. He denounced the universities of his day as ‘dens of hell’. And so it is no surprise that he commenced schools from primary up to university level. Luther was known as the father of popular education and the application of his principles made the land of Luther the land of libraries and schools.

It was Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) who concentrated on setting up an educational system, and in particular, secondary schools. He was known as the ‘Creator of Protestant educational system in Germany.’ He wrote textbooks on Latin and Greek grammar, psychology, ethics, history and religion. In the universities established, professors had to be bound by the confessions of the church.

Luther had fulsome praise for Christian school teachers: I tell you in a word that a diligent, devoted school teacher, preceptor or any person, no matter what his title is, who faithfully trains and teaches boys, can never receive an adequate reward and no money is sufficient to pay the debt you owe him, yet we treat them with contempt as if they were of no account whatever and all the time, we profess to be Christians. For my part, if I were compelled to leave off preaching and to enter some other vocation I know not an office that would please me better than that of schoolmaster, or teacher of boys.

For I am convinced that next to preaching, this is the most useful and greatly the best labour in all the world, and, in fact I am sometimes in doubt which of the positions is more honourable. For you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, and it is hard to reform old sinners, but this is what by preaching we undertake to do and our labour is often spent in vain, but it is easy to train and bend young trees though haply in the process some may be broken. My friend, nowhere on earth can you find a higher virtue than is displayed by the stranger who takes your children and gives them a faithful training, a labour which parents very seldom perform even for their own offspring.

Rev Brian McClung.