The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century did not only represent a major shift in religious paradigms. Religious, political and social reforms all came together and fed into each other to sew the seed for a shift towards modernity that was knocking at the doors of Europe.
In the 16th century, the vast majority of the population was illiterate, only those with a high enough position in society could afford to read and write. And often, most literate people could be found in religious places. But one of the most important religious contributions brought by the Reformation, that of universal priesthood, transformed this social paradigm, indeed because one of the consequences was that it opened up free access to the Bible, though this required literacy (Viñao, Antonio; http://campus.usal.es/~efora/efora_03/articulos_efora_03/n3_01_vinao.pdf, pg. 9: “The Protestant Reformation, the growth in commercial development, the strengthening and expansion of state bureaucracy and the demands of a modern army all acted more or less continuously as factors conducive to literacy and the dissemination of written culture”).
As such, since the Reformation, education and literacy were promoted throughout the rest of society, and this was done based on the conviction that it was governments, and not religious institutions, that should be responsible for this task (Luther, A Sermon on Keeping Children in School, 1530: But I hold that it is the duty of the temporal authority to compel its subjects to keep their children in school [...] For it is truly the duty of government to maintain the offices [...] It [should] compel its subjects to keep their children in school. For here there is a worse war on, a war with the very devil, who is out to secretly sap the strength of the cities and principalities, emptying them of their able persons.
This public education, which was an issue for the State, must be open to the whole population, whatever their social position, whatever their gender, although society still suffered from a certain medieval attitude in this regard. For Luther, boys’ education should consist of four hours a day and girls’ two, but even the fact it was felt necessary for girls to also learn to read, write and do basic maths was a radical shift from thinking at the time (Luther, A Sermon on Keeping Children in School, 1530: ... we must educate girls and boys alike).
The Reformation was, from its inception, a crucial factor for this growth in education (in 1524, Luther had already sent his “Letter to the Mayors and Aldermen of all the Cities of Germany in Behalf of Christian Schools”). For Luther, education had two fundamental aspects: first of all, the authorities, who needed to prioritise, fund and create the right conditions for children to study in; and, secondly, parents, who even at the risk of such knowledge bringing into question aspects of faith, had to help fill the cities with citizens who were able to think.
This deep struggle and conviction, in response to the need for every citizen to have access to a minimal but proper education stems not only from the influence that humanism had on Luther, or the need for educated people to develop cities, but it was also a result of his theological convictions, which remained in the very DNA of the reformed confessions (Luther, Letter to the Mayors and Aldermen, 1524: “... among outward sins none so heavily burdens the world in the sight of God nor deserves such severe punishment as the sin we commit against our children by not giving them an education.”).
It is this spirit that would feed the following generations of historical Protestants; In Catalonia, Methodist educational work would prove key during the years of religious freedom that were enjoyed during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This history is described in the book L’obra metodista a Catalunya i les Balears [Methodist Works in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands], by historian Carme Capó.
Politics, the conception of gender, the obligations of states to their citizens, education, etc. All of these areas of life were transformed based on this seed, which has grown from the 16th century to the present day. The freedom Protestantism granted humans turned us into socially active individuals, and for that very reason, the population needed, above all, to be learned and capable of discernment. The contribution that was made by the Reformation in the fields of teaching and education was what gave the necessary impetus to drive the modernisation of schools throughout Europe. This saw schools as places where the focal point was the student, without religious obligations imposed as the central pillar, since the task at hand was to create capable citizens. In these schools, education in the local mother tongue was essential, which encouraged translation of texts into vernacular languages (first in Luther’s native Germany, but also across Europe, including Catalonia with the Catalan language). It also fostered modern teaching techniques and the ability to create spaces for relationships that went beyond the four walls of the school, with a mix of ages, genders, social conditions and political thought that promoted social cohesion. All these are singular examples of how the theological thinking that underpinned the Reformation influenced Europe, not only religiously but also socially.
It’s important to remember the enriching contribution it made to the creation of a dignified citizenry in Protestant communities. While it may no longer feel relevant to consider this task nowadays, given near-universal enjoyment of high-quality public schooling, it can certainly be useful in laying the foundations to continue fighting for dignified, diverse public schooling with a strong connection to the local community that helps to create an informed, free population.
Marta López Ballalta
Preacher of the Protestant Church of Barcelona-Center