Martin Luther and Education Reform

While most people recognize Martin Luther’s role in sparking the Protestant Reformation, not many know about his advocacy of education for all children, including girls.

One pamphlet that illuminates many of Luther’s views on education has recently been purchased by University of Arizona Special Collections. In honor of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, the Laura and Arch Brown Library Endowment funded the purchase of a 1524 pamphlet by Luther in which he urges city councils in Germany to establish schools for both boys and girls. Also purchased: a 1523 anti-Lutheran polemic by the Catholic satirist Thomas Murner, titled “Response to Murner whether the King of England or the Godly Doctor Martin Luther is a Liar.”

On April 11 as part of the Early Books Lecture Series offered by Special Collections, Susan Karant-Nunn and Ute Lotz-Heumann, both professors in the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies, discussed these two pamphlets in a talk titled “Pamphlets and Propaganda: The Lutheran Reformation in Print.” 

Karant-Nunn focused on Luther’s pamphlet “Advice to the City Councillors of All German Cities, that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” 

When it comes to questions about Luther, Karant-Nunn is certainly one to ask. Karant-Nunn, a UA Regents' Professor and director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies, is one of the most distinguished scholars of Reformation history in the world.

Karant-Nunn has recently completed a book manuscript titled “The Personal Luther: Essays on the Reformer from a Cultural Historical Perspective,” which includes essays on such subjects as Luther’s conscience, sexuality, fatherhood, relationship with his wife, and the tailoring of his “perfect death.”  She speaks in an animated voice about Luther, sharing history with the natural flair of a storyteller.

During a time when school was often limited to the sons of the wealthy, Luther argued for compulsory education for all. His main reason: Education was necessary so that Christians could read and understand scripture for themselves.

Luther was determined to wrestle control of the schools from the Catholic Church.

“One of the reasons Luther is approaching the city fathers is he wants the primary responsibly for education to be grasped by those men and taken away from the ecclesiastics in the towns,” Karant-Nunn said.

The pamphlet that Karant-Nunn discussed on April 11 is noteworthy for many reasons, one being that Luther advocates that girls go to school. However, Karant-Nunn is quick to add that girls are mentioned in only five sentences in the entire pamphlet.

“Girls were always, even in the Reformation, less important,” Karant-Nunn said. “They were seen to need to read so they could read devotional literature. They were seen above all to be preparing themselves to be a Christian parent.”

Karant-Nunn said that it would be interesting to know if Luther would have written a “slightly different, more enthused content for girls” after he married and had daughters. She suspected that he might have. He had three daughters and three sons with his wife, a former nun who was literate. One of his girls died as an 8-month old. While Karant-Nunn said they don’t know for sure whether his two surviving daughters (one of whom died at age 13) went to the girl’s school that was created in Wittenberg, Germany, Karant-Nunn believes they most likely did. Luther wrote a letter to a former nun urging her to be a teacher at the school and offering to let her live in his home.

Even though Luther’s motivation for expanding education was primarily religious in nature, his argument trying to convince municipal leaders of the important role of education does not sound unfamiliar to current applications for increased educational funding:

“My dear sirs, if we have to spend such large sums every year on guns, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items to insure the temporal peace and prosperity of a city, why should not much more be devoted to the poor neglected youth?” Luther wrote. “A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens.”

Luther also espoused a classical education first introduced during the Renaissance – which included history and languages, such as Greek, Hebrew and Latin, believing such a broad education would aid in the study of the Bible.

Much is made of the role of the printing press, invented around 1450, in expanding education. However, Karant-Nunn said the printing press had yet to make a marked change in instruction during Luther’s time. Books and bibles remained expensive. The teacher might have a book; each town might have one Bible. Students worked on slates and memorized prayers.

The printing press did allow for the proliferation of cheap pamphlets (usually around 4-8 pages in length) that helped advance the ideas of the Reformation.

“You could get a pamphlet in which someone is imagining that a peasant and a Catholic priest are having a conversation, and the peasant ends up totally ridiculing the priest for his false belief,” Karant-Nunn said. “The pamphlets are flying all over the landscape: Every news scandal, every new outburst of resistance from the Catholic side is reported and disseminated.”

Karant-Nunn says that while one shouldn’t exaggerate the impact of Luther or the Reformation on educational expansion or egalitarianism, the wish of reformers that the laity have direct access to the scripture in their own language produced a powerful motive to the expansion of schooling.

The effect of Luther’s pamphlet on the city leaders was mixed. “Some schools were probably founded as a result of this pamphlet,” Karant-Nunn said. And a school for girls was created in Wittenberg, where Luther lived. But as a whole, widespread schooling was a hard sell. Poor farmers needed the labor of their children, sending their kids to school only “in the dead of the winter.”

“Universal education has to wait until the 18th and 19th century,” Karant-Nunn said. “But this is an impetus and, in its way, it foretells the future. It lays down an ideal program that eventually is going to be followed.”


Visit to learn about other events offered by the University of Arizona to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

Published Date: 

04/04/2017 - 9:33am