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§ 83. Common Schools.


Luther: An die Rathsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes, dass sie christliche Schulen aufrichten und halten sollen. Wittenberg, 1524. The book appeared in the same year in Latin (De constituendis scholis), with a preface of Melanchthon, the probable translator, at Hagenau. In Walch, x. 533; in the Erlangen. ed., xxii. 168–199.


Church and school go together. The Jewish synagogue was a school. Every Christian church is a school of piety and virtue for old and young. The mediaeval church was the civilizer and instructor of the barbarians, founded the convent and cathedral schools, and the great universities of Paris (1209), Bologna, Padua, Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Salamanca, Alcala, Toledo, Prague (1348), Vienna (1365), Heidelberg (1386), Cologne (1388), Erfurt (1393), Leipzig (1409), Basel (1460), Ingolstadt (1472), Tübingen (1477), Wittenberg (1502), etc. But education in the middle ages was aristocratic, and confined to the clergy and a very few laymen of the higher classes. The common people were ignorant and superstitious, and could neither read nor write. Even noblemen signed their name with a cross. Books were rare and dear. The invention of the printing-press prepared the way for popular education. The Reformation first utilized the press on a large scale, and gave a powerful impulse to common schools. The genius of Protestantism favors the general diffusion of knowledge. It elevates the laity, emancipates private judgment, and stimulates the sense of personal responsibility. Every man should be trained to a position of Christian freedom and self-government.

Luther discussed this subject first in his Address to the German Nobility (1520). In 1524 he wrote a special book in which he urged the civil magistrates of all the cities of Germany to improve their schools, or to establish new ones for boys and girls; this all the more since the zeal for monastic institutions had declined, and the convents were fast getting empty. He wisely recommended that a portion of the property of churches and convents be devoted to this purpose, instead of being wasted on secular objects, or on avaricious princes and noblemen. He makes great account of the study of languages, and skillfully refutes the objections. A few extracts will give the best idea of this very useful little book on a most important subject.


"Grace and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ … Although I am now excommunicated for three years, and should keep silent if I feared men more than God, ... I will speak as long as I live, until the righteousness of Christ shall break forth in its glory … I beg you all, my dear lords and friends, for God’s sake to take care of the poor youth, and thereby to help us all. So much money is spent year after year for arms, roads, dams, and innumerable similar objects, why should not as much be spent for the education of the poor youth? ... The word of God is now heard in Germany more than ever before. But if we do not show our gratitude for it, we run the risk of sinking back into a worse darkness.

"Dear Germans, buy while the market is at the door. Gather while the sun shines and the weather is good. Use God’s grace and word while it is at hand. For you must know that God’s grace and word is a travelling shower, which does not return where once it has been. It was once with the Jews, but gone is gone (hin ist hin); now they have nothing. Paul brought it into Greece, but gone is gone; now they have the Turk. Rome and Italy have also had it, but gone is gone; they have now the Pope. And ye Germans must not think that you will have it forever; for ingratitude and contempt will not let it abide. Therefore, seize and hold fast, whoever can.

"It is a sin and shame that we should need to be admonished to educate our children, when nature itself, and even the example of the heathen, urge us to do so. … You say, the parents should look to that, it is none of the business of counselors and magistrates. But how, if the parents neglect it? Most of the parents are incapable; having themselves learnt nothing, they cannot teach their children. Others have not the time. And what shall become of the orphans? The glory of a town consists not in treasure, strong walls, and fine houses, but in fine, educated, well-trained citizens. The city of old Rome trained her sons in Latin and Greek and all the fine arts ....

"We admit, you say, there should and must be schools, but what is the use of teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and other liberal arts? Could we not teach, in German, the Bible and God’s word, which are sufficient for salvation? Answer: Yes, I well know, alas! that we Germans must ever be and abide brutes and wild beasts, as the surrounding nations call us, and as we well deserve to be called. But I wonder why you never say, Of what use are silks, wines, spices, and other foreign articles, seeing we have wine, corn, wool, flax, wood, and stones, in German lands, not only an abundance for sustenance, but also a choice and selection for elegance and ornament? The arts and languages, which do us no harm, nay, which are a greater ornament, benefit, honor, and advantage, both for understanding Holy Writ, and for managing civil affairs, we are disposed to despise; and foreign wares, which are neither necessary nor useful to us, and which, moreover, peel us to the very bone, these we are not willing to forego. Are we not deserving to be called German fools and beasts? ...

"Much as we love the gospel, let us hold fast to the languages. God gave us the Scriptures in two languages, the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek. Therefore we should honor them above all other languages. … And let us remember that we shall not be able to keep the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is hid. They are the casket in which this treasure is kept. They are the vessels in which this drink is contained; they are the storehouse in which this food is laid by; and, as the gospel itself shows, they are the baskets in which these loaves and fishes and fragments are preserved. Yea, if we should so err as to let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but it will come to pass at length that we shall not be able to speak or write correctly either Latin or German. ...

"Herewith I commend you all to the grace of God. May He soften and kindle your hearts so that they shall earnestly take the part of these poor, pitiable, forsaken youth, and, through Divine aid, counsel and help them to a happy and Christian ordering of the German land as to body and soul with all fullness and overflow, to the praise and honor of God the Father, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour. Amen."


The advice of Luther was not unheeded. Protestant nations are far ahead of the Roman Catholic in popular education. In Germany and Switzerland there is scarcely a Protestant boy or girl that cannot read and write; while in some papal countries, even to this day, the majority of the people are illiterate.669669    In Spain, once the richest and proudest monarchy of Europe, sixty per cent of the adult population could not read in 1877, according to the official census. Compare this with the educational statistics of Prussia, which in the sixteenth century was a poor, semi-barbarous principality. The contrast between North America and South America in point of popular education is still more striking.



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