This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life. The first set of articles focuses on education.
The 1300s were a devastating period in European history. Climate shifts were causing major disruptions to the weather, leading to large scale famine. Epidemic diseases were breaking out across Europe. The papacy had moved from Rome to Avignon, and a war had broken out between France and England that would last more than a century. Then in 1348, plague reached the shores of mainland Europe, wiping out about 48% of the continent’s population within 3 years according to the best estimates today.
The church was facing problems with corruption as well during this period. Much of the upper clergy was more concerned with wealth and power than their spiritual responsibilities, and important church offices were effectively offered for sale (a practice known as simony). Many members of the clergy ignored their vows of celibacy and had concubines. Theology had become increasingly divorced from practical piety and was more concerned with abstract speculation than godly living. Most of the laity knew little about Christian doctrine beyond the absolute basics and mixed superstition liberally with their faith.
Geert Groote (pronounced GROW-tuh) was born in 1340 in the midst of this chaos. He was from Deventer, a city in the Netherlands that had been founded by Lebuinus, an English missionary, in 768 AD. It had grown into an important and wealthy trading city, and Groote’s family was one of a handful of wealthy patricians that controlled the town government. His parents died of plague, leaving him an orphan. The family’s wealth remained, however, so he had a comfortable life under the care of guardians.
He was remarkably gifted intellectually and soon left home to pursue his education at Aachen and the University of Paris, where he studied the liberal arts, philosophy and theology, canon law, medicine, astronomy, and possibly some Hebrew. He completed his degree at age 18 and returned home, eventually teaching in Deventer. He was so well respected that he was sent on a secret mission to the Pope in Avignon in 1366, and shortly thereafter took a position teaching philosophy and theology at the University of Cologne, where he enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle.
All of this changed in 1374, when Groote contracted a life threatening illness that forced him into some serious soul-searching. Under the influence of Henry of Calcar, a friend from the University of Paris and prior of the Carthusian monastery at Munnikhuizen, Groote resigned his positions and spent three years with Henry at his monastery.
Groote left the monastery a changed man. He converted his house in Deventer into a hospice to care for poor women and organized them into a lay religious community known as the Sisters of the Common Life. Later, he also founded a male counterpart to the Sisters, the better known Brethren of the Common Life.
The Sisters and Brethren of the Common Life based their life around the Rule of St. Augustine, though they were lay people who took no permanent vows and who could leave the group at any time. Their spiritual life centered on the Devotio Moderna (best translated as “renewed devotion”), a group of practices developed by Groote. The Devotio Moderna emphasized four main themes: a focus on the Bible; internalizing morality by replacing the vices in your life with virtues; the “imitation of Christ,” by which they meant using structured meditation to put yourself into Bible stores to allow you to identify emotionally with Christ and his Passion; and a return to the model of the early church from the corruption of the fourteenth century. The Devotio Moderna was thus intensely practical, with no time for abstract, speculative theology.
The Brethren and Sisters recognized that no one could actually practice the Devotio Moderna alone; it required living in community with a great deal of mutual support and accountability. The Brethren and Sisters therefore lived in single sex communities, often in a single large house, to allow times of private and corporate prayer and meditation, confession, mutual correction and support, attending Mass together, and the like.
The communities supported themselves by working. Following the customs of the area, the women mostly made and sold lace. The men, however, had other options. Given the emphasis on the Bible and early Christian writers, literacy was important to the Devotio Moderna. Since they could read and write, many members of the Brethren earned a living by copying manuscripts and by starting schools with the goal of promoting church renewal by enabling more people to read the sources of the Christian life themselves.
The best known book produced by the Brethren of the Common Life was The Imitation of Christ, written c.1418-1427 by Thomas à Kempis. The book was circulated widely in manuscript before its first printed edition in 1471; by 1500 it had been printed in over 100 editions, including translations into German, French, Italian and Spanish. The book’s instructions on spiritual formation, drawn from the Devotio Moderna, have been enormously influential for both Catholic and Protestant spirituality. It is easily the most important devotional book in church history next to the Bible itself.
Along with starting the Sisters and the Brethren of the Common Life, Groote was ordained as a deacon and in 1379 was appointed to be an itinerant preacher by the reform-minded bishop of Utrecht. His sermons proved very popular with the laity. Groote was more concerned about the sins of the clergy, however, since they set the spiritual tone for the entire community. With the bishop’s support, he began preaching strenuously against the full range of clerical abuses. The clergy struck back: they accused him of heterodox teaching and pressured the bishop to banning all preaching by anyone other than a fully ordained priest. Groote appealed the ban and the accusation to the Pope. Unfortunately, Groote died ministering to plague victims before his appeal could be heard.
Groote’s significance is less in his preaching than in the vision of church reform which inspired it, and in the institutions he created to promote that vision. In particular, the Brethren were crucial to the spread of literacy in northern Europe. Not only did they build libraries in their communities and copy manuscripts, but they also were among the first to adopt the printing press, installing one at Deventer in about 1477.
The schools set up by the Brethren of the Common Life were even more important than their production of books. The Brethren spread throughout the Hanseatic League—an alliance of trading cities in the Netherlands and northern Germany—and from there moved into central Germany as well. And wherever the Brethren went, they established schools. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, nearly everyone in this part of Europe who received a primary school education went to a school operated by the Brethren of the Common Life. This includes the great Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who attended the Deventer school, and Martin Luther, who went to the school in Magdeburg.
Groote saw education as an essential part of his greater goal of church renewal. Although it took over a century, the education provided in the schools he inspired laid the groundwork for both reform in the Catholic Church and the rise and spread of Protestantism. But the schools of the Brethren were more than nurseries for church reform. They turned northern Germany into a literate culture for the first time in history, which developed a market for books that helped inspire Gutenberg in the creation of moveable metal type and the printing press.
Groote’s educational program thus had enormous implications beyond church reform and character-building. It provided northern Europe with the tools to advance in all areas of learning, including mathematics, astronomy, law, politics, and the arts, and laid the groundwork for the spread of Renaissance ideas into the Empire. Historic Christianity teaches that all truth is God’s truth, all areas of life are sacred, and thus all can and should be studied as a means of honoring God. Even if it was not the initial intent, these results of Groote’s education program were in keeping with his goal of reforming church and society through a more thoroughgoing understanding of the Bible and the biblical worldview.
 The book itself is anonymous, though one manuscript has Thomas à Kempis’s name on it and external sources list him as the author. Some scholars think he may just have been the copyist, however.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.