Christians Who Changed Their World

Christianity, Protestantism, and Education


Glenn Sunshine

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, we are surveying some of the ways in which Protestantism has influenced culture and built on the earlier Christian tradition. In the previous articles dealing with private life, we noted two key themes within Protestantism that had wide ranging implications for culture: the breakdown of the sacred/secular divide, and the priesthood of all believers. These two themes would play an important role in shaping Protestant ideas about education.

Medieval Backgrounds

Throughout its history, Christianity has valued education. Monasteries, especially in Ireland, preserved education as the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the early middle ages. Monastic and cathedral schools reintroduced education into Europe, and in the 12th century, cathedral schools began to evolve into universities. Education was so closely associated with the Catholic Church that university students were considered members of the clergy.

By the late Middle Ages (14th-15th century), literacy was growing, especially in the cities. In northern Europe, much of the basic education was provided by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious order started in the 14th century by Geert Groote in the Netherlands. The Brethrens’ piety was built around the structured meditation on the Gospels, and on reading and studying the Bible and early Christian writers.

To follow this program, you obviously needed to be literate, and so the Brethren began opening schools in the Netherlands and what is now Germany, spreading literacy and interest in religious reform. It is no accident that the two most important reformers of the early 16th century, Erasmus and Luther, were both educated in schools run by the Brethren of the Common Life.


It is also no accident that in this climate of growing literacy and interest in religion, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable metal type. The growth in literacy created a demand for written material, without which there would be no market for mass-produced books. And the religious focus explains why Gutenberg’s first major publication was the Bible. Gutenberg himself had a strong religious motivation for producing his Bible. As he put it:

God suffers in the multitude of souls whom His word cannot reach. Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spread the public treasure. Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.

Reflecting on the fact that his printing press was adapted from the wine press, which was associated with drunkenness, Gutenberg further remarked:

Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread His word; a spring of pure truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light hithertofore unknown to shine among men.

Protestant Translations and Vernacular Treatises

The schools of the Brethren of the Common Life thus prepared the way for both printing and Protestantism. Luther agreed with Gutenberg on the importance of putting God’s word in the hands of the people, but he took it one step further. He and the other Protestant reformers believed that the clergy should not have a monopoly on the sacred text, but that all Christians should have access to it in their own language and so be equipped to fulfill their role as priests with direct access to God. Luther thus translated the Bible into German, in the process laying the foundation for the modern German language. Other Protestants, such as Tyndale, followed suit in other languages.

Along with his translation of the Bible, Luther also wrote theological tracts and treatises not just in Latin, the language of scholars, but also in German. Calvin would do the same in French, making high-quality theological works available for the first time in that language.

These efforts were all essential to the growth of Protestantism. But underlying them is an emphasis on education to enable people to read the Bible and other religious writings. Much like the Brethren of the Common Life, Protestants emphasized literacy as a critical element of proper piety, and so they promoted public education. Later, when child labor in the factories of the industrial revolution prevented many children from attending school, Protestant churches and lay leaders started Sunday schools to provide a basic education to those who could not attend school during the week.

Higher Education

But Protestant interest in education went well beyond basic literacy into the realm of higher education. Luther developed his theological ideas as a professor at the University of Wittenberg, and they spread initially to his students and then to the other theologians at the university. The 95 Theses, which are generally considered the start of the Reformation, were written as a challenge to the Dominican indulgence sellers to participate in an academic debate.

Early Lutheranism was thus very much a university movement, and from the beginning Protestant pastors were expected to be university graduates with far more education than Catholic priests typically had in the period. Many of the great universities in Europe and America, from the University of Geneva to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, were established originally to train pastors.

One tactic early Protestants used to spread their faith was to have trained pastors go to a town and challenge the local priests to a debate. It quickly became obvious that the Protestant pastors not only knew their own theology, but were better trained in Catholic canon law and theology than the priests themselves were. Not surprisingly, they regularly won the debates, and the town councils then voted to adopt Protestantism.

Education and Protestant Missionaries

Throughout the world, wherever Protestant missionaries went, schools followed. To pick just one example, consider William Carey, “the father of modern missions.” With his companions Joshua Marshman and William Ward, Carey began the process of learning the hundreds of dialects spoken in India and reducing them to 73 written languages, complete with grammars and dictionaries. His work enabled Bengali to emerge as the major literary language of India, making Carey father of the Indian Renaissance in the 19th and 20th centuries. Other missionaries, such as John Borthwick Gilchrist (1759-1841), virtually created modern Hindi and Urdu out of the jumble of dialects of Hindustani.

Carey’s studies enabled him to produce the first Sanskrit dictionary, opening the language to European scholars. Carey also translated classical Indian literature for the first time into English.

Carey’s linguistic work was not simply scholarly, however. He brought the first printing press to India and developed typefaces for Indian languages. From there, he supervised the translation of all or part of the Bible into 44 different Indian languages. He also established the first newspaper in Asia and the first lending libraries in India, using books imported from England.

Carey set up schools for all castes, breaking the Brahman monopoly on learning, and was instrumental in founding the first college in Asia at Serampore. The language of the college was Bengali: Indian families wanted their children to learn just enough English to get jobs, but no more than that, and Carey was more interested in producing educated Indians than English-speaking workers for the British East India Company. He eventually became a professor of Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi at Fort William College in Calcutta. He also taught astronomy to move India beyond the fatalism found in astrology.

The Christian Mind

Protestants were not alone in promoting education, of course. Universities were themselves a product of medieval Catholicism. Jesuits were heavily involved in education, and Catholics would also found new universities on mission fields. But the Protestant emphasis on an educated clergy and the priesthood of all believers on the one hand, and the reduction in the sacred/secular divide on the other, made widespread education, including higher education, more important in the Protestant world than in much of the Catholic world. That education was intended not just for piety but for politics and other areas of life as well. For example, in New England, Puritans promoted literacy so that people would know the Bible well enough to hold their legislatures and governors accountable for the biblical basis of their laws.

Protestants thus built on the longstanding Christian emphasis on education, moving it in a distinctive direction because of their belief that Christian ideas needed to inform politics and secular society. But Christians have not simply promoted education; they have also worked to expand knowledge, for example, in understanding the natural world as a theological activity. Protestants joined Catholics in this endeavor during the Scientific Revolution. We turn to this in the next article.


Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi, “The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of Culture” (1999).

Ernest George Schwiebert, “The Reformation: The Setting of the Reformation: The Reformation as a University Movement” (1996).

John Van Engen, “The Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings” (Classics of Western Spirituality, 1988).

Image courtesy of North Carolina State University.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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