What did you learn about Luther & the Reformation in school?

One thing I totally forgot to talk about in yesterday’s post on Martin Luther and antisemitism is that when I was in school–public school in the United States, mind you, which isn’t supposed to endorse one religion over another–Luther was presented as a great guy.

Two commenters reminded me of it, one who had been to fundamentalist Christian schools, but another who had, like me, been to public school. How common is this? My experience was that it was played as it just being objectively true that the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages was corrupt, and the Reformation forced the Church to clean up its act, so it was a good thing even from a Catholic perspective.

The fact that Protestants intensely persecuted both Catholics and each other was rarely mentioned, with of course the huge exception of being told how the Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom. That the Pilgrims themselves were themselves bastards was left out in grade school and middle school classes, though I think it got decent coverage in high school (The Scarlet Letter was assigned reading in sophomore or junior English).

But the Puritan thing was never put in context of huge amounts of religiously-motivated bloodshed leading up to it. There was some mention of some of the other issues Britain had throughout its history, what with Queen Bloody Mary and all that, but we were certainly never told that Luther was the least bit antisemitic, much less that he advocated executing Anabaptists.

So now I want to hear about reader experiences in this area. We mine typical? Yeah, public school classes don’t go into much depth about much of anything, so I guess you can’t expect them to go into the dark side of the Reformation in any depth, but is the portrayal of Luther as a hero common?

  • MNb

    Being Dutch I learned about the same about the Reformation as you; Calvin and Zwingli were treated in the same way as Luther, ie all the ugly parts were omitted. That is especially remarkable as I was thoroughly taught about antisemitism and the Holocaust. I saw the first cruel pictures of concentration camps at the age of 11. Indeed I learned the corruption of the RCC too. As a negative counterpart I did learn about clandestine churches, which were mainly RC. So I was aware from the very beginning that The Netherlands may have been more liberal than other countries in the 17th Century, but not too much.
    Of course I didn’t learn about the Pilgrims, which aren’t relevant to Dutch history.
    Omitting the ugly parts is still common parts as far as I know. At schools kids learn zero about the very, very negative role the Dutch played in slavery, let alone about the atrocities during the Indonesian Independence War – which officialy still are called “Police Actions”. Imo that is beaten as an euphemism only by nazi terminology.
    To answer your last question: in The Netherlands Luther and Calvin in general are treated as heroes indeed. A few years, during some celebration year or another, both got criticized quite heavily though – not by media, but by Dutch internet commenters. It was an easily won battle.

  • Gordon

    My fundamentalist school (Seventh Day Adventist) presented Martin Luther as a virtuous convert from corrupt Catholicism. As far as I was taught, Luther had no dark side.

  • MM

    I went to an evangelical (though it was technically billed as “non-denominational”…yeah right) school from 1st-12th grade and Luther was always portrayed as a hero and a revolutionary who broke free of Church dogma and went straight to the bible for his truth. I seem to remember him being oft-mentioned in the same breath as Galileo, for having the cajones to stick it to the papacy. It wasn’t until I was in college, I think, that I first read about his anti-semitism. Likewise, guys like Henry Ford were also mentioned as heros because of their pioneering American spirit or whatever, but curiously the whole “nazi collusion” thing was never mentioned.

    Columbus is another big one that is idolized within Christian circles. One of the last times I went to church (although I had pretty much given up on trying to be a Christian at that point, I went because it made my mom happy), Columbus Day fell on a Sunday and the pastor went on for about 5 minutes during a prayer about how thankful to god we were for sending Columbus and all that shit. This immediately struck me as pretty terrible, given the fallout of Columbus’ conquests, and I think it helped me step back and realized how screwed up the “manifest destiny” attitude is and how christians have such selective and just plain fucked-up memories of religion’s role in history.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I went to a Jesuit Catholic high school. What I remember about Luther was that he protested indulgences, a corrupt practice of Catholic leaders. I also remember Anglicanism was started because an English king wanted the right to divorce. And I remember there was a counter-reformation in Catholicism, though I’m not too clear on what that was (it was a positive development?).

    More broadly, I was taught that the reformation was caused by the printing press, because then people began to realize that the Bible didn’t quite match what they were being taught. From the Catholic perspective, it was good that people were starting to read the Bible, but because it was the first mass-produced book, people overvalued it and underestimated how hard it was to interpret.

    • Elizabeth

      “What I remember about Luther was that he protested indulgences, a corrupt practice of Catholic leaders. I also remember Anglicanism was started because an English king wanted the right to divorce. And I remember there was a counter-reformation in Catholicism, though I’m not too clear on what that was (it was a positive development?).”

      I went to public school, and I THINK this is pretty much what I learned in elementary school (primarily Catholic area though). I seem to remember Martin Luther being presented fairly neutrally…just an influential guy from history; not necessarily good or bad. For high school, I was in a much more religious area, but I don’t remember actually talking about Luther at all. Instead we watched GATTACA as a “warning” because my world history teacher was terrified of genetic engineering.

  • Alexander Johannesen

    Same here, Norwegian state school, Luther was a good guy, bringing good change to a stale religious hegemony of Catholicism. They had no qualms about educating us on the bad stuff the Catholic church were up to, though. Come to think of it, the religious background interference of the Nazi blemish also were never fleshed out. Hmm.

  • Slow Learner

    British school. I don’t think we covered the reformation at all prior to A-level (age 17-18), at which point those of us who chose to study history studied it in some detail. We covered Luther’s theological views, the Catholic church he was reacting against, and his involvement in politics, among other things. I got the impression that he was a bigoted fundamentalist who hated peasants, but picked a fight with the Catholic church which was even worse.

    • Chris Hallquist

      You learned about Luther’s hatred of peasants? That’s interesting.

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com/ Bronze Dog

    I mentioned the whitewashing from my public education, though they didn’t explicitly label him as heroic or good. I think the choice of omissions did it indirectly. I lived in a dominantly Protestant region in Texas, and suspect there’d be more discussion if there was a stronger Catholic presence.

    Thing that just popped into my head: Propagandists who claimed that if Kennedy was elected, he’d have a hotline to the Pope and blindly follow orders. That was something mentioned in my high school history, spoken of as something silly when viewed through hindsight, but given wingnut rhetoric about Obama’s secret radical Islamism these days, it seems there’s always going to be room for that sort of insanity.

  • Slow Learner

    Chris, yeah. The way we were taught it, one of the reasons Luther was more successful than Huss, Wyclif etc was that Luther was less populist, so the powers-that-were in Germany saw him as a weapon that could be used against the Emperor and Papacy without threatening their own position.
    In this view, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants” is a key moment in the Reformation, firmly attaching Luther to the Princes and burghers.

  • http://wpgragreview.blogspot.ca The Analyst

    Learned about it in Grade seven at a public school (MB, Canada). Presented as a noble reformer – bad stuff omitted.


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