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Why the Protestant Reformation Emphasized Literacy

Updated on April 12, 2016
Diane Lockridge profile image

Lockridge holds an EdS in Curriculum and Instruction, an MS in Elementary Education, and a BA in History. She also homeschools her children.

Literacy allows people to know what the laws of the land — and the Bible — say for themself.
Literacy allows people to know what the laws of the land — and the Bible — say for themself. | Source

Why did the Reformers consider literacy so important?

According to Gutek (1995), “the general Protestant emphasis on individual biblical reading and interpretation fostered a demand for universal literacy” (p. 134). As evidenced in Luther’s sermon “On the Duty of Sending Children to School” he emphasized the importance of the connection between literacy and Biblical upbringing or character (Gutek, p. 141). Essentially, people who can read can seek out information from the Bible, and live their lives more morally than those who do not read the BIble for themselves.

Unlike today, the common man during the Reformation did not have access to the Bible, nor could he read the Bible if he had access. Instead, commoners were reliant to get an interpretation from the minister. After reading the scriptures for himself, Luther realized that the church system was not preaching what the Bible actually said. The problem did not lay only in the lack of availability of the scriptures, even if the scriptures were printed and available for everyone it would do the average person no good if he could not read it. Literacy, Luther believed, was the key to adequate education.

Interestingly, the connection of literacy and the Bible was not relegated to the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. Even the hornbooks and classic books from early American education brought in the Bible and biblical themes when teaching reading.

I am reminded of a class I took at the undergraduate level, which taught students about the lack of knowledge that the average churchgoer had at the time of the Reformation and before. Often, the only thing a commoner learned in church (partly because sermons were often in Latin) was what he learned by looking at the artwork on Cathedrals walls. Often pictures on walls showed Christ ematiated and still hanging on the cross, even though Christians believe he rose again. We often see apostles and other great men (and women, such as Mary) depicted as dieties too.

Consider: What do you think your relationship with Christ and knowledge of God's Word would be if you didn’t have access to the Bible for yourself?


Gutek, G. (1995). A history of the western educational experience. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.


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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      6 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think of continual immersion in Scripture as being so fundamental to the Christian life, it's hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have no personal access to the written Word. Paul wanted his letters read aloud to the different congregations partly, I would think, because of the literacy issue. But to withhold such public Bible reading, and then preach a sermon in a language only the preacher understands... Well, as I said, it's hard for me to imagine.


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