Luther on History and National Identity

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I've been preparing a talk on Luther and education for a conference this summer, and so have been reviewing Luther's 1524 "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools." In examining this work, I've been especially struck by Luther's plea for a stronger dose of history in the curriculum of Germany's schools. "Among the chief books [needed for the education of German youth]," the reformer writes, "[are] chronicles and histories, in whatever language they may be had; for they are of wondrous value for understanding and controlling the course of this world, and especially for noting the wonderful works of God."

Luther particularly notes the need for national history in the school curriculum, and laments the lack of reliable German histories extant for that purpose. "How many fine tales and maxims we should have today of things that took place and were current in German lands, not one of which is known to us, simply because there was no one to write them down, and no one to preserve the books had they been written." Luther compared Germany rather unfavorably to ancient peoples in this regard, noting that "the Greeks and Romans and even the Hebrews recorded their history so accurately and diligently that if but a woman or a child did or said anything unusual, all the world must read and know it."

As intimated above, Luther viewed a knowledge and understanding of history as fodder for praise. God is sovereign over human history. Knowledge of history, then, equals knowledge of God's past doings. But Luther also demonstrated rather profound insight into a truth that philosophers of history have only recently made much noise about: the truth that history -- or more specifically, national history -- plays a crucial role in shaping national identity, and so too national mores. Indeed, history owns at least as much, if not more, power to shape national identity as shared language, ethnicity, and/or rituals. Luther, in other words, intuitively grasped the reality that--as Carter Lindberg puts it--"history is the thread of community identity" in much the same way that "memory is the thread of personal identity."

Most of us, I suspect, have known someone who has lost his or her memory (whether suddenly or gradually), and so have witnessed the loss of personal identity that follows from the dissolution of one's own story in life. Uncharacteristic (and sometimes rather unethical) behavior often follows from such a loss of memory and identity. But, as Luther keenly observes, communities that lose the thread of their identity -- i.e., their (hi)story -- are equally prone to unethical behaviors that communities with a stronger sense of their own narrative might resist. In Luther's words: "That [namely, a lack of national German histories] is why nothing is known... about us Germans, and we must be content to have all the world call us German beasts, who know only how to war, gorge, and guzzle." Warring, gorging, and guzzling, it seems, are the obvious activities of a story-less people.

Such insight into the connection between history, national identity, and public mores is, as noted, rather profound for a person writing in 1524. It sets Luther well ahead of the pack of popular historians in our day who typically discover nothing in history but material to mine for moral examples -- the historians who, for instance, seem bent on commodifying the Reformation this year as thoroughly as the constituencies who support them have commodified the Gospel in the rather dire course of American evangelicalism.

Of course, most things Luther thought and said are rather profound. In any case, Luther's grasp of the connection between history and public mores deserves recognition in any account of the role he played as educational reformer. This seems a fitting year to give him that recognition.

Posted February 2, 2017 @ 6:17 AM by Aaron Denlinger


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