Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation began in Germany in 1517, following Martin Luther's attempt to provoke discussion about reforming the Catholic Church. It rapidly blossomed into an international struggle, resulting in the permanent destruction of Catholic unity in Europe and the creation of many new Christian denominations and sects. By the early 1520s, once it was clear that the break with the Catholic Church was permanent, the reformers faced the challenge of creating stable new churches that could endure the religious conflict of the sixteenth century.

Children were a critical component in the response to this challenge. The reformers were anxious to ensure that the children of their churches would be properly and completely nurtured and educated in the newly defined Christian faith. Protestant reformers saw the family as the fundamental unit for fostering both religious belief and social stability; therefore, they directed more attention to children and families than had the late-medieval Catholic Church. As envisioned by the reformers, the ideal family was a patriarchy in which fathers held ultimate responsibility and authority, but within which mothers were also held accountable for the nurture and education of their offspring. The reformers viewed children as tainted with original sin, like all human beings, yet educable and in need of careful oversight to protect them from the temptations and vices of the world. They insisted on the duty of both fathers and mothers to teach their children Christian beliefs and practices and to discipline them with love and restraint, always with the support of the church community. Another significant contribution was the insistence on the importance of basic education and the attempt to spread literacy so that reformed Christians would be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Protestant Children and Church Ritual

Most reformers, including Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Germany and John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, kept the rite of infant BAPTISM as a sacrament in their churches. The more "radical" or Anabaptist reformers, such as Menno Simons (1496-1561) in the Netherlands and northern Germany, rejected infant baptism and asserted that a person had to proclaim his or her faith and choose to be baptized as an adolescent or adult. While Luther and Calvin maintained the practice of infant baptism, they each altered the Catholic interpretation of what occurred during the sacrament, indicating a changed understanding of the nature of children. Medieval Catholics believed that the sacrament of baptism washed away the original sin that weighed upon the soul of a newborn child. In contrast, the Protestant reformers emphasized the burden that original sin placed on all human beings, including baptized children. There was no exact Protestant consensus on the effects of baptism, but generally they held that it was not an act of purification that automatically protected the child from future harm, but rather a sign of God's grace and covenant with the child, the parents, and the wider church community. The baptismal ceremony also marked the commitment of parents and community to raise the child in the Christian faith. Children were considered to be particularly susceptible to the distractions and vices of the world, and adolescents even more so. For this reason they required careful supervision and loving discipline to help them learn piety and Christian responsibility.

Another change that occurred with the Protestant Reformation was the delay of CONFIRMATION until adolescence. While confirmation was no longer understood to be a sacrament, Protestant churches still marked a child's profession of faith and official entrance into the church with some ceremony. In medieval Catholicism, children received confirmation sometime between the moment of baptism and age seven. The reformers held that such an act required that the child have achieved some level of spiritual maturity, which they generally believed coincided approximately with physical maturity. In delaying confirmation until ADOLESCENCE (in the most extreme cases until the age of eighteen), the reformers were pushing back the age of discretion, thereby extending the time during which children were not held fully responsible for their actions.


Both the delay of confirmation, in the case of Luther and Calvin, and the delay of baptism, in the case of the Anabaptists, made the proper education of children imperative. A main premise of the Protestant Reformation was that individual Christians could communicate directly with God through prayer and study of the Scripture. The reformers sought to foster this relationship by providing catechisms and establishing schools to teach both boys and girls to read. Luther and Calvin each, in their efforts to aid in the training of children, produced catechisms that could be used by parents and ministers to teach children and adults in need of religious instruction. Such catechisms were written in the form of questions and responses about the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They were printed in the vernacular (for example, German or English, rather than Latin), in simple language, and could be expeditiously published and distributed across a region with the aid of the printing press, which had been in use in Europe since the 1450s.

Both boys and girls were expected to learn such catechisms at home, at church, and even at school. Girls' schools and coeducational schools were both established during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but schools for boys appeared more rapidly. Girls were more often expected to receive their education at home, focusing on the catechism in order to learn pious behavior. Scholars continue to debate the effectiveness of these efforts at education and indoctrination in different parts of Europe. It is generally agreed that, while the reformers' efforts at education did not succeed as perfectly or completely as they hoped, literacy rates across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe improved more quickly in Protestant areas than in Catholic areas. Ultimately, the schools created during the Reformation became a part of the standard European educational systems.

Discipline and Obligation

Luther, Calvin, and Simons all insisted upon the obligation of children to respect, obey, and assist their parents. Parents had a corresponding duty to love, nurture, and discipline their children, both for the protection of the children and in the interest of creating a stable community. It is noteworthy that this obligation extended to illegitimate children as well. While Catholic authorities were more willing to expend resources on caring for abandoned children in the interest of protecting the honor of unwed mothers, Protestant officials went to great lengths to ensure that parents took responsibility for raising their children born out of wedlock.

"Godly" parents were expected to nurture their children physically and spiritually; this included a strict but compassioante discipline. Corporal punishment, including beating, was acceptable in moderation in order to help children learn to resist the many vices that the world pressed upon them. But extreme abuse, neglect, and overindulgence were all seen as threats to children. To combat these various extremes, the reformers emphasized the notion that nurturing their children according to Protestant teachings was one way that Christian parents served God. Calvin wrote, "Unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support" (quoted in Pitkin, p. 171). In the case of Anabaptists, children depended upon their parents not for Christian instruction that built upon their baptism, but rather for the education in the Christian faith that would one day enable them to choose to be baptized. While the issue of infant baptism was a significant division between Anabaptists and other Protestants, in practice they took similar steps to raise their children as both faithful Christians and responsible citizens. Simons advised Anabaptist parents regarding their children, "If they transgress, reprove them sharply. If they are childish, bear them patiently. If they are of teachable age, instruct them in a Christian fashion. Dedicate them to the Lord from youth" (quoted in Miller, p. 208).

The Protestant Influence

Reformers' thoughts on child care were made popular by numerous books on child rearing. Church and state authorities attempted to reinforce these ideas through such instruments as the consistories, or morals courts, established in Reformed ("Calvinist") communities. But despite these efforts, it is important to remember that the reformers' views were not consistently put into practice by all Protestant parents. Indeed, it is likely that few parents–fathers or mothers–lived up to the reformers' mandate to instruct their children fully in Protestant theology and beliefs. While reformers sometimes criticized parents for disciplining their children too harshly, a more frequent complaint was that parents were indulging their children, and thus neglecting their spiritual and moral welfare. Another area of dispute involved selecting GODPARENTS for a newborn child. Calvin and the Genevan reformers insisted that parents should choose godparents only from among the Reformed community, so that they might serve as spiritual mentors for children. But, maintaining earlier traditions, some parents insisted upon inviting relatives from Catholic towns to be godparents. Finally, the belief that baptism cleansed a child of original sin and was a prerequisite for salvation persisted among some Protestants, despite the reformers' teachings to the contrary. Practices such as "reviving" dead infants in order to baptize them continued throughout the early modern period.

Nonetheless, the Protestant Reformation had significant and lasting effects on the treatment of and attitudes toward children in early modern Europe. Where the reformers clashed with parents regarding their children, it was because both parents and church officials had strong opinions about the best way to raise a child to become a responsible citizen, a faithful Christian, and a dutiful son or daughter. The Protestant reformers began efforts at widespread education that would come to the forefront once again during the ENLIGHTENMENT of the eighteenth century. They emphasized the notion that childhood was a period of nurture, discipline, and learning. And they reiterated frequently the mutual obligation that parents and children had toward one another.

See also: Catholicism; Islam; Judaism.


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