Reforming the Mass(es)

Celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation provides occasion for reflection on several fronts. The seismic changes to Western Christianity initiated by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther led to massive reorientations in biblical interpretation, corporate worship, religious practices, ecclesial structures, and configurations of holiness.

In addition, Luther’s opposition to the religio-political consensus of Europe set in motion forces that resulted in the rise of the nation-state, the Enlightenment, and most of what we would recognize as modern. However, none of these profound changes to Western civilization would have occurred if the upheaval had depended only or even mainly on one person or one generation of leaders. The changes set in motion on October 31, 1517 had such large-scale effects partly because Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues made religious education a central priority in their efforts to reform the church.

Contrary to popular belief, Luther’s 95 Theses did not cause much of a popular stir. There is even significant doubt about whether he actually posted them on the church door in the university town of Wittenberg where we served as a professor. While evidence exists that Luther sent the debating points on indulgences to an archbishop on October 31, 1517, ordinary people would have understood neither their content (too technical) nor their form (in Latin). However, Luther’s sermon in German on true penitence, preached shortly after he sent off the indulgences in the mail, made him the first living celebrity in Europe and raised awareness about the biblical and theological problems associated with the selling of indulgences. The printing press made Luther’s subsequent sermons and tracts available to untold thousands of people across the continent. By at least 1520, Luther had become the teacher of the public about salvation, the Gospel, the sacraments, and the Christian life.

Luther’s Pedagogical Tools

As the Protestant Reformation took hold and continued to spread across huge swaths of northern Europe, Luther and some of his colleagues engaged in what today would be understood as limited empirical research about the level of biblical and theological knowledge in rural parishes. In 1528, Luther personally visited several parishes and was appalled by the lack of basic Christian knowledge he found. His dismay led to decisive pedagogical action: the development of two of the most influential instructional resources in the history of Christianity—The Small Catechism and The Large Catechism.[1] Drawing on nearly a decade of preaching on the basic elements of the faith – the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer – Luther developed The Small Catechism for use in instructing children and new converts. Its companion volume, The Large Catechism, provided pastors and parents with the biblical, theological, and spiritual context for explaining the Small Catechism’s pithy but spare basic teachings.

Luther also wrote simple, yet substantive prayers for the opening and closing of the day, and urged every Christian to read and reflect on the building blocks of faith every day in order more and more to conform oneself to the Word of God and the Gospel message. He confessed to working through the catechetical materials daily himself, humbly asserting that he could never reach the end of what was to be learned from them. More than that, he implored every head of household across the land to instruct the other members of the family on the catechism regularly. Luther’s catechetical materials spread like wildfire and outsold everything else that he wrote. The catechisms, in fact, have never gone out of print since they were first made available in 1529. They still form the core element for religious education in Lutheran communities throughout the world.

Bible and Literacy

In addition to his pedagogical genius, Protestants have Luther to thank for the close association between the Bible and religious education. During the period of his “captivity” at the hands of his friends and supporters in the Wartburg Castle in 1521-22, Luther set about the task of translating the Bible into the language of ordinary Germans. He finished the translation of the New Testament in eleven weeks and it was published in 1522. Work on the Old Testament took longer and required a team of scholars. The whole Bible translation was published in 1534. Luther and the early Protestant Reformers believed that the Bible should be in the hands of ordinary people and that the Holy Spirit would bring people to faith and transform them through regular encounters with the Word of God. There was, though, a significant obstacle: illiteracy of the masses.

In order to take advantage of the possibilities that the printing press afforded for reforming the way the masses encountered the Word of God in the newly translated Bible, the masses would have to be taught to read. Luther and other Protestant leaders provided a primary impetus for the upgrade and development of basic education for everyone. The push for universal literacy grows directly out of the theological conviction that God speaks to peasant and prince alike through the pages of Holy Scripture, and that everyone should have unmediated access to its pages. To be sure, Luther intended his catechisms to provide interpretive guidance to the Bible; but they were never to supplant or occlude the reading of Scripture.

Liturgical Creativity

In addition to the publication of tracts, treatises, sermons, catechisms, and a reliable translation of the Bible in the vernacular, Luther also wrote hymns and Christian songs that functioned to teach the basics of Christian faith and practice. Most people are familiar with Luther’s adaptation of an existing popular tune for the writing of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Yet, few non-Lutherans or non-Germans know that Luther wrote over thirty hymns and Christian songs. His topics focused on elements of the catechism, the Psalms, and the pattern of the Christian liturgical year. He intended to teach the faith to ordinary people through songs that had a combination of solid theology and eminent singability. Luther’s songwriting contributions complemented his translation of the mass from Latin into idiomatic German as part of his effort to increase informed participation in corporate worship.

As we celebrate the landmark events of 500 years ago at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, we should keep in mind the central role that intentional pedagogy played in its initial stages and in its success across centuries and cultural contexts. Luther’s multi-faceted pedagogical efforts – widespread publication of highly accessible short pieces, catechisms, readable translation of the Bible, widespread literacy, and liturgical creativity – ensured that the events set in motion on that fateful last day of October in 1517 would sink down to the grass roots and take hold deep in the soil of the masses.

 Contributor: Gordon Mikoski





Gordon Mikoski is an associate professor of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary. He earned his M.Div. and M.A. degrees from the Princeton Seminary, and his Ph.D. from Emory University. His research and teaching interests focus on the sacraments, the doctrine of the Trinity, and Christian education. He serves as director of the Masters’ Studies Program, the editor for Theology Today, and the president of the Association of Practical Theology. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he served a church in Michigan for eight years before returning to academia.