A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.