The Social Impact of the Reformation

The Reformation was first and foremost a spiritual movement.  This is not to say that it was entirely uninfluenced by events outside the church, ranging from the invention of the printing-press to the marital problems of Henry VIII, but its origin owed little to the usual drivers of secular history such as resurgent nationalism, economic unrest or prior intellectual revolution.  The struggle in Luther’s soul was a spiritual one, the solution he found was a spiritual one, and the fire he had unwittingly ignited was a spiritual one.


A school in every parish

But the Reformation also gave the impetus to great social change.  It inspired, for example, John Knox’s vision of a school in every parish: a vision which was closely linked to the centrality of the Bible in Protestant piety.  It was not enough that every ploughboy should possess a copy of the Bible.  It was no use if he couldn’t read it.  But there was another issue, too.  Romanist worship, focused on the sacraments, was complete without a sermon. Protestant worship was not.  The sermon was central, and the exposition of the Scriptures was the first duty of a minister.  But to explain them he had first to know them, and to now them not merely in translation but in their original languages. 


It was this need for a biblically-literate laity and for a learned ministry that drove the Reformation’s passion for education, and which found expression in John Knox’s vision of a school in every parish.  This meant, in practice, a school attached to every church, and along with it went an even more far-sighted vision: the children of the poor were to receive financial support to make sure that no one with an aptitude for learning should be deprived of the opportunity to acquire it.  And behind this lay Knox’s belief that to deny any child an education was to impoverish the community itself.


But his vision faced many obstacles.  He had assumed that the immense resources of the pre-Reformation church would be available to the new kirk.  Instead, they were grabbed by Scotland’s greedy ‘noble families’.  Besides, many parishes were huge, especially in the Highlands, where children might be living twenty or more miles from church and school.  But despite these difficulties, by the 18th century most of Scotland’s burghs had their schools, many of which not only taught ‘reading, writing and ’rithmetic’ but also prepared scholars for entry to university.  Unfortunately, while Scotland boasted of its ‘lad o’ pairts’, little was done for the ‘lassie o’ pairts’.


Teacher education

But as the years passed, it became clear that the quality of education in many schools left much to be desired, and equally clear that the reason for this this was that the teachers themselves were poorly qualified.  The initiative towards remedying this came from David Stow, one of a band of young elders in Thomas Chalmers’s Glasgow parish.  Stow’s ideas on education were far ahead of his time.  He deplored corporal punishment, disapproved of prizes, and stressed the importance of play and of the child’s observation of the world around her.  But above all, he stressed the need to provide a professional education for all teachers, and it was thanks to Stow that the first teacher-education college in Britain, Dundas Vale Normal College in Glasgow, was opened in 1836.   


Unfortunately, the title-deeds to the property were held by the Established Church, and when Stow followed Chalmers into the Free Church nat the Disruption of 1843 he was forced to leave Dundas Vale.  However, his ideas followed him, and the Free Church, now responsible for the education of some 74,000 children, set up Normal Schools of its own in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  The Schools of Education of the Universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde (Jordanhill) and Edinburgh all derive from these Free Church foundations.  The Edinburgh one moved to Moray House on the Royal Mile in 1848, and it remains there to this day, a world-leader in teacher-education, but institutionally oblivious to its roots in the Free Church.


The universities

Knox’s vision embraced more than parish schools, however.  The first Book of Discipline also stipulated that every notable town should have its college, and for ‘college’ we should read ‘university’.  Scotland already had three, to England’s two: St. Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen (King’s College).  The Reformation added two more: Edinburgh and Marischal College (giving Aberdonians the right to boast that they had as many universities as the whole of England).


These developments were prompted, again, by the need to educate preachers.  Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the life of the early Reformed church is that despite a critical shortage of ministers it refused to compromise on educational standards.  The bench-mark was Geneva, where Calvin founded his Academy in 1559, and this was quickly followed by a series of new ‘Calvinist’ universities such as Heidelberg and Harvard, which are still world-leaders in Higher Education. 


The key figure in the development of Scottish university education was Andrew Melville (1545-1622) who, having studied at the great continental universities such as Paris and Poitiers and taught at Geneva, became Principal of Glasgow University in 1574.  There he introduced a programme of studies which was to last for well-nigh four hundred years.  It laid down that all candidates for the ministry must take a degree in Arts before entering on the study of Divinity, and the Arts programme was heavily weighted in favour of the Classics and Philosophy, reflecting, as Ian Hazlett remarks, Melville’s Christian Humanism and his belief that a community’s practical interests are best served by ‘people who are steeped in humane letters.’  When it came to the study of Divinity there was, of course, no need for students to take a course in Greek: they had been immersed in it in school.  But they still faced the challenge of Melville’s daunting standards in Semitic Languages, including Syriac and Aramaic as well as Hebrew. 


Melville’s insistence on a prior Arts degree was still mandatory even for lawyers when men like John Smith and Donald Dewar trained at Glasgow in the 1950s; and his  Divinity syllabus was substantially unchanged at both the ancient Scottish universities and the Free Church College well into the 1960s. 


Edinburgh University, founded in 1583, was seen as a distinctively ‘Reformation’ university, but while the programme involved study of both the Heidelberg Catechism and the works of the ‘high Calvinist’, Theodore Beza, it also prescribed logic, ethics, physics and the other interests of classic Renaissance Humanism: a reminder, once again, that the Reformation did not demand a flight from the world, or contempt for classical learning.  To the Reformers, the great antithesis was not between the sacred and the secular, but between sin and grace.


Poor relief

Another question to which the Reformers quickly addressed themselves was help for the poor.  The First Book of Discipline (1560)directed that just as there was to be a school attached to every church, so every local kirk must provide for the poor within its parish, ‘for fearful and horrible it is, that the poor, who have been so earnestly commended to our care, are universally condemned and despised.’   The poor included widows, orphans, the aged, the lame and, in general, those not able to support themselves by their own labour, but the Book refrained from giving a detailed policy, contenting itself with the statement, ‘God shall give you the wisdom and the means’. 


Unfortunately, as we have seen, the means (the wealth of the pre-Reformation church) were quickly grabbed by the lords and the lairds; and the wisdom was slow in forthcoming.  To begin with, parishioners were taxed to provide relief for the poor, but in 1597 the responsibility was passed to Kirk Sessions, and this arrangement continued till 1845, when the Scottish Poor Law Act prescribed Parochial Boards to oversee poor-relief.  This was a recognition that Kirk Sessions were not coping.  The voluntary offerings of those attending church were seldom sufficient to support the poor, especially in urban parishes, and when the Industrial Revolution hit Scotland’s cities in the 1700s the system of poor-relief was overwhelmed as thousands of migrants from rural areas (and later from Ireland) poured into Aberdeen, Dundee and especially Glasgow.


It was in Glasgow in the 1820s that Thomas Chalmers conducted his great experiment in poor-relief in the east-end of the city.  It is an experiment of which Free Church people have been immensely proud, and which to this day is often held up as a model to which we should aspire.  But the pride should be tempered with caution.  Was Chalmers attacking poverty, or merely attacking pauperism?  Was he focused not so much on eliminating poverty as on showing that the cost of relieving it could be reduced to a point where Kirk Sessions could deal with perfectly adequately?


This problem has always haunted poor-relief, and it is still with us today, when the cry in so many quarters is not, ‘Help the poor!’ but, ‘Cut the cost of welfare!’  Sadder still, at the root of this attitude lies suspicion and contempt of the poor, and the incorrigible tendency to label those on ‘benefits’ as scroungers. This was the very attitude that Knox condemned as ‘fearful and horrible’ in 1560, and yet even then there was clearly an underlying fear of being conned by ‘professional beggars’, and a firm belief that no relief should be given to the able-bodied poor. 


This was still a guiding principle for Chalmers, whose army of parish deacons gave financial assistance only as a last resort, and who was able to prove that the poor could be supported out of church-door collections only by making sure that the number of people actually ‘on the parish’ was kept to an absolute minimum.  And even when reliance on church-door collections gave way to state provision in the form of the Old Age Pension Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911 the provisions still reflected the same age-old suspicions.  From that day to this, the cost of welfare, not the well-being of those who need it, has been our national obsession.


No one today expects the church to provide a complete welfare system out of its own resources.  But mindful of our Protestant heritage we must raise our voice against the contempt for the poor which lurks at the heart of our Welfare System, ‘for fearful and horrible it is, that the poor, who have been so earnestly commended to our care, are universally condemned and despised’.


This article first appeared in The Record, April 2017