I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Some of my earliest memories involve a Sunday School class at church, a small room (it was a small, new church) with jalousied windows. Our teacher was Miss Gail. Whether accurate or not, the memory that stands out is coloring scenes from Bible stories.
In seventh and eighth grades, it was catechism class, every Tuesday and Thursday after school. We were taught from Martin Luther’s small catechism. The worship service included communion, a reading from a Gospel and an epistle, hymns and a sermon. To this day there are certain hymns that I always think of as “Lutheran hymns,” because I sang them many, many times over the years at our church. Luther wrote a lot of them.
One might say that by the time I enrolled in college, I had been thoroughly “Lutheranized.” But it was during my freshman year that I discovered another Luther, one I had never heard about.
I should say up front that this was not the typical “Christian goes to college and falls under the influence of evil, pagan professors” story. I was in a small colloquium, mostly about history, literature and culture, and the professor assigned us a paper on the Reformation – specific topic of our choice. I decided to do some reading about Luther, and tripped over the Peasants Revolt of the 1524-1525. Peasants all over the German states and beyond, influenced by the overthrow of the Catholic Church in their areas, decided to attack another source of tyranny – the landowners and the nobles. At first, the revolt has been relatively mild, and Martin Luther openly supported it. Then it spread and turned more violent.
And Martin Luther, the Martin Luther who wrote the hymns I sang and the catechism I had studied, turned against the revolt and began preaching sermons with themes like “destroy the peasant vermin.” (The nobles obliged.) I also discovered he could use rather earthy language, something else we never heard in catechism class. I wrote a paper filled with youthful indignation. My professor told me I was being too hard on Luther.
One thing I didn’t understand was what Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the Wittenburg church door had triggered. It wasn’t only what would be decades of religious wars and turmoil. Whether cause or catalyst, Luther helped blow up how people understood the world. And it didn’t take long for Luther himself to challenged and “broken away from.” Groups and sects appeared all over Europe. Some of them, as Judith Shulevitz points out in The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, had very different notions about what constituted the Sabbath, what day it should be observed, and how it should be observed. (Luther got involved in this, too. Luther seems to have gotten himself involved in everything.)
In two chapters, “People of the Book” and “Scenes of Instruction,” Shulevitz recounts how the understanding of the Sabbath began to change and reshape itself in the 16th century, the Puritans in the 17th century (and it’s not what you might expect it to be), Rousseau and the Romantic poets in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the contribution made by Charles Dickens (who urged everyone to get physical exercise on Sundays), and on to writers like George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. The 19th century saw something of a counter-reaction to the Rousseaus and the poets, largely under the influence of the evangelical movement, and the explosion of Sunday Schools (and how some of those evolved to non-religious activities).
It’s a fascinating account, but its importance is more than just satisfying intellectual curiosity. How we understand the Sabbath also relates to how we understand God. Seeing how the Sabbath has been influenced by culture also points to understanding our beliefs about faith and god have been influenced by culture.
I’m a Presbyterian today, and no longer casting aspersions on Luther’s character for urging the extermination of rebellious peasants. I believe I understand what was actually happening, and have set my youthful outrage to the side.
But then Shulevitz says John Calvin, the patron saint of Presbyterianism, had people burned at the stake in Geneva. Wait! Stop! Only the Catholics did that, and in Spain. You know, Cervantes and Don Quixote and the Inquisition and auto da fe and all that. Certainly the Presbyterians didn’t do that. Not John Calvin! Arrgghhhh!