Luther and bringing up children


The purpose of bringing up children

The central purpose of nurturing and educating children is that they serve God. And to serve God is to live out of faith. It is to walk in the love of God as His fellow workers. The nurturing at home and the education at school, says Martin Luther, is to be directed at that purpose.

For Luther, the person raising a child is faced with a double task: first, the child must be raised for God, and second, the child must be raised to live as a Christian in daily work and social life. That meant that, in contrast to the Roman Catholics, who focussed only on religious and catechism instruction, Luther saw the importance also of other subjects in the service of God. Those other subjects would help prepare the child for a career – whether at home or in the work force. That’s why Luther could also write, for example, “A mother who cares for her children, who gives them food and drink, who washes and bathes them, need not ask for a holier and more blessed career.”

The nurture within the family

Luther was very clear in saying that the first responsibility for nurturing children rests with the parents. Father and mother must nurture and rule them according to the law of God. Just as a prince rules his subjects, so parents must rule at home. Luther even says that, just as governments carry the sword (referring to Romans 13), so the father must carry the rod.

But whoever thinks that Luther was thereby appealing to a severe upbringing is mistaken. Using Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 (Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they be discouraged) he warns against extreme measures in bringing up the children.

One extreme measure is when authority and discipline degenerate into tyranny; when parents use such harsh means to achieve their aim that the child becomes discouraged, fearful and poorly prepared for life. Luther gives an example from his own upbringing: “My parents were so severe that I became afraid. My mother once hit me so hard that it drew blood. Such stringent discipline eventually drove me into a monastery. Although they meant well, the upshot was that I lived in fear.”

The other extreme position is for the upbringing to degenerate into slackness. You see that with parents who let their children get away with things they shouldn’t on the grounds that they are just children; they don’t know what they’re doing. But such laxity, says Luther, causes children to grow up being selfish; they think of nothing but own honour, having a good time, and riches. Thereby the ultimate purpose of raising children is not achieved.

Luther’s model for nurturing children is to use both discipline and kindness in accordance with the particular needs of the child. Neither of these means were to be used in such a way as to damage the relationship of trust between parents and children, so essential in achieving the aim of the upbringing. Discipline may not be so harsh that children are driven to hate and fear their parents.

Luther used the following picture to illustrate the right relationship between discipline and mildness: the rod that strikes and the apple which the father gives to the child must both be there. But the rod should be in the left hand and the apple carried in the right hand. The last word is to the apple, the visible sign that convinces the child that the father is driven by love, a love that also punishes where necessary.

Luther and his family

It is evident that Luther ultimately attached great importance to a personal relationship based on God’s Word between parents and children.

He tried to reflect this in his own family by schooling his children at home daily, and even writing his shorter catechism for this purpose. Together the family sang, prayed, and read the law. In the prayers at home this great reformer was the humble father:

“Loving, heavenly Father, since You have given me your name and the office of father, grant me this grace: that my loving wife, my children, my family may be nurtured, ruled and guided by me in a Christian manner. Grant me wisdom and strength to lead and bring them up properly; and grant them a good heart and good will, to follow and obey Your instruction. Amen.”

Luther considered it of great importance to approach the child at the child’s level. His letter in 1530 to his own son, little Hans, is an example. He wrote, in part:

“I know a jolly nice garden which many children enter, children wearing beautiful clothes. They look for apples under the tree, and pears, plums and peaches; they sing and frolic and are happy; and there’s also a nice small pony to ride, with gilded reigns and a silver saddle. I asked the man who owned the garden who the children were. He said: ‘They are the children who like to pray, and learn, and be well behaved.’ I said: ‘Dear Sir, I also have a young son, called Hans Luther. May he come into the garden some time and eat those nice apples and pears and ride on that fine pony and play with all those children?’ The man said, ‘If he likes to pray, learn and be obedient, he may also come into the garden, and so may Flip and Joost …’”

Somewhere Luther once wrote that we need to become children if we are to appeal to children. He therefore had a great appreciation for good school teachers and said: “I could wish that nobody would become a minister who had not first been a school master, for the school master has learned to speak simply to those who are less academic.”

People say that it wasn’t until the 18th century through such enlightened pedagogues as Rousseau and later Pestalozzi and Frobel that the child was ‘discovered’. But that’s wrong. Certainly, at the time of the Reformation of the 16th century, as Luther also clearly showed, there was a good understanding of how best to nurture children.


by R de Boer, “Opvoeding met een appel in de rechterhand” (Upbringing with an apple in the right hand), De Reformatie, 12 November 1983, pp. 119-121 (loosely translated from Dutch by J Numan).

(The second part of R de Boer’s article, which is about Luther’s views on formal education at school, is to follow, DV.)