How we Lost Lutheran Education in the Missouri Synod, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith

(We are pleased to post articles on the BJS website from one of the longest operating confessional groups in the LCMS – The Lutheran Concerns Association – LCA. We will be posting the LCA newsletters on their page on this site: and excerpting articles from those newsletters here on the home page. We recomend you join the LCA and subscribe to The Clarion.)

The perennial question for Lutherans is to what extent they should assimilate into the dominant religious culture. That is the issue for Lutheran theology, and it is also the issue for Lutheran education. The Reformation and education went hand in hand.

The Renaissance classical curriculum of the University of Wittenberg stressed the revival of the Greek language and going back to the original sources. This led to Luther’s fresh study of the ultimate original source, the Bible, which became the basis of the Reformation.

Since all Christians—laity as well as clergy, peasants as well as nobles, women as well as men— needed to read God’s Word and since most of the population was illiterate, the Reformers opened schools. These were more than Bible reading schools. At Luther’s request, Philipp Melanchthon, one of the greatest Renaissance scholars, devised a classical education for everyone.

Melanchthon invented a special institution to train leaders for the church and the state. The “Gymnasium” offered a six-year program in the liberal arts (from the Latin word for “freedom,” designed to equip free citizens as opposed to the job-oriented “servile arts” given to slaves). At the conclusion of these six years, the graduate would go to university. The Gymnasium survives to this day in modern Germany, which sends students with the highest test scores to a Gymnasium, with the rest channeled into vocational high schools.

This kind of classical education would be challenged, though, with the Enlightenment—which made scientific rationalism the only kind of truth—and the invention of the Prussian University model, which, by reducing all knowledge to scientific specializations required even theology to be “scientific.” One of its inventors was Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology, the champion of the higher criticism of Scripture, and the theological instigator of the Prussian Union, which provoked the founders of the LCMS to leave for America.

Here those founders faced a different educational challenge: an educational system designed primarily to assimilate immigrants. Instead of teaching foreign languages and Western civilization, these little red schoolhouses would focus on English and on instilling the values of “Americanism.” This included the propagation of a “civil religion,” with a generic, ecumenical, national deity and the teaching of moralism rather than salvation.

In response, the founders of the LCMS started parochial schools, which were solidly Lutheran and classical. For further education, they founded Gymnasiums, which is the original form of most of the Concordia Colleges today.

Then came John Dewey and “progressive education.” A socialist and an atheist who believed that education should replace religion, Dewey dismissed the knowledge of the past in favor of modern pragmatism. To train workers for modern industrialism, Dewey urged schools to downplay content in favor of processes. Dewey believed that teaching is a science, leading to the establishment of teacher colleges.

The LCMS largely accepted progressive education, opening teacher colleges of its own, requiring state licensing for parochial teachers, and bringing progressive techniques into its classrooms. Eventually, the Concordias were re-organized according to the Prussian university model to conform with the rest of American higher education.

The new goal of LCMS schools was to give students the same kind of education as in the public schools, but adding instruction in the Christian faith. This approach arguably worked for awhile, since the secular curriculum did not directly undermine Christianity. But in recent decades, the postmodern version of progressive education—which sees truth and morality as relative— undermines what children learn in their religion class.

This relativist curriculum has also led to an academic collapse. If there is no truth, what is there to learn? If there is no goodness, how can teachers enforce discipline? This crisis has led to a search for alternatives, including homeschooling and the founding of evangelical schools. Some of these emulate traditional American education (including its limitations). Others, though, are going back further, rediscovering the classical education that has given us Western civilization.

Among these are Lutherans bringing back the Lutheran heritage of education. A number of parochial schools have gone classical and in doing so have both improved their academics and strengthened their theological integrity. Check out the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education–—for the most promising developments in Lutheran education today.

Dr. Gene Edward Veith
Provost and Professor of Literature
Patrick Henry College
Purcellville, VA

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


How we Lost Lutheran Education in the Missouri Synod, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith — 4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great article, Dr. Veith. After reading criticism of the Prussian model and John Dewey’s scientific management concepts in John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education”, I’ve wondered what position Walther and the early LCMS took on education, as they were fleeing the Prussian Union. This is the first time I’ve seen this addressed from a Lutheran perspective. Now I see why I resonate so strongly with Gatto’s perspective. (BTW, though Gatto is a Roman Catholic, he’s generally very positive toward Luther…not so toward Calvin and the Anglican model.) His very long book is available to read free online for anyone interested in more details of the Prussianization of American schools.


  2. I am no fan of the Prussian model, but I cannot agree with the assertion that using the Prussian model is somehow not Lutheran. Neither the Bible nor our confessions make any mention, directly or indirectly, of how children’s education should be structured in this sense.

    I am a Lutheran specifically because of a Lutheran school. As such, I am living proof that a Prussian model education can indeed be a Lutheran education.

  3. Kaleb –

    I didn’t read Dr. Veith’s article so much as saying that “using the Prussian model is somehow not Lutheran.” What I do see is that the point is made that the presuppositions underlying the Prussian University model undermine a biblical world view by compartmentalizing knowledge and restricting the pursuit of truth to narrowly defined “scientific” methodologies.

    That many “good Lutherans” (no doubt including yourself) came out of such schools can actually be attributed to “felicitous inconsistencies” between the underlying presuppositions and their implementation within schools today. This would be akin to the fact that there are true Christians in unLutheran (strictly defined) church bodies despite being taught false theology.

  4. Thank you for the excellent article, providing a solid summary of important historical considerations when it comes to Lutheran education. To the best of my knowledge, I have read (and often re-read) all of Dr. Veith’s books, considering them to be a formative part of my own education. As an education faculty member at one of the Concordias, I am quick to point out the value of looking to the good and important work done regarding Classical Lutheran Education. Classical Lutheran Education proponents have been integral in promoting substantive discussion about what constitutes a Lutheran philosophy of education. They play an equally important role in challenge others in Lutheran education to beware of “marrying the spirit of the age today” and finding themselves “widowers tomorrow” (taken from William Inge). At the same time, I am equally interested in a critique of modern versions of classical Lutheran education. Are there any weaknesses or limitations to it? Are there other options that we should also consider?

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