Teaching the Faith: Confessional Identity Formation in Early Modern Germany

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Dr Ruth Atherton

The Reformation profoundly impacted the religious, political, social and cultural landscapes of early-modern Germany. As confessional lines hardened so, too, did religious identities.

Set against the backdrop of apocalyptic thought and warnings of divine wrath, this paper considers how matters of religion and theology were communicated to the laity through an exploration of pedagogical material printed in the sixteenth century. Written by theologians for a lay audience, analysis of this literature helps us to understand how changes in social and cultural practices were communicated to the people and how an individual came to identify themselves with a given faith, whilst illustrating the fluid nature of this identity across time and space. Through foregrounding the intended recipients of religious education, this paper explores how the laity could impact educational content and considers how we can approach questions regarding confessional identity formation in early-modern Germany. The study suggests that whilst church leaders sought the collection of souls and secular bodies, educational texts reflect the influence of popular agency, which could support, curtail or reject each of these goals.

The argument developed throughout the paper is that educational material demonstrates the fluid nature of confessional identity formation in early-modern Germany and, crucially, suggests that this fluidity was accommodated for in educational material.

Ruth Atherton is a Lecturer in History at the University of South Wales and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham in 2018. Her work explores the development of early modern sacramental education with a particular focus on the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century. She is currently working on a monograph entitled ‘The invisible grace of God’: Sacramental Education in Reformation Germany, 1525-1610’ as well as pieces on confessional identity formation more broadly across early-modern Germany.

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