Whatever one’s religious convictions, most agree that the Reformation was a pivotal event in Western civilization affecting not only religion but also politics, our view of ourselves, society, and science. Thus it has a foundational influence on almost every aspect of modern life in the west and also wherever the west has influence. I share with you this Luther and the Reformation Resource List.
As I paged through piles of books while preparing this article, I was reminded that there is one resource each of the reformers would have placed at the top of a Reformation resource list, the Bible. All treasured it, all based their lives on it, and some died for it. Obviously, you cannot truly understand the Reformation without knowing the Bible. So, in honor of Reformation Day, I encourage you to read the Bible with your children regularly. (If this is difficult for you, you may find some guidance in 6 Tips for Bible Reading and Bible Narratives.)
Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther enumerated his problems with the church, his 95 Theses, the Reformation began. As is to be expected, many myths surround a great figure such as Luther and scholarly debate continues about various aspects of Luther’s story. Even the civilization-altering event we celebrate October 31, 2017, that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral, has been questioned. But what no one questions is that this document and the subsequent Reformation fundamentally altered our civilization and our churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
Of course, Luther was a follower of earlier reformers, and many others came after him as well since it was widely acknowledged that there were problems with the church. All this resulted in two great movements, the Reformation and, a short while later, the Counter-Reformation. The Reformation led to the Protestant denominations and a dramatic shift in Western civilization, and the Counter-Reformation was a reforming movement inside the Roman Catholic Church. As a Protestant, I focus on what I know best, Reformation resources. However, for this resource list to be complete it should actually include books about the Counter-Reformation as well. (Please, if you can recommend any, do list them in the comments.)
Luther and the Reformation Resource List
Here I present a list of our family’s favorite resources about Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Note that Luther was dramatic man who, true to his time, occasionally spoke in ways we would find shocking. Furthermore, the turmoil that surrounded the Reformation led to many horrible situations. The resources I recommend minimize those aspects, as is suitable for children.
(Almost all links are to my reviews. If there are no links, I have not reviewed that particular book online.)
Our Family’s Top Three
The best all-round introduction is Simonetta Carr’s Martin Luther. Though written for children ages 7-12, its emphasis on facts, ideas, and quality illustrations appeals to teens and adults as well. This book carefully avoids statements on issues where scholars debate, so it is also accurate and up to date.
A book that I have read aloud to my children several times, Luther the Leader by Virgil Robinson, is also excellent. This short, well-written biography makes Luther come alive and is one of our family’s happy memories. Luther the Leader is a good read aloud for all ages, and can be read by upper elementary children on their own.
Several movies about Luther exist, but the one we have watched multiple times, Martin Luther with Niall MacGinnis, is one of my all-time favorite movies. Its content is good and the quality is high; in fact, it was nominated for an Oscar. This movie is beautiful and inspiring, and it works for young children as well as adults although there are some intense scenes. Though produced in 1953, it is widely available.
These are our top three recommendations for homeschooling families, but there are others worth mentioning.
Spy for the Night Riders by Dave and Neta Jackson is an older fictionalized account of young Karl, Dr. Luther’s servant, who accompanies his master to the Imperial Council in Worms. Karl does his best to protect his master, but others, including a mysterious girl, are also involved. This snapshot of one part of Luther’s life is written as an exciting story, and a brief Luther biography and bibliography conclude the book.
Thunderstorm in the Church by Louise A. Vernon is an account of Luther through the eyes of his son Hans who feels he needs to live up to his father. This pleasant 1970’s story takes us into Luther’s family, showing us Luther’s life and ideas against the backdrop of a teen trying to come to grips with who he is.
For teens and adults:
My current favorite is a devotional story, written in 1860 and recently republished, about a family whose various members either interact with Luther or are completely changed by his ideas. E. R. Charles’s Luther By Those Who Knew Him presents his ideas accurately and does not indulge in myths. Instead it portrays Luther and his times in the context of an interesting family story. This could be used in various ways in a homeschool, as mentioned in my review.
Katharina, Katharina, a novel by Christine Farenhorst, takes a similar approach and Luther himself does not appear in the book at all. This gripping fictionalized account of a real girl, Katharina Schutz who became the wife of the first reformer of Strasbourg, contains a wealth of cultural and historical information and, like the novel above, shows how people of the time reacted to Luther’s ideas. This novel, too, could be used extensively in a homeschool setting.
The Unreformed Martin Luther by Malessa attacks the myths surrounding Luther but, unlike many other books on this list, it focuses only on Luther and not on his God. It is not a good first book on Luther but may be of interest to those who know more about him.
Finally, if you wish your students to read primary documents with guidance, Omnibus II includes a study guide to Luther’s The Bondage of the Will and Omnibus V discusses some selected writings as well as Bainton’s famous biography Here I Stand.
Dozens of biographies, both scholarly and popular, have been published about Luther in the last while and there are also many older ones, but I do not yet have any favorites to recommend. There are so many options and so many opinions. Judging by his other biographies, Metaxas’s Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World may end up being among the best for a combination of readability and reliable information, but I have not yet read it.
For reluctant readers, this list recommends two graphic novels about Luther. (I am also gratified that several of our family’s Luther recommendations are on this list.)
Other Reformation Resources
First of all, there is an excellent curriculum for grades 5-10, Famous Men of the Renaissance and Reformation by Robert G. Shearer, that includes a helpful study guide. This biography-based study of Reformation times also includes the Renaissance which occurred slightly earlier. We have never used the primary source document compilation that was later published to accompany this curriculum, but our children have learned so much from the book itself. (Although I do not often see this homeschool resource in catalogues, it is excellent and can be bought from Greenleaf Press.)
If you have less time, your teens could read The Reformation by Nichols, a slim and lighthearted but informative introduction to the lives, contributions, and ideas of some major reformers. Nichols explains why church history is important and succeeds in making it fun as well.
And then there are accounts of individual Reformers. According to Miss 17, the best books of all are Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers, and I agree with her. As I wrote in one of my reviews, Carr ‘combines meticulous research with a sensitivity to children and thus is able to present complex people and times in a way that both interests and informs.’ Relevant titles, beside Martin Luther mentioned above, include:
- John Knox, the fiery Scottish preacher whose life ranged from the galleys to court preacher.
- John Calvin, the brilliant French Reformer who just longed for the quiet life of a scholar but instead became a hands-on pastor and leader.
- Peter Martyr Vermigli, the exiled Italian who roamed Europe, explaining the God and his Word to both scholars and laypeople. Even though few Protestants know his name, most have been influenced by him.
- Lady Jane Grey, the young martyred queen of England who reigned for less than a fortnight.
On the other hand, Miss 17 and Mr. 22 both agree that the series of Reformation novels by Louise A. Vernon are a better choice to give to your 9-14 year old children for pure enjoyment. These fictionalized biographies do not teach as much, but they are well-written stories that engaged my children and were frequently reread. I have never reviewed these books, but they are all exciting fiction about a young person associated with the subject. Besides Thunderstorm in the Church, mentioned above among the Luther resources, we have enjoyed the following:
- The Beggar’s Bible about John Wycliffe tells of Arnold Hutton a young scholar, who wants to protect the radical professor and his newly-translated Bible from determined enemies.
- The Man Who Laid the Egg introduces young readers to Erasmus, a major influence on Luther’s thinking, via the adventures of the rich young nobleman Gerhard Koestler.
- Ink on His Fingers tells the story of Hans Dunne, apprentice to Gutenberg, and the obstacles to printing the first Bible with moveable type.
- Night Preacher is about Bettje and Jan, two of Menno Simons’ children and the danger they faced when their father became an Anabaptist preacher.
- The Bible Smuggler tells the story of Colin Hartley, a boy who worked with Tyndale as he translates the Bible into English despite opposition from the church and the government.
Louise Vernon also wrote other novels in her Religious Heritage series.
We can also recommend some other books for ages 12 and up although some of these are more descriptive in their presentation of persecutions.
The Hawk that Dare Not Hunt by Day by Scott O’Dell is the exciting novel of sailor Tom Barton who was able to read the Word of God because Tyndale had both translated it and taught him to read it. Tom exerted all his strength to protect Tyndale from his powerful and determined enemies….
Crushed Yet Conquering by Deborah Alcock, a prolific historical fiction writer of the 19th century. She tells the story of John Huss and his country, Bohemia, through the eyes of scholar-squire Hubert Bohun, weaving a thrilling story of intrigue, nobility, bravery, battles, castles, rescues, piety, loyalty and love.
Dearer than Life by Emma Leslie, also from the 19th century, tells the story of the Middleton family’s four children and their connections with Wycliffe. This inspiring novel also portrays the heartrending situation of the poor, the corruption of the clergy, and the joy that accompanies Wycliffe’s preaching, as well as many other aspects of daily life in 14th century England.
Morning Star of the Reformation by Andy Thomson is a fictionalized biography of Wycliffe. A young and opinionated archer, Sebastian Ayleton, befriended Wycliffe as both were heading off to study at Oxford and the two remained friends their whole lives long.
This was John Calvin by Thea B. Van Halsema is an older biography that has been translated into at least 6 languages. As I wrote in my review, ‘It’s interesting, easy to read, full of information, and balanced. Calvin’s complex life is neither glorified nor romanticized, nor are his faults exaggerated. This book does not focus on Calvin’s theology, but it does show how his beliefs found expression in both his public life and his personal struggles.’
Idelette by Edna Gerstner is a novel based on the life of Madame John Calvin. Miss 19 found it for me, years ago, at a second hand book sale, and it has become one of my treasures. Idelette Calvin is one of the people I wish to be like, and this lively book gives a detailed picture of this godly woman, her husband, and the church in Geneva.
Note: Reformation times were often violent and persecution was common. Simonetta Carr’s books minimize this aspect of history, as is suitable for young children, but persecution is a part of some of the other books mentioned although always in an age-appropriate way.
Obviously many other books have been written about Reformation people and times; these are the ones that our family has been blessed with. If there are other excellent ones that should be on this list, please mention them in the comments.
Disclosure: I am not compensated for recommending any of these resources.