Little Hans Receives Letter from Father, Martin Luther

WITTENBERG, GERMANY — Last Thursday, Hans Luther, four-year-old son of Dr. Martin Luther, received a special letter from his father. Hans’ tutor, Jerome Weller, had written to Dr. Luther to inform him of his son’s good progress in his lessons. In response, Dr. Luther wrote the following to Hans:

GRACE and peace in Christ, my dear little son.

I hear with great pleasure that you are learning your lessons so well and praying so diligently. Continue to do so, my son, and cease not. When I come home I will bring you a nice present from the fair.

I know a beautiful garden, where there are a great many children in fine little coats, and they go under the trees and gather beautiful apples and pears, cherries and plums; they sing and run about and are as happy as they can be. Sometimes they ride on nice little ponies, with golden bridles and silver saddles. I asked the man whose garden it is, ‘What little children are these?’ And he told me, ‘They are little children who love to pray and learn and are good.’ When I said, ‘My dear sir, I have a little boy at home; his name is little Hans Luther: would you let him come into the garden, too, to eat some of these nice apples and pears, and ride on these fine little ponies, and play with these children?’ The man said, ‘If he loves to say his prayers and learn his lessons, and is a good boy, he may come; Lippus and Jost also; and when they are all together, they can play upon the fife and drum and lute and all kinds of instruments, and skip about and play with little crossbows.’ He then showed me a beautiful mossy place in the middle of the garden for them to skip about in, with a great many golden fifes and drums and silver crossbows. The children had not yet had their dinner, and I could not wait to see them play, but I said to the man: ‘My dear sir, I will go away and write all about it to my little son Hans, and tell him to be fond of saying his prayers, and learn well and be good, so that he may come into this garden; but he has a grand-aunt named Lehne, whom he must bring along with him.’ The man said, ‘Very well: go write to him.’

Now, my dear little son, love your lessons and your prayers, and tell Lippus and Jost to do so too, that you may all come to the garden.

May God bless you. Give Aunt Lehne my love, and kiss her for me.

Your dear father, Martinus Luther
In the year 1530
[Coburg, June 19th.]


We marvel at the ease with which Luther speaks to his four-year-old son, Hans. We’re delighted with the vivid image of the garden. But what’s most striking about this letter is that Luther doesn’t say whether the garden is the world that opens up to the diligent student, or whether the garden is the paradise of Christ. Which one is he talking about? Does a good education usher one into a realm of earthly wonder? Or does a good education usher one into eternal life?

Luther apparently doesn’t see any need to split hairs in this matter. A good education will do both things: it will bring delight to earthly life and bring the student into the delight of eternal life.

The question is, why have the earthly benefits of education and the eternal benefits of education become separated in our day? Many parents suppose that preparing their children for eternal life and giving their children an education can (or should!) be considered separately. School and Church have become divorced, time and eternity have become divorced, concern for the body and concern for the soul have become divorced.

And yet the student has a body and a soul, together, right now. Why would we treat him as two separate things when God has made him a unified whole? We would do well to treat our children as God has created them, and that means giving our children an education that simultaneously opens up worlds of wonder on earth and prepares them for eternal life. 

For more on this topic, you may read a pair of articles concerning “The Goal of Education,” beginning with The Goal of Education Part I: Educating for Mammon?

Lippus (short for Philip) was the son of Philip Melanchthon, and Jost (short for Justus) was the son of Justus Jonas. Lippus and Jost were about the same age as Hans; Melanchthon and Jonas were colleagues of Martin Luther. In the painting, Luther sits in the center; his eldest son, Hans, stands at the far right; Melanchthon sits behind and to the left of Luther.

Consider:

  • How would you explain to a child the benefits of a good education?
  • Rather than ushering children into a beautiful garden, into what do secular government schools usher them?
  • Why is it harmful to the Christian student when parents and teachers treat education for earthly life and education for eternal life separately?

Painting: Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family by Gustav Spangenberg, 1828-1891

Quote: C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917. [names lightly edited for consistency]

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