500 Reformations

31st October 2017

Are events in Wittenberg 500 years ago relevant to life in modern Britain? Or just a topic for historians, theologians, and German-speaking Christians? At the University of Sheffield, researchers from across the Faculty of Arts & Humanities have been exploring this conundrum, framed by the question: “What did Luther / The Reformation ever do for you?” From now through until next summer, they’re volunteering to travel out around the Diocese of Sheffield, to talk about how Reformation affected and continues to affect us today.

Changing Church
Luther & co. undertook fresh bible translations so that ordinary people would have access to God’s word. They achieved this through study of ancient languages and by creating new vocabulary in their native tongues. How did reformers choose their language? Does their work really affect how we speak today? Language experts like Roel Vismans examine the processes of language change and standardisation, while historian Jose Cree scrutinises the role of religious writers in that process.

Reformers supported new programmes of education. They staffed schools encouraging more people to learn to read. So was Luther responsible for the push toward universal literacy? Would he have approved of today’s bible-reading practices? Such tricky questions are a favourite topic for biblical scholar (and 500 Reformations director), Iona Hine. Reformers reorganised worship to create different opportunities for participation, and rearranged churches to accommodate changes in liturgy and music. What was spirituality like pre-Reformation? Was the image-smashing iconoclasm welcomed in Tudor Sheffield, and what can archaeologists and historians reveal about what was lost? 

Changing life
Imagine Luther and his theses as a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples move in all directions. Those who wished to resist Luther’s programme of change had to reconsider their own identity and actions. Monks and nuns who had committed to religious celibacy were forced to reexamine their role in society, a challenge central to Liz Goodwin’s research. As reformers scorned the virtues of virginity, women reexamined the significance of their bodies. Historian Sasha Garwood has studied parallels between religious fasting practices and modern eating disorders.

The “Protestant work ethic” owes much to later reformers, but the notion of deserving and undeserving poor would have been familiar to Luther. Literary scholar Cat Evans has been exploring the religious aspects of modern anxieties about idleness and time-wasting.

Challenging prejudice
In later life, Luther wrote and spoke very negatively about Jews and Judaism. As literary scholar Sue Vice explains, pre-Holocaust Luther’s views were often absorbed uncritically, but that 20th-century crisis necessitated fresh and creative thought about Jewish-Christian relations. Christian conflicts killed thousands in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Are international and interfaith relations still haunted by the aftermath of Reformation? Can drama specialist Tom Rutter trace the traumas in Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights?

The examples above give some flavour of what’s on offer. Other topics on the 500 Reformations menu include printing, Brexit, and existentialism. A website hosts magazine-friendly articles with regular updates, and an expanding A to Z of Reformation as well as profiles of the different speakers. For more information, visit 500reformations.net.

500 Reformations is a University of Sheffield initiative run in association with Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies and Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. We welcome contact with faith groups, schools and other community organisations who respect our commitment to diversity of thought, experience and approach.

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