Religious Knowledge on the Imperial Frontier: Religious Education and Academic Theology in Alsace-Lorraine, 1870–1914

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:50 AM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Anthony Steinhoff, Université du Québec à Montréal
Recent research on the culture wars in late nineteenth-century Europe has rightly underscored the centrality of schools and schooling in these conflicts. It also, however, tends to frame the basic question in these debates as follows: should the modern school serve to form Christians or citizens? So while liberals and anticlericals advocated reform to claim schooling as a central state concern, rather than ecclesiastical prerogative, they also challenged both the place of religious education in school curricula and the relevance of religious-based knowledge in modern times.

This paper suggests that this perspective leads us to miss two critical dimensions of late nineteenth-century Europe’s socio-cultural landscape. First, it underestimates religion’s important and ongoing contributions to knowledge production in late nineteenth-century Europe, especially in “Protestant” Germany and Great Britain. Second, it overlooks the high degree to which religious communities continued to rely on schools and schooling to promote faith and the dissemination of “religious knowledge.”

More specifically, against the backdrop of the reorganization of public education following Alsace-Lorraine’s incorporation into the German Empire in 1871, the paper explores the debates over and changes to the primary and secondary schools’ religious education program (1870-1914) as well as the reforms to the program in Protestant theology at the University of Strasbourg. As the local Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities quickly understood, these developments altered how religious knowledge was produced and prompted new ideas about the relationship between faith and knowledge. The German state certainly promoted a modernizing (and Germanizing) agenda in Alsace-Lorraine; nevertheless, its educational policies admitted religion’s and religious knowledge’s importance. Likewise, while Alsace-Lorraine’s Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities bemoaned their reduced influence over education, they continued to link schooling to religious identity formation. Alsatian Protestants even sought to enhance these ties by promoting curricular modernization in the schools and at the university.