Anti-German sentiment in Australia and New Zealand during World War I put Lutherans under the spotlight of suspicion. Lutheran schools were accused of teaching German propaganda.
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The year is 1916. World war has been raging for two years, with no end in sight. Australian troops have been sent overseas to defend the British Empire. Those at home are all involved in the war effort – Lutherans are no exception.
However, as Australian Lutherans were predominantly of German descent, as war hysteria mounted, so did suspicion of anyone with German links.
It was also the year before the 400th anniversary of the Reformation – and plans to recognise this milestone were afoot.
Lutherans had come to Australia to freely practise their faith. They also came because they rejected Prussian state church schooling. To Martin Luther, universal education was essential: ‘where schools flourish, nations prosper’. And so to Australia they came, establishing schools along with congregations.
But in March 1916, the Victorian Council of Public Education moved to de-register Lutheran schools expounding ‘that the existence of German schools in Victoria is inconsistent with the policy of the State of training Victorian children in the principles of loyal Australian and Imperial citizenship’ (Australian Lutheran, September 1916).
After public debate and investigations, the schools were allowed to continue, but German was not to be used ‘as a medium of religious instruction’ (Australian Lutheran, September 1916).
In 1919, the debate reignited, headed by returned soldiers. One stated, ‘Children taught in these schools were growing up more embittered against the British people than their fathers were’ (Australian Lutheran, 20 August 1919).
New Zealand Lutherans were not immune. A 1916 appeal to parliament was made to close the Marton church and school, alleging they are ‘in full swing spreading German propaganda’ (Australian Lutheran, September 1916). However, the allegations were determined false.
South Australia was not as fortunate. A bill introduced in 1916 came into force on 1 July 1917 closing all 50 ‘German’ primary schools (except Koonibba Mission school), and affecting more than 1600 scholars and 50 teachers.
Lutheran education was the price paid for the war effort.
After much lobbying, schools were able to reopen in 1925 – however Australian Lutheran education had suffered enormously and many congregations were reticent.
Let’s pray that this year – 500 years since the Reformation – can bring healing and be an especially joyous commemoration and a thanksgiving for the freedom we now have in Australia and New Zealand.
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