In the wake of the spread of Protestantism, the literacy rates in the newly reforming populations in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands surged past more cosmopolitan places like Italy and France. Motivated by eternal salvation, parents and leaders made sure the children learned to read.
The sharpest test of this idea comes from work in economics, led by Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessmann. The historical record, including Luther’s own descriptions, suggest that within the German context, Protestantism diffused out from Luther’s base in Wittenberg (Saxony). Using data on literacy and schooling rates in nineteenth-century Prussia, Becker and Woessmann first show that counties with more Protestants (relative to Catholics) had higher rates of both literacy and schooling. So, there’s a correlation. Then, taking advantage of the historical diffusion from Wittenberg, they show that for every 100-km traveled from Wittenberg, the percentage of Protestants in a county dropped by 10%. Then, with a little statistical razzle-dazzle, this patterning allows them to extract the slice of the variation in Protestantism that was, in a sense, caused by the Reformation’s ripples as they spread outward from the epicenter in Wittenberg. Finally, they show that having more Protestants does indeed cause higher rates of literacy and schooling. All-Protestant counties had literacy rates nearly 20 percentage points higher than all-Catholic counties. Subsequent work focusing on the Swiss Reformation, where the epicenters were Zurich and Geneva, reveals strikingly similar patterns.
The Protestant impact on literacy and education can still be observed today in the differential impact of Protestant vs. Catholic missions in Africa and India. In Africa, regions with early Protestant missions at the beginning of the Twentieth Century (now long gone) are associated with literacy rates that are about 16 percentage points higher, on average, than those associated with Catholic missions. In some analyses, Catholics have no impact on literacy at all unless they faced direct competition for souls from Protestant missions. These impacts can also be found in early twentieth-century China.
The Protestant emphasis on Biblical literacy reshaped Catholic practices and inadvertently laid the foundation for modern schooling.
Analyses of an indigenous population at the junction of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil reveal that the closer a community is to a historical Jesuit mission (which existed from 1609 to 1767), the higher its literacy rate today.