THE HALLWAYS and corridors of Trinity Lutheran School, a small brick building constructed in 1927, are steeped in the aroma of every school lunch ever served. The collective smells of meatloaf, scalloped potatoes and overcooked green beans out of oversized cans are unmistakable.
It is here that Trinity Lutheran Church of Freistatt, Missouri, both honors its heritage and prepares for its future. Soon after Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg, thereby triggering the Protestant Reformation, he recognized the need for education among the laity. His tour of the countryside in 1528 left him aghast at the dismal levels of education among his fellow Germans. Luther believed that his reforms depended in no small measure upon popular understanding of both the Bible and theology. Luther's own translation of the Bible into the vernacular made the scriptures accessible, and his Smaller Catechism outlined the rudiments of Protestant doctrine, but popular acceptance of both, he recognized, depended upon a literate laity.
Very early in its history Trinity Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), located in Lawrence County on the so-called "German prairie" of southwestern Missouri, appropriated Luther's ideas about education. The congregation established its "Christian day school," taught by the pastor, shortly after the church's formation in 1874. By 1883 the enrollment stood at 65, at which time the congregation hired its first teacher. There were 90 pupils, kindergarten through eighth grade, in 1950, when the CHRISTIAN CENTURY visited Freistatt. Today the enrollment has fallen, but only slightly, to 82. It remains an important fixture in the community--so much so, in fact, that George Bush made a campaign stop at the school in 1988 (presumably to underscore his pledge to become the education president").
When I peeked into the seventh- and eighth-grade classroom I found a group of seven students, four girls and three boys, working contentedly on a history assignment. The pleasant room had a congenial air of dishevelment about it. An old Apple computer sat on one of the tables, and a bookcase in the corner held dictionaries and almanacs. A picture of Jesus and a cluster of pull-down maps hung above the blackboard. Two flags, the United States flag and the Christian flag, were positioned next to the large window.
The classroom for first and second graders, just down the hall, also had the flags and a picture of Jesus. The students were completing their drawings of Abraham Lincoln and bringing them forward for the scrutiny of Gloria Rueber, their teacher, who offered unstinting approval. The desks, arranged in neat rows, were identical to those I remember using at a rural school in southern Minnesota some 30 years ago. In addition, a large work table held a globe and a clock for teaching time. The blackboard read, "How far is Pluto from the sun?" and a small wooden altar in the comer held a cross, two candles and a Bible. The historical significance of religiously grounded education was not lost on the teacher. "Luther loved schools," Rueber told me, and we've held true."
Downstairs in the gymnasium a group of rambunctious kindergartners shot baskets and worked off some early-afternoon energy under the watchful gaze of Judy Krueger. "We bring God into all of our subjects," she insisted. "That's what makes our education distinctive." The school holds a chapel service every Wednesday, and the pastor conducts a confirmation class as part of the seventh-and eighth-grade curriculum. Krueger, now in her 18th year as a Trinity teacher, insisted that the school is an important part of the life of the church, which sits just across the street. The school, she said, brings in new parishioners, and it keeps other members of the community in Freistatt.
KRUEGER POINTED with pride to the record of the school's graduates. Once they leave the eighth grade, she said, they go on to the high school in Monett, the nearest town, and nearly all of them, having been submerged in the Protestant work ethic, become honor students. …