A rushing wind thrummed in the sanctuary walls of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.
Students from the University School of the Lowcountry had come to the downtown Charleston church to learn about Martin Luther's theological legacy as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches on Oct. 31. But organist emeritus Doug Ludlum, seated before them in the balcony at the organ console, wanted to share another part of Luther's story.
"He believed that congregations ought to sing," Ludlum said, before launching into a verse of a Luther-penned hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Sitting in choir chairs with the pipes at their backs, students felt the low notes hit hard and heard the high notes ring out like trumpets.
The students from the Mount Pleasant private school came prepared with questions. They had watched Rick Steves documentary on the Reformation and discussed the German monk Luther's bold break with mainstream church doctrines in 1517.
Older students, who had learned Latin and Mandarin at the school, had browsed the Vatican's official website in multiple languages, researching millennia of Roman Catholic history while reflecting on Luther's push to translate Scripture into native tongues.
Later in the day Wednesday, they visited Stella Maris Roman Catholic Church on Sullivan's Island to learn more about the other side of the Catholic-Protestant split. (Coincidentally, both churches were designed by the same architect, John Henry Devereux.)
The field trip was part of the University School's Learning Outside the Classroom program, which involves regular field trips and participatory projects like the school's famously accurate Election Day exit polling. On previous trips they've visited Orthodox churches, synagogues, AME churches, evangelical megachurches and mosques.
"With the tenor of national discourse, we can get them to see people firsthand rather than hear about them secondhand," said Head of School Jason Kreutner.
Some students, who ranged from grades 3 through 12, came to the church with a nuanced view of Luther. They nodded as Pastor Eric Childers noted that the Reformation had caused a division in the Christian church, an event to be commemorated, but not necessarily celebrated.
"He wanted to debate about what he believed in. He hoped the Catholic Church would understand his perspective. It ended up blowing up," said eighth-grader Laura Cowart.
"He was pretty outright about it. He posted his ideas to the church door," said seventh-grader Charlie Dunlevy.
Dunlevy said her class didn't shy away from Luther's later anti-Semitic writings, which advocated for burning of Jewish synagogues and schools.
"He seemed to be very contradictory. He was very brave to do what he did," said 12th-grader Bridget Conway, referring to his posting of the 95 Theses. "But at the same time, he did what Charlie was describing."
On their Wednesday morning tour of St. Matthew's, the students asked questions about church history and the ornate architecture of the 1872 sanctuary. Other questions were more mundane. They wanted to hear the organ's highest and lowest notes. They laughed at the bass note's flatulent timbre.
Five hundred years after Luther nailed his ideas to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, he still loomed large at St. Matthew's, appearing in multiple stained glass windows. One panel featured him alongside Johann Sebastian Bach.
"I had a very fine concert organist tell me one time she was nervous to have Luther and Bach looking over her shoulder," Ludlum joked.
"It makes me nervous to preach sometimes," Childers chimed in. "He's everywhere."