Martin Luther and the Printing Press

When Johannes Gutenberg began working on the printing press in 1436, he created what can be considered one of the most ingenious inventions of all time.  It would lead the way for a massive wave of printed books to be sold all across Europe.[1]  This revolutionary invention paved the future for many great writers.  It also paved the way for the rise in fame of one German priest in particular.  That man was Martin Luther.

Martin Luther was not only a priest, but a professor of theology who started the
Protestant Reformation.[2]  For him to be credited with this, he needed
something to help spread his preaching out across Europe.  That ended up being Gutenberg’s invention, the printing press.  In 1517, Martin Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting his dislike of buying indulgences.  He added something in the letter, which would later become the famous Ninety-Five Thesis.  Luther would argue that the sale of indulgences was a violation of the original intention of confession, and that Christians were being lied to by their own church.[3]

In January 1518, Christoph von Scheurl and other friends of Luther translated the Ninety Five Theses into German, since it was originally written in Latin.  They then printed and copied it, making it one of the first documents to be done with the help of the printing press.[4]  Within two weeks, copies of the Theses had spread throughout Germany.  Within six weeks of that, the Theses had been copied across Europe.  Luther’s writings reached France, England and Italy by 1519.[5]  This greatly increased the notoriety of
Martin Luther, and it also made many other people across Europe protest the ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church.

Another huge impact the printing press had on Martin Luther was the Luther Bible.  Luther went through many different areas of Germany in the 1520’s and picked up on many of the different dialects.  Luther then combined all of these dialects when he wrote the Luther Bible.  It was not the first German translation by any means, but it did standardize the German language and bring up a strong surge of nationalism in Germany.[6]  Luther was quoted as saying “I have so far read no book or letter in which the German
language is properly handled. Nobody seems to care sufficiently for it; and every preacher thinks he has a right to change it at pleasure and to invent new terms.”[7]  Above all though, the Luther Bible did what Luther needed it to do: spread Protestantism.

“…For I see what benefit it has brought to the churches, that men have begun to collect many books and great libraries, outside and alongside of the Holy scriptures…”[8]  Luther was referring to the benefits of his spread works, but also how men needed to fully respect their religion.  The printing press allowed for Martin Luther to become one of the most famous priests this world has ever known.  It also allowed for Luther to push the Protestant Reformation and standardize the German language.  Without Gutenberg’s invention, Luther’s successes would have been very limited compared to what they were.

Albert Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), 172.

Edward M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology (St. Loius: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 2.

Martin Treu, Martin Luther in Wittenberg: a Biographical Tour (Wittenberg: Luther Memorial Foundation, 2003), 15.

[4] Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, trans. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985-93), 203-206.

Walter Kramer and Gotz Trenkler, “Luther,” Lexicon van Hardnekkige Misverstanden (Nederlands: Bert Bakker, 1997), 214-216.

Mark Antliff, The Legacy of Martin Luther (Ottawa: McGill University Press, 1983), 11.

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 12.

[8] Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther with Introduction and Notes (Philadelphia: A.J. Holden Company, 1915), 7.

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