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Five hundred years after Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, posted ninety-five theses for debate over penance as a means of getting and being right with God, his legacy seems as momentous and controversial as ever. While his efforts to reform the church of his time were by no means singular—reforms were breaking out in most of Europe and were breaking up the Western church—he remains the paradigmatic reformer. Theologians, philosophers, and church-leaders discuss his "Protestant" reform as a "churchly" event. But it had and has enormous consequences in political, cultural,economic, personal, and social life.
A (Newberry) library lecturer quite naturally turns to the cultural aspects, with a focus upon the printed word. The Gutenburg Revolution, begun only decades before "The Reformation," made possible the publication of a vast number of pamphlets and books already between 1517 and 1520. Thus Luther and colleagues in monasteries and universities made their case not only in preaching but in print. The pope—called 'the Antichrist" by Luther—and his legates in "church" and "state" were soon burning the Luther-an writings, so when the papal excommunication came in 1520, Luther fought fire with fire and, along with his growing following, burned the Roman books. The precedent was set, as both sides set out to destroy the writings of the other.
Apparently paradoxically, book-burning, then and ever since, inspired book-learning. To sway publics, both parties issued a sudden and unstoppable flow of writings which crowded and crowd the shelves of libraries. Luther's own writings in German fill one hundred fifty large volumes. Leaving monasteries behind, the reformers made citadels of universities. Theologically they saw words in the Bible and supported elsewhere as the saving Word, which they explored, accented, and in countless ways helped replace most of the book-burning which gave rise to their movements, with book-learning, which has ever since been promoted in a changing Europe and, eventually, a changing world.
Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the author of more than fifty books on religion in the United States.
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This program is part of Religious Change, 1450 - 1700, a multidisciplinary project exploring how religion and print made the medieval world modern. The project is generously supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.