The Impact of
the Printing Press
God had a special preparation when He utilized the Roman Empire for the
first coming of Christ. (See God's Economy and the Roman Empire.) He also
did a special work in His economy in the fifteenth century in the invention
of the printing press.
Satan is the enemy of the truth and has vigorously opposed the dissemination
of the truth. Small wonder, since truth has a liberating effect. When
truth comes, bondage ceases. "And you shall know the truth, and the truth
shall set you free" (John 8:32). In the book of Galatians, Paul pointed
out how the law and legalism were a bondage that needed liberation by
the truth and the Spirit.
Gutenberg and the Invention of Printing
By the time Luther had posted his "Ninety-five Theses" (1517), the art
of printing books had been in use for more than 50 years. The birthplace
of printing was in Mainz, Germany, which was the first center for printers
and booksellers. Johann Gutenberg (c. 1445) is considered the pioneer
of movable metal type in printing at Mainz.
Printing and the Reformation
The Reformation was the first move of the Lord's recovery that had the
aid of the printing press. Reform under Hus and the Hussites was a failure,
in part, because of "the limited means available for spreading the ideas
of Hus" (Holborn, 123). By the time of Luther's birth in 1483, printing
was well established throughout Europe.
Printing, in Luther's hand, was effective for two reasons: technical equipment
for large-scale publication and a style, form, and content that was attractive
to the reader.
There was an amazing circulation of Luther's works from Wittenberg, the
dominant center during the Reformation, to five other places in Germany
where two, three, and even four presses were operating at different times
to print, on the average, twelve editions (one edition=1,000 copies) per
title. Of 30 writings of Luther from 1517 to 1520, it was estimated that
there were about 370 editions printed. The three most famous Reformation
writings of Luther were Appeal to the German Nobility, Christian Freedom,
and the translation of the New Testament, which was the most popular of
his writings (3,000 copies for the first printing).
The style that Luther used was a new language, the vernacular. Instead
of speaking and writing in Latin, he used the German language, the language
of the common man. There was actually a higher degree of literacy in the
German language than has commonly been thought. The people had a broader
education due to the following: teaching and educational institutions
such as those of the "Brethren of Common Life," monastery and cathedral
schools, city schools throughout all of Germany, nine new universities
(1456-1506), private teachers of reading and writing, and readers (predicants,
scribes, reading women). In fact, "a large percentage of the German burgers
(middle-class) could read before the Reformation." It was common for the
shoemaker to be heard sharing the gospel and for many women to be seen
everywhere carrying Luther's New Testament. "A large group knew it by
heart after repeated readings" (Ibid., 136). Luther's books were read
during suppertime when the family was together. "The Nuremberg people
were known to listen to the reading of Luther's writings on the open market"
Luther also utilized a new form for printing, the German leaflet and pamphlet.
The leaflet was a one-page broadside with a striking picture and short
readable text. The pamphlet was three to six pages with a simple, direct
message that was inexpensive to produce. "It became the most common and
influential vehicle for the spread of Luther's ideas" (Ibid., 128). They
were looked upon as "the 'shock troops' of the Reformation" (Ibid., 131).
In addition to Luther, many of his followers also printed these. Some
of the pamphlets were published by evangelical theologians and preachers.
To escape censorship and prevent personal attack, "a large number of the
pamphlets are anonymous and often intentionally hide or are misleading
as to the place of printing" (Ibid., 132). Many authors of the pamphlets
were without professional training, such as the furrier, weaver, baker,
gunsmith, and shoemaker.
The new content in what people heard and read answered to a deep-felt
need. "The main reason for the appeal and success of Luther's writings
was their new message" (Ibid., 128). Contrary to what the church hierarchy
taught, "the road to God did not lead through the absolute authority of
the clergy. Luther's doctrine of justification by faith challenged the
old tenets" (Ibid.).
The vast output of literature was almost exclusively Lutheran literature.
Almost the whole book market consisted of Luther and his followers. Erasmus
wrote in 1523 to Henry VIII of England, "Here in Basle who would dare
to let even one little word be printed against Luther, while one is allowed
to write against the Pope what one likes" (Ibid., 133).
The two means for spreading the message of the Reformation were preaching
and printing. "Reformation preachers had the aid of the printers in supplementing
their words with printed matter. The literature prepared the way for the
work, followed it up, and gave the preachers themselves a steady stream
of fresh ideas and arguments" (Ibid., 137). The contribution of printing
to Luther was "an unquenchable flame" and "the last and highest gift of
God for the Gospel" (Ibid.). In a sermon of March 10, 1522, Luther declared,
"I have only put in motion God's word through preaching and writing. The
word has done everything and carried everything before it" (Ibid.). Holborn
(137) concluded, "It is the great contribution of printing that it made
the Reformation a sacred cause of the whole people."
The Reformation writings greatly increased from 1518 to 1524, when there
were almost 1,000 works. However, "after 1524 the output of the presses
began to ebb, a clear indication of the break between the religious reformers
and the common man. The Protestant churches in Germany were henceforth
built up by the princes and theologians and popular response was no longer
the determining factor" (Ibid., 133). What had been a clear move of the
Lord now had become an organized movement supported by the State. The
world and the church were in a marriage union (Pergamos, Rev. 2:12-17)
as there was during the time of Constantine and even down to the present.
The church was found in the world, and the world in the church.
The Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church
What the Lord was doing in His recovery was strongly and even violently
opposed by the Roman Catholic Church. There was an attempt to suppress
Luther's writings with the passage of the Edict of Worms (1521). Civil
authorities were to confiscate and burn his books. In the future none
of his writings was to be printed without permission by the religious
authorities. The local and state officials, however, did not enforce this.
Instead, there was a rapid production of literature with a widespread
distribution, even though the authorities did not sanction most of the
printing. A secret trade arose in illicit publications which were distributed
by hawkers. In the midst of the battle, Luther wrote in 1524,
Take care now, promote the holy Gospel. Teach and defend, speak, write,
and promote, preach….Let us drive this another two years and you will
see where…the worms and storms will be; like smoke they will vanish (Bockmuehl,
The storms, however, did not subside. As the Reformation progressed, a
movement arose within the Roman Catholic Church to counter the effects
of Luther and the Reformers and to reassert the Catholic Church's supremacy.
These efforts continued throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
and took on a variety of forms:
a. There was a revitalization of monastic orders and reassertion of their
founding "ideals of celibacy, chastity, self-sacrifice, and compassionate
b. The Jesuits, founded by Ignatius Loyola, became a very powerful anti-Protestant
c. The Inquisition was utilized from July 1542 to stamp out heresy using
secular authority and physical penalties: interrogation, torture, imprisonment,
d. The Council of Trent (1545-63), convened by the Catholic Church, declared
that "the sources of religious truth (were) defined as Scripture and Tradition…these
of equal authority" (Kidd, 59).
e. The same Council declared what was the accepted version of the Bible.
"The (Latin) Vulgate was to be taken for the authoritative text. It was
for the Church alone to expound Scripture. And no books of Scripture were
to be printed or published without the editor's name and the consent of
the Ordinary" (Ibid.). This view of the Bible, Kidd (Ibid.) points out,
"rendered reconciliation with the Protestants impossible." The dependence
upon tradition also "rendered the gulf between Catholics and Protestants
impassable," for it was now the firm view of the Catholics, "Our beliefs,
and our worship, in their entirety, depend upon Tradition" (Ibid.).
The Index of Books
In January 1559, Pope Paul IV introduced the decree Index librorum prohibitorum
(Lat. 'list of prohibited books') that states "that no book new or old,
should issue from the Press without permission from the Holy Office" (Kidd,
48). This came to include the official Roman Index or "List of Authors
and Books against which the Roman and Universal Inquisition orders all
Christians to be on their guard, under the threat of Censure and Punishment"
(Ibid.). This included books without the name of the author or date or
place of publication or without Church permission (unlicensed). All translations
of the Bible into the vernacular were forbidden. A list of printers was
given including all their publications.
Erasmus was placed on the first papal "Index" by Pope Paul IV including
"all his commentaries, notes, scholia, dialogues, letters, translations,
books and writings, even when they contain nothing against religion or
about religion" (Lindsay, 1:185-6).
In the Roman Catholic Church today "a 'censor' normally appointed by the
Bishops of the diocese is required before writings on theological or moral
subjects are published. When it has been obtained the word 'imprimatur'
is printed at the beginning or end of the work together with the censor's
name" (Cross and Livingstone).
Various countries supported the Catholic Church and the Church of England
by passing laws that restricted the publication of books. France, under
the Catholic King Francis I in 1535, "issued an edict prescribing the
death penalty for the unauthorized printing of books, and soon afterwards
the Sorbonne became the licensing authority and remained so until the
French Revolution" (Latey, 18:455).
England followed the way of Rome to control what was printed. During Queen
Elizabeth's reign there was a limit on the number of printers and presses,
and it was decreed "that printing should be carried on only in London,
Oxford, and Cambridge.…In 1637 (it was) decreed that all printed books
must be submitted for license…before publication, with the penalty of
forfeiture of all presses" (Ibid.), where printers did not comply. Such
a license was known, as above, as an imprimatur (Lat. 'let it be printed').
"Most of the licensing devolved on the archbishop of Canterbury." John
Milton wrote an illegal essay, Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty
of Unlicensed Printing, in which he defended the right to publish.
Freedom of Speech and Press
In 1787, the American colonies formed a new government and passed a new
constitution. For it to be ratified by all the states, however, a bill
of rights had to be added as amendments to the Constitution specifying
the rights that were guaranteed. The first ten amendments to the Constitution
were called the Bill of Rights and were passed on December 15, 1791. The
first amendment guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of press. These
rights had been abused in their history as a colony of England, especially
by the religious hierarchy.
Freedom of speech is generally recognized as "the right to say publicly
or privately what one believes.…(The) term covers all forms of expression,
including books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and motion
pictures. Many scholars consider freedom of speech a natural right….Freedom
of the Press is the right to publish facts, ideas, and opinions without
interference from the government or from private groups" (Beth, 7:432-3).
The Lord has had His chosen vessels to carry out His recovery. These have
often faced intense religious persecution. Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and
Tyndale had their writings destroyed by the religious establishment, and
furthermore, Hus and Tyndale were martyred for what they testified to
in print. Wycliffe's remains were exhumed and burned (1428) after condemnation
by the Council of Constance. Since the time of Luther, mass reproduction
of literature and its widespread distribution have worked together for
the recovery of the truth and the advance of God's economy.
Beth, Loren P. "Freedom of Speech" and "Freedom of Press." In The World
Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc.,
Bockmuehl, Klaus. BOOKS-God's Tools in the History of Salvation. Vancouver:
Regent College, 1986.
Cross, F.L. and E.A.L. Livingstone. "Imprimatur." In The Oxford Dictionary
of the Christian Church. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Holborn, Louise W. "Printing and the Growth of a Protestant Movement in
Germany from 1517 to 1524." Church History 11 (June 1942): 123-137.
Kidd, B.J. The Counter-Reformation 1550-1600. London: Society for Promoting
Christian Knowledge, 1933.
Latey, William. "Press Laws." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 18. Chicago:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1949.
Lindsay, Thomas M. A History of the Reformation. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T.
& T. Clark, 1907.
Reetzke, James. God's Economy and the Roman Empire. Chicago: Chicago Bibles
and Books, 2003.
Toon, Peter. "Counter-Reformation." In J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Dictionary
of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.