Printing Press as the Reformation Propeller

In honor of Reformation Day (October 31) and All Saint’s Day (November 1), I wanted to reflect on the effects of one of the world’s most important inventions that helped spur the Reformation on: The printing press. Much of this post is adapted from a graduate paper I did titled “Print, Luther, and Identity: Reformation of the Religious Consciousness.”

Two of the most momentous, formative events in human history occurred within one hundred years: the invention of the moveable type printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1440 and the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century sparked by Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door in 1517. It is doubtless that the printing press, as a new communication technology, played a large role in the success of the Protestant Reformation. But a causal relationship is nearly impossible to prove. But much like the information age would have been delayed or avoided without computers, the Reformation would not have exerted nearly as much religious, intellectual, or cultural clout without the printing press. In God’s Providence, the printing press had been invented but not yet fully utilized before Luther nailed his Theses to the door. With the changes that the printing press brought with it, print prepared people for and served as the main facilitator for the religious change brought by the Reformation.

Luther posted 95 theses in Latin to the church door in Wittenberg, the church door being a traditional place of academic debate. Luther admitted later in a letter to the pope that he did not intend his theses for mass distribution, but instead an anonymous person translated his theses into German and printed them. Soon they were printed and distributed throughout Christendom. After his theses gained immense popularity, Luther started publishing profusely, helping the printing industry gain success in the process. The relationship between Luther and the press was mutually beneficial, as Luther needed the press to disseminate Protestant ideals while the press needed a prolific author to realize its full potential as a powerful communication medium.

Media theorists like Innis, McLuhan, Ong, Postman, and Levinson have argued that communication technologies in their cultural context are not neutral. Instead, they influence the content of the information they carry. For example, it is widely accepted that the communication technology of the printing press helped to promote new concepts of individualism, authority, nationalism, and privacy. The printing press also facilitated changes in the collective and individual religious consciousness. Many factors played roles in the collective religious shifts of the Reformation, some of which include print influencing the change from the church’s authority to the reader’s authority, print’s visual bias, and print’s mass production and dissemination of information in the vernacular. The Reformers’ religious consciousness was also affected by print, with print’s bias toward systematic thought and qualitative differences between the spoken word and the printed word..

One example of print’s collective effect is that it helped shift authority from the church to Scripture. Ong (1982/2002) explains that typography’s regular lines, justified paragraphs, and aesthetically uniform presentation are superior to those of manuscripts, which give print a more objective aura of finality. Thus, the reader views printed texts as authoritative. Indeed, “a book was sensed as a kind of object which ‘contained’ information, scientific, fictional, or other, rather than as earlier, a recorded utterance” (p. 124). The layout of printed books, compared with copied manuscripts led to more systematic and linear argumentation, with Luther specifically being able to extract crucial biblical doctrines like salvation by grace alone from Scripture and explain them in systematic, orderly ways in his writings.

An example of print’s effect on individual Reformers’ life and practice is evidenced by Luther. Luther was well aware of the power of the press, publishing more than 450 treatises, printing more than 3,000 sermons, and writing more than 2,500 letters. Thanks in part to Luther’s penchant for using local printers, Luther’s favorite local printer became the mayor of Wittenberg because of his great success and influence as a printer. Luther called the press “God’s highest and ultimate gift of grace by which He would have His Gospel carried forward” (cited in Spitz, 1985, p. 89). While the power of the press may not have been a secret, Luther was the first to fully exploit its power to aid an historical movement.

One of the main factors that influenced Luther’s religious consciousness was print’s proclivity for systematic thought. McLuhan touched on this in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), in which he argued that the uniformity and repeatability of print led to segmentation and fragmentation of religion and nature. In other words, the press helped scholars to separate God, Man, and Nature. This can also be applied to religious thought during the Reformation. This segmented thinking the press fostered also led to systematic thinking and writing, evidenced in Luther’s fondness for systematically criticizing the church and systematically laying out the doctrines of Protestantism. He was aware that print held a different authority over the spoken word because of the word being fixed in space – print could not be publicly, directly questioned other than through publishing another text against it.

Also, Luther’s “use of print served in great part to fix theological positions more irrevocably than might have been the case in pre-typographical ages” (Ong, 1967, p. 285). Because Luther fixed his doctrinal statements in print and wrote so profusely, he was constantly reinforcing the emerging views of religious truth. By refuting the church in print and teaching systematically and frequently, he was able to proliferate the truths of the Reformation. In fact, if it was not for Luther’s constant publishing of essays, sermons, treatises, pamphlets, biblical translations, and debates, the Reformation itself would have suffered immensely.

Print has been aptly called the “gunpowder of the mind” by David Riesman (cited in Levinson, 1997, p. 24), and it certainly lit the fuse of the Protestant Reformation. Not only did print light the fuse of the Reformation, but also served as its fuel. The printing press played a large role in the success of the Reformation movement, enabling the general public to identify with the ideas of the Reformers. Through such effects as its visual bias, its capability for systematic thought, its promotion of uniformity and repeatability, and the translation of the Bible and other religious texts into the vernacular, print certainly was one of God’s main instruments in bring reform to His church. In God’s Providence, the sixteenth century was the perfect storm for scriptural change to occur, with the printing press priming people for change and Luther and other Reformers following through by utilizing the press to spread the good news of the gospel.

Eisenstein, E. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change.
Levinson, P. (1997). Soft edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution.
McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man.
Ong, W. (1967). The presence of the word.
Ong, W. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the world.
Spitz, L. (1985). The Protestant Reformation 1517-1559.

2 thoughts on “Printing Press as the Reformation Propeller

  1. Thanks for the post. Very fitting subject matter. I'm enjoying thinking about how Luther's time with the advent of the printing press compares to our time with the computer and the internet in relation to reformation. Here we are a church that's come full circle in need of reformation and a medium of mass communication at it's fingertips. Makes you wonder what God is up to and what could be coming.


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