Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther: 1517, Printing and the Making of the Reformation tells the story of how Martin Luther launched the Reformation through his mastery of the media.
How was this possible? Why did Luther succeed in challenging and overthrowing the authority of the Catholic Church while so many of his predecessors had failed? In 1517, Martin Luther was an unknown Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Electoral Saxony which was a backwater of the Holy Roman Empire. He wasn’t even a published author. And yet, within a few years Luther had become the most published author in European history.
There was no reason to believe that a world changing movement would emerge and snowball out of a place like Wittenberg over a routine academic disputation on theology. In fact, Luther had penned a similar manifesto – 99 theses against Scholastic theology – a mere eight weeks before which been posted on the church door and had attracted little public interest.
The 95 theses made a far bigger splash that Luther had expected and soon he was the talk of Wittenberg and Saxony. They struck a raw nerve and were reprinted throughout Germany in the bigger cities like Basel and Nuremberg and from there began to have a European impact. It was a media sensation and it sparked a pamphlet war with Johann Tetzel which captivated public attention.
From this point forward, Martin Luther became the 16th century equivalent of a celebrity. Pettegree argues that he effectively became the first mass media brand. Luther threw himself into penning answers to his critics. There was an insatiable, unprecedented demand for Luther’s works in Germany. He vastly outsold classical authors. It was great business for Germany’s printers who reprinted his work in Basel, Strasbourg, Augsburg, Leipzig and Nuremberg where they reached large urban audiences.
As Luther became famous in Europe, he developed into a master propagandist. The Reformation spread through Flugschriften which were these short, cheap, punchy little pamphlets in German that contained religious text and woodcut images (bold graphics) that were usually abusive depictions of Luther’s enemies. These little pamphlets went viral in Germany and his Catholic opponents were heavily out published in a social media war. Luther himself with intimately involved in crafting the optics of his works and brought new printers to Wittenberg to heighten their aesthetic appeal.
Martin Luther was also a talented musician. He wrote over 40 hymns which he considered “an essential conduit of God’s word.” These hymns appealed to the emotions and were of enormous importance in advancing the Reformation. Several scholars have argued “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” – his most famous hymn – is a martial song that Luther wrote to rouse Protestants to fight the Turks. Luther’s greater aesthetic appreciation of religious art and music later became one of the biggest divides between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism.
Luther’s flair for the dramatic – burning Pope Leo X’s papal bull, writing incendiary books like On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, his coarse language and willingness to write in German, standing up to Emperor Charles V and refusing to recant at the Diet of Worms, translating the Bible into German, marrying a runaway nun – captured the German imagination. Far from being anything like a modern liberal, he wrote harshly about all of his various enemies including the Jews:
“We must fight everywhere against the armies of the Devil. How many different enemies have seen in our own time – the defenders of the pope’s idols, the Jews, a multitude of Anabapist monstrosities, the party of Servertus and others. Let us prepare ourselves against Mohammad as well. But what will we be able to say concerning things of which we are ignorant? That it is why it is beneficial for learned people to read the writings of their enemies.”
Luther wrote three tracts against the Jews – On the Jews and their Lies, On the Ineffable Name and On the Last Words of David. He successfully campaigned to have them expelled from Saxony by Prince John Frederick in 1536. They had already been driven out of Wittenberg before his arrival. In his last sermon at his hometown in Eisleben in February 15, 1546, he preached that “the Jews are our enemies, who do not cease to defame Christ and would gladly kill us all if they could.” He died three days later.
For all his many gifts, it is still hard to believe that Luther survived and made such an impact. Were it not for the inexplicable protection of Frederick the Wise, Luther would have likely suffered the fate of Jan Hus. Were it not for the Ottomans marching on Vienna, Emperor Charles V would have crushed the Protestant princes much earlier than he did at the Battle of Mühlberg. It is amazing that the 95 theses set off such a controversy. It is amazing that printers which made money off the sale of indulgences reprinted and circulated Luther’s works. Perhaps the most amazing and unlikely thing of all is that so many people risked everything to publicly back Luther and break with Rome.
The penalty for heresy against the dogma of political correctness in our own times is excommunication from ‘mainstream’ respectability by the mass media. No one is risking the eternal damnation of their souls by defying journalists. No one is risking being burned at the stake for heresy. What did the original Protestants have that the Alt-Right lacks in our own times?