“How Luther went viral”

The Economist tells how Luther, in effect, used social media:

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. . . .

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. . . .

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

via Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral | The Economist.

The article also tells about the role music and visual images (with a shout out to Lucas Cranach), both of which also went viral, in the spread of the Reformation.

Can you envision a time and a cultural context in which this sort of thing–the spread of the gospel–could happen again, now that we really have the technology for it?

HT:  Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dennis Peskey

    A wise young preacher once instructed me his vocation was to preach the gospel; the conversion of souls was the vocation of the Holy Spirit. If we seek a time or cultural context where we could spread the gospel, we’ve missed the point entirely.

    This hearkens to the folly of Jesus Christ Superstar and it’s lament of choosing such a backward time and a backward place to proclaim salvation. Yet, it was God himself who let it be known the fullness of time had come – without the internet, the printing press or any other information technology methods mankind had yet to discover.

    It was not the printing press which “popularized” Luther’s Gospel. It was not even a gospel according to Luther. The spreading of the Word of God is a vocation for each and every Christian (to wit, the blog of Cranach achieves a well-done, good and faithful servant award). We sow, we water but the growth of the Gospel belongs to the Holy Spirit for we do not give life but only direct lost souls to where this can be found. At this blessed Christmas time, let each of us proclaim the good news to our neighbors and trust the Word of God will not return void in his heavenly kingdom – present or future technology notwithstanding.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    A wise young preacher once instructed me his vocation was to preach the gospel; the conversion of souls was the vocation of the Holy Spirit. If we seek a time or cultural context where we could spread the gospel, we’ve missed the point entirely.

    This hearkens to the folly of Jesus Christ Superstar and it’s lament of choosing such a backward time and a backward place to proclaim salvation. Yet, it was God himself who let it be known the fullness of time had come – without the internet, the printing press or any other information technology methods mankind had yet to discover.

    It was not the printing press which “popularized” Luther’s Gospel. It was not even a gospel according to Luther. The spreading of the Word of God is a vocation for each and every Christian (to wit, the blog of Cranach achieves a well-done, good and faithful servant award). We sow, we water but the growth of the Gospel belongs to the Holy Spirit for we do not give life but only direct lost souls to where this can be found. At this blessed Christmas time, let each of us proclaim the good news to our neighbors and trust the Word of God will not return void in his heavenly kingdom – present or future technology notwithstanding.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • SKPeterson

    Luther benefited not just from having a good set of propositions, but from a confluence of other factors. I’ll note that there weren’t vast copyright laws in play during this period; you had falling costs of print reproduction with few, if any, legal impediments to the rapid dissemination of ideas across languages. There were also emerging middle class populations that were often fairly literate, and for whom the issues raised in the Theses were important. Luther struck a chord with this group across Germany, which filtered down to the less educated peasantry and diffused across the rest of western Christendom. Finally, you had a disparate and fragmented Western Europe (especially in the Holy Roman Empire) that gave legal cover and protection to Luther and the early reformers in a mutually reinforcing challenge to the powers of the Papacy and the Emperor.

    I think that what we may have brewing is a combination of both the technological innovations of internet, email, and the text messaging phenomena of flash mobs and demonstrations on demand that would be the modern-day equivalent of Luther and the Reformation, alongside an underground, word-of-mouth, growth of the Church a la the Roman Empire. I especially see this emerging in China.

  • SKPeterson

    Luther benefited not just from having a good set of propositions, but from a confluence of other factors. I’ll note that there weren’t vast copyright laws in play during this period; you had falling costs of print reproduction with few, if any, legal impediments to the rapid dissemination of ideas across languages. There were also emerging middle class populations that were often fairly literate, and for whom the issues raised in the Theses were important. Luther struck a chord with this group across Germany, which filtered down to the less educated peasantry and diffused across the rest of western Christendom. Finally, you had a disparate and fragmented Western Europe (especially in the Holy Roman Empire) that gave legal cover and protection to Luther and the early reformers in a mutually reinforcing challenge to the powers of the Papacy and the Emperor.

    I think that what we may have brewing is a combination of both the technological innovations of internet, email, and the text messaging phenomena of flash mobs and demonstrations on demand that would be the modern-day equivalent of Luther and the Reformation, alongside an underground, word-of-mouth, growth of the Church a la the Roman Empire. I especially see this emerging in China.

  • GhaleonQ

    Hey, I wrote a well-received college paper on this! One reason why I don’t think it could happen is one the author mostly ignores. Luther was crass, funny, and hyperbolic; that is, he was on the level of “the folk.” The anti-Christian or apathetic section of today’s populace is hardly constrained by a bureaucracy or the constraints of civility. While Christians could do a better job of translating traditional theology to modern parlance, there’s nothing stopping us from doing that now. Technology has nothing to do with it. In the future, we’ll continue to fail to grow the Missouri Synod…but on Twitter!

  • GhaleonQ

    Hey, I wrote a well-received college paper on this! One reason why I don’t think it could happen is one the author mostly ignores. Luther was crass, funny, and hyperbolic; that is, he was on the level of “the folk.” The anti-Christian or apathetic section of today’s populace is hardly constrained by a bureaucracy or the constraints of civility. While Christians could do a better job of translating traditional theology to modern parlance, there’s nothing stopping us from doing that now. Technology has nothing to do with it. In the future, we’ll continue to fail to grow the Missouri Synod…but on Twitter!

  • http://mikeerich.blogspot.com Mike Erich The Mad Theologian

    I am convinced that God put together the the circumstances that assisted Luther’s message because it was God’s timing to do so. We need to faithful in preaching the gospel by whatever means possible and leave it to God to produce the results.

  • http://mikeerich.blogspot.com Mike Erich The Mad Theologian

    I am convinced that God put together the the circumstances that assisted Luther’s message because it was God’s timing to do so. We need to faithful in preaching the gospel by whatever means possible and leave it to God to produce the results.


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