World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky writes about how an independent press has its roots in the Reformation. Modern journalism began, he says, with an unusually skillful writer named Martin Luther.
From WORLD | The Reformation roots of an independent press | Marvin Olasky | June 7, 2014. Read it all, but here are some excerpts:
Modern journalism began in 1517 as the German prince Frederick the Wise was putting the finishing touches on his life’s work of building up Wittenberg’s sacred relic collection. Through purchase and trade he was able to claim a “genuine” thorn from Christ’s crown, a tooth of St. Jerome, four hairs from the Virgin Mary, seven pieces from the shroud sprinkled with Christ’s blood, a wisp of straw from the place where Jesus was born, one piece of gold brought by the Wise Men, a strand of Jesus’ beard, one of the nails driven into Christ’s hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one twig of Moses’ burning bush, and nearly 20,000 holy bones.
Announcements of relic collection highlights were made regularly through proclamations and assorted announcements, the typical journalistic products of the time. Few people could read—most were discouraged from even trying, for reading could lead to theological and political rebellion—but town criers and local priests passed on official story messages promoting the goals of governmental authorities and the official, state-allied religion. In 1517 Wittenberg residents were told that all of Frederick’s treasures would be displayed on All Saints Day, and that those who viewed them and made appropriate donations could receive papal indulgences allowing for a substantial decrease of time spent in purgatory, either for the viewer/contributor or someone he would designate. Total time saved could equal 1,902,202 years and 270 days.
Quiet criticism of the indulgence system was coming from Professor Martin Luther, who stated that the Bible gave no basis for belief in indulgences and argued that the practice interfered with true contrition and confession. But, despite Luther’s lectures, indulgence-buying continued as champion salesman Tetzel offered altruism at bargain prices. . . .
The pitch was strong, but Luther decided to oppose it head-on by making his ideas of protest accessible to all, not just a few. The 95 theses he hammered to the cathedral door in 1517 were not academic sentences but clear, vivid statements.. . .
Luther then gave printers permission to set the theses in type—and they spread throughout Europe within a month.
The effect of Luther’s theses and his subsequent publications is well known but what often is missed is that Luther’s primary impact was not as a producer of treatises, but as a very popular writer of vigorous prose that concerned not only theological issues but their social and political ramifications. Between 1517 and 1530 Luther’s 30 publications probably sold well over 300,000 copies, an astounding total at a time when illiteracy was rampant and printing still an infant. . . .Luther’s lively style and willingness to risk death for the sake of truth-telling would be enough to make him a model for today’s journalists, but it was his stress on literacy that made independent journalism possible at all. Literacy was low throughout Europe until the 16th century—perhaps only about 1 out of 100 persons could read. Reading was looked upon as a servile activity; just as corporate CEOs today have secretaries to do their typing, so the kings of medieval times remained illiterate and had designated readers. Nor were those of low estate encouraged to read by state or church authorities. A 16th century French treatise argued that people should not read on their own, less they become confused; ordinary folk especially should not read the Bible, because they should learn only from priests. . . .
Luther and other Reformation leaders, however, emphasized the importance of Bible reading; Christians were to find out for themselves what God was saying. Literacy rates soared everywhere the Reformation took root, and remained low wherever it was fought off. Luther not only praised translation into the vernacular languages but made a masterful one himself. In preparing his German translation Luther so understood the need for specific detail to attract readers that when he wanted to picture the precious stones and coins mentioned in the Bible, he first examined German court jewels and numismatic collections. Similarly, when Luther needed to describe Old Testament sacrifices he visited slaughterhouses and gained information from butchers. He was a vivid reporter as well as a tenacious theologian.. . .
Luther also made journalism significant by arguing that the path to progress is through change in ideas and beliefs, rather than through forced social revolution or reaction. In Luther’s thought the most significant warfare was ideological, not material, so he emphasized dissemination of ideas through publication and opposed attempts to destroy opposing ideas through burning either books or authors. “Heretics,” he said, “should be vanquished with books, not with burnings.” Luther wanted an exchange of views, not sword thrusts. He described printing as “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”