Book Review: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther
Editor’s Note: This review is by Pastor Wade Mobley, president of the Free Lutheran Schools, a two-year Bible college and four-year seminary in Plymouth, MN serving the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC). A 2003 graduate of the seminary, Mobley previously served as pastor of Living Word Free Lutheran Church for eleven years. He is married to Michele (Deubner), of rural Brockton, MT, and has two children, Hannah (7) and Benjamin (6).
If the book under review interests you, join us for a lecture by the author of the book, Dr. Andrew Pettegree of the University of St. Andrews, “Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Making of a Media Phenomenon,” on Monday, November 7 at 7:30 p.m. Learn more about the event here.
Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: How an unheralded monk turned his small town into a center of publishing, made himself the most famous man in Europe—and started the Protestant Reformation
By Wade Mobley
Next fall is the 500th anniversary of something called the Reformation—on that much all agree. The nature of that event, though, is more debated.
Some historians characterize the Reformation as a social rebellion of the people over the papacy, or simplistically, as the religious arm of the Renaissance. Philosophers with a similar worldview to those historians teach the Reformation as a change in the manner of human thought, perhaps even as a precursor of the European Enlightenment two centuries hence. True, the Protestant Reformation in Germany produced subsidiary benefits such as an increase in literacy and the normalization of German as a language, but the Reformation was much more than a cultural upheaval. More accurately, the Reformation was a multi-nation event that changed theology’s source (placing the Bible in people’s hands) and its content (replacing, for instance, an optimistic view of salvation as the result of God’s cooperation with humanity with a view of salvation as solely the work of God).
Calling the Reformation an event is even more central to the problem. Such a cataclysmic shift in both thinking and power—and in both state and church—cannot be the effect of a single event. Yet there is an event associated—somewhat arbitrarily—with the beginning of the Reformation, and that event is etched in our minds, iconically: Martin Luther, hammer in hand, on the steps of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony on All Saints Eve in 1517. That this event happened is less important to the legacy of the Reformation than what followed. That this event is etched in our mind affirms the legacy of what Andrew Pettegree calls “Brand Luther”—a story about how, in Pettegree’s subtitle, “an unheralded monk turned his small town into a center of publishing, made himself the most famous man in Europe—and started the Protestant Reformation.”
Pettegree tells the story of Luther and his influence against the backdrop of another one of the author’s loves: The history of printing. The advent of movable type printing presses has long been credited with hastening the influence of Reformation thinking. What has not been explored as much is the influence of the Reformation on the printing industry itself.
Printing was a sapling in the forest of business. Paper was expensive and in short supply. Ink was hard to come by, and as easy to tax and restrict as the paper itself. Printing presses, due to their scarcity alone, were easy to regulate. Not many people knew how to read. The Reformation was about to change both the printing of literature and the literacy of print’s consumers.
The Reformation brought a steady stream of business to presses longing for saleable material. This stream flowed from both sides of the Reformation debate, with enough populism and vitriol to turn printed paper into hard currency. Printers, who did not pay for the rights to print material, competed with one another for the opportunity to print the most lucrative content. This competition, in turn, produced printing products of increasing quality.
Although Wittenberg was a small town with an even smaller printing industry, years of investments by the elector of the region, Frederick the Wise, led to the establishment of a university, and thus, a university press. Pettegree demonstrates the advance in printing from the rudimentary sheets produced by Wittenberg printer Rhau-Grunenberg to to more sophisticated works of his competitors. Local artist and businessman Lucas Cranach contributed to the success of the Reformation with his funding of the Wittenberg print works and through the production of his shop that produced woodcuts for use in the printing process. Likewise, the Reformation enriched Cranach in every way possible—especially financially.
Cranach’s woodcuts are a big reason for the enduring mental pictures of the Reformation. There was a “look” to the Reformation that people saw widely distributed in print. Luther and his allies produced content that appealed to people. Though foes would follow, the visual appeal of the Reformers’ works was quite unlike the dry, academic disputations of the day. It was effective enough that their Roman Catholic counterparts considered it dirty pool. For the first time in history, the mass media would become a significant part of the message.
One question that most students of the Reformation ask is, “Why him? Why then? Why there?” As a practicing Lutheran who thinks that, on the whole, the Reformation was a helpful development in the history of the church, I answer that God used circumstances both political and economic to cause theological benefit. Yes, Luther was an amazing man. But he was not alone. God also used others, including a small group of publishers across Germany who had mixed motives, to spread the message of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, and through faith alone. God, in his sovereignty, brought about Luther and the Reformation, and used printing as one of his tools in doing so. In return, and in some respects, God, Luther, and the Reformation created Western printing itself.
Pettegree provides the reader with a strenuously researched, brilliantly written volume that is a delight to read. The author’s point includes the benefit of aesthetics, and he models this in a way that will not disappoint. The heavy pages of the paperback turn in fingers that grasp a hard cover with textured dust jacket. Ample pictures and maps illustrate the pages, helping those with limited geographical knowledge of Europe. The fusion of two interests—Luther and printing—is not forced, and allows the author passionate expression of his material. With a wealth of Luther reading either in print or in the offing, Brand Luther deserves a place near the front of the line.