How Luthers Ideas Spread 3-4 pages How were Luther’s ideas spread? In 1505 Martin Luther joined the Black Cloister of the Observant Augustinians, a strict

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How Luthers Ideas Spread 3-4 pages How were Luther’s ideas spread?

In 1505 Martin Luther joined the Black Cloister of the Observant Augustinians, a strict Catholic monastic order in Erfurt, Thuringia, part of modern-day Germany. He was encouraged to pursue a doctorate in theology at the University of Wittenberg where he continued his complex navigation of Christian concepts of salvation. It is during these years of study and teaching that Luther formed the foundation for his later reformist ideas of the priesthood of all believers and salvation by faith alone rather than through good works. According to lore and legend, Luther was moved to action in October 1517 upon hearing that Johan Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was in Wittenberg selling indulgences that offered remission of sin—even for souls in purgatory. Pope Leo X had ordered the sale of new plenary indulgences in 1515 as a way to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther, who had already begun to question the value of good works for remission of sin and a soul’s salvation, was adamantly opposed to the sale of indulgences for this purpose. He composed his Ninety-five Theses (statements supporting his argument) challenging the Catholic practice of indulgences, questioning the value of good works, and critiquing the wealth and corruption of the church. The Theses were written in Latin and sent to the archbishop in Mainz as a private critique and, according to legend and local tradition, were also posted on the gate to Wittenberg Castle on the day before All Saint’s Day as a public statement. The document was quickly republished and translated into German and the ideas and the conflict with Church authority that they provoked began to spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Over the next three years the ideas of the reform movement began to circulate and both the Catholic Church and Luther prepared for a theological clash. When in 1520 the Pope issued a Papal Bull (the Exsurge domine) warning Luther that he would be excommunicated if he did not recant almost half of the statements in his Theses, Luther made the bold move of publicly burning the notice and explaining in published form why he had done so. In early January of 1521 Luther was excommunicated. By May of that year the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had named the still unrepentant Luther an outlaw. In an elaborately staged fake highway robbery Luther was whisked to safety by Frederick III and protected at Wartburg Castle. Here Luther translated the Bible into German and continued to expound upon his new theology and publish it for the people in German at an astounding rate. It was in these years that the conflict between Luther and the Church exploded into the European event known as the Protestant Reformation.
Scholars have explored a variety of questions about the Reformation but one question that links together several others is how Luther’s ideas were spread. This question ties into several scholarly discussions: whether the Reformation can be considered a print event, who the Reformation was intended to reach, and what role Luther himself played in the propagation of his ideas. The idea of the Reformation as a print event centers around the role of the printing press and its use, particularly by the reformers, to spread the message. Those who advocate the “Reformation by print alone” position suggest that without print propaganda, the Reformation would not have grown as quickly as it did. Those who argue against this position claim that the literacy rate of the sixteenth century was still quite low and most people received their messages through art, woodprints, songs, sermons, and other forms of oral and visual transmission rather than printed text. They warn readers too that the message Luther intended in his printed text might not have been what readers received from it. Thus we cannot fully attribute the spread of his ideas to the spread of his texts. Closely connected to this conversation is the related debate over the nature, transmission, reception, and appeal of the Reformation among the common man. Many here say Reformation ideas only appealed to the small portion of society that was literate and that the masses were generally indifferent. But others point to Luther’s intentional use of German to widen the appeal and transmission of his work and to the use of other types of propaganda methods including popular songs and printed images that explained his ideas in visual form, many of them created by his friend and fellow reformer, artist Lucas Cranach. This question of how Luther’s ideas were spread also brings into the discussion a third historiographical debate over the role that Luther himself played in the propagation of his own ideas. While many have seen Luther as a master propagandist and a prolific publicist of reform ideas, others have attributed more influence to lesser-known reformers who carried his message and adapted it throughout Europe. The primary sources in this section will provide an introduction to the basic ideas of Lutheran doctrine and the remainder of the collection will consider how these ideas were spread by means of the printing press, vernacular, imagery, songs, and individual reformers.

Primary Sources

Martin Luther, Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517)

Albert of Brandenberg, born to a noble family, was given the position of Archbishop of Mainz at the age of 24 and became cardinal at age 28. The archbishop had borrowed a large sum of money to gain this position and to rebuild part of the cathedral in Mainz. He began selling indulgences in order to make this money back, with half of the proceeds going to the pope. Martin Luther protested against this sale in a letter in 1517.

May your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer. Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s are circulating under your most distinguished name, and as regards them, I do not bring accusation against the outcries of the preachers, which I have not heard, so much as I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived from them; to wit, the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory; furthermore, that these graces [i.e., the graces conferred in the indulgences] are so great that there is no sin too great to be absolved, even, as they say—though the thing is impossible—if one had violated the Mother of God; again, that a man is free, through these indulgences, from all penalty and guilt.
. . . For this reason I have no longer been able to keep quiet about this matter, for it is by no gift of a bishop that man becomes sure of salvation, since he gains this certainty not even by the “inpoured grace” of God, but the Apostle bids us always “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling,” and Peter says, “the righteous scarcely shall be saved.” Finally, so narrow is the way that leads to life, that the Lord, through the prophets Amos and Zechariah, calls those who shall be saved “brands plucked from the burning,” and everywhere declares the difficulty of salvation. Why, then, do the preachers of pardons, by these false fables and promises, make the people careless and fearless?

1. What does Luther write to the Archbishop to complain about?
a. The sale of Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s
b. How narrow the path to salvation and life is
c. The carelessness and fearlessness of the people

2. What does he say people believe about purchasing indulgences?
a. They believe that they have ensured their salvation and that of any souls in purgatory.
b. They believe it will provide them with the impoured grace of God
c. They believe they will be brands plucked from the burning

3. Why does he say purchasing indulgences is wrong?
a. Bishops cannot assure salvation to man, only God can determine this.
b. Amos and Zechariah have said salvation is so simple that they should not need to pay for it.
c. Because indulgences should be given away to those who have sinned for free.

Martin Luther, Open Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520)

By 1520 Luther’s position was more antagonistic toward the Catholic Church and he had developed his idea of the priesthood of all believers. He wrote this open letter in German, rather than Latin, and challenged the pope’s claim to be the only source for interpretation of scripture.

The Romanists, with great adroitness, have built three walls about them, behind which they have hitherto defended themselves in such wise that no one has been able to reform them; and this has been the cause of terrible corruption throughout all Christendom.
First, when pressed by the temporal power, they have made decrees and said that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them, but, on the other hand, that the spiritual is above the temporal power. Second, when the attempt is made to reprove them out of the Scriptures, they raise the objection that the interpretation of the Scriptures belongs to no one except the pope. Third, if threatened with a council, they answer with the fable that no one can call a council but the pope. . . .
Against the first wall we will direct our first attack.
It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason—viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.
But that a pope or a bishop anoints, confers tonsures, ordains, consecrates, or prescribes dress unlike that of the laity, this may make hypocrites and graven images, but it never makes a Christian or “spiritual” man. Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood,
To make it still clearer. If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness , and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. That is why in cases of necessity any one can baptize and give absolution, which would be impossible unless we were all priests.

1. What three walls does Luther say the Church has built to prevent critique?
a. They claim the spiritual power of the Church trumps earthly political (temporal) power, that only the Pope can interpret Scripture, and no one can call a council except the Pope therefore no one can critique it.
b. They claim the Pope does not become involved in politics, the Pope does not alter the scripture, and the Pope was chosen by God therefore no one can critique him.
c. They claim that baptism, Gospel , and faith make them a Christian people and therefore no one can critique them.

2. What are all baptized Christians part of?
a. All Christians are equally part of a spiritual estate (class) of the priesthood of all believers.
b. All Christians are part of the Catholic Church and subject to the Pope
c. All Christians are part of the laity and can be hypocrites until they have been baptized

3. What can all believers do in case of necessity and why?
a. They could baptize, give absolution, or preach because they all have the same spiritual authority priests do.
b. They can all challenge the Pope’s claim that spiritual power is above temporal power.
c. They can all call for a council of bishops to meet because they are all spiritual equals of the Pope.

Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty with Preface to Pope Leo X  (1520)

By 1520 Luther had clarified his doctrine of salvation by faith alone and explored its tenets in his work Concerning Christian Liberty which he sent to Pope Leo X with an open letter encouraging him to ignore Luther’s detractors and free himself from what Luther claimed was the corruption of Rome.


Is it not true that there is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful, than the Court of Rome? She incomparably surpasses the impiety of the Turks, so that in very truth she, who was formerly the gate of heaven, is now a sort of open mouth of hell, and such a mouth as, under the urgent wrath of God, cannot be blocked up; one course alone being left to us wretched men: to call back and save some few, if we can, from that Roman gulf. . . . Therefore, Leo, my Father, beware of listening to those sirens who make you out to be not simply a man, but partly a god, so that you can command and require whatever you will. It will not happen so, nor will you prevail. You are the servant of servants, and more than any other man, in a most pitiable and perilous position. Let not those men deceive you who pretend that you are lord of the world; who will not allow any one to be a Christian without your authority; who babble of your having power over heaven, hell, and purgatory. These men are your enemies and are seeking your soul to destroy it, as Isaiah says, “My people, they that call thee blessed are themselves deceiving thee.” They are in error who raise you above councils and the universal Church; they are in error who attribute to you alone the right of interpreting Scripture. All these men are seeking to set up their own impieties in the Church under your name, and alas! Satan has gained much through them in the time of your predecessors.

Concerning Christian Liberty:

… But you ask how it can be the fact that faith alone justifies, and affords without works so great a treasure of good things, when so many works, ceremonies, and laws are prescribed to us in the Scriptures? I answer, Before all things bear in mind what I have said: that faith alone without works justifies, sets free, and saves, as I shall show more clearly below. . . .
Now, since these promises of God are words of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace, and are full of universal goodness, the soul, which cleaves to them with a firm faith, is so united to them, nay, thoroughly absorbed by them, that it not only partakes in, but is penetrated and saturated by, all their virtues. For if the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul all that belongs to the word! In this way therefore the soul, through faith alone, without works, is from the word of God justified, sanctified, endued with truth, peace, and liberty, and filled full with every good thing, and is truly made the child of God, as it is said, “To them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name” (John i. 12). From all this it is easy to understand why faith has such great power, and why no good works, nor even all good works put together, can compare with it, since no work can cleave to the word of God or be in the soul. Faith alone and the word reign in it; and such as is the word, such is the soul made by it, just as iron exposed to fire glows like fire, on account of its union with the fire. It is clear then that to a Christian man his faith suffices for everything, and that he has no need of works for justification.

1. How does Luther describe the Church to the Pope?
a. It is corrupt, pestilential, hateful and more impious than the Muslim Turks.
b. It is lord of the world and no one can be Christian without its authority
c. It is the model of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace.

2. What does he say men around him will try to convince the Pope of?
a. That he is not just a man but partly a god, that he can control who is Christian, and that he has control over heaven, hell and purgatory.
b. That he is the model of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace.
c. That they should be allowed to take advantage of the poor believers in ways that are corrupt.
3. What does warning the Pope against his unscrupulous followers really let Luther do?
a. Make the claim that the Pope does not really have any of these authorities they claim.
b. Show everyone that he is trying to save the Papacy and protect the Catholic Church.
c. Become favored as the Pope’s most loyal follower and give himself more power.

4. What does Luther say is the source of man’s salvation?
a. Faith in God alone.
b. Catholic doctrine
c. Indulgences, confession, and penance

5. What cannot help man achieve his salvation?
a. Doing good works has no impact on salvation.
b. Faith in God has no impact on salvation.
c. God’s grace has no impact on salvation.

Martin Luther, Divine Discourses at His Table

Luther’s discourse and conversations at his home with students and fellow Protestant reformers including Philip Melancthon were collected into volumes and published for the reading public. The Catholic Church ordered the work banned and burned but a copy was found in early the 1600s and republished. In this selection Luther speaks of the Church, Henry VIII’s reformation, and tells a humorous story discrediting Catholic relics.

When our Lord God intends to plague and punish one, He leaves him in blindness, so that he regards not God’s Word, but condemns the same, as the papists now do. They know that our doctrine is God’s Word, but they will not allow of this syllogism and conclusion: When God speaks, we must hear him; now God speaks through the doctrine of the gospel; therefore we must hear Him. But the papists, against their own consciences, say, No; we must hear the church.

It is very strange: they admit both propositions, but will not allow of the consequences, or permit the conclusions to be right. They urge some decree or other of the Council of Constance, and say, though Christ speak, who is the truth itself, yet an ancient custom must be preferred, and observed for law. Thus do they answer, when they seek to wrest and pervert the truth.

If this sin of antichrist be not a sin against the Holy Ghost, then I do not know how to define and distinguish sins. They sin herein willfully against the revealed truth of God’s Word, in a most stubborn and stiff-necked manner. I pray, who would not, in this case, resist these devilish and shameless lying lips? . . . Henry VIII of England, is now also an enemy to the pope’s person, but not to his essence and substance; he would only kill the body of the pope, but suffer his soul, that is, his false doctrine, to live; the pope can well endure such an enemy; he hopes within the space of twenty years to recover his rule and government again. But I fall upon the pope’s soul, his doctrine, with God’s word, not regarding his body, that is, his wicked person and life. I not only pluck out his feathers, as the king of England and Prince George of Saxony do, but I set the knife to his throat, and cut his windpipe asunder. We put the goose on the spit; did we but pluck her, the feathers would soon grow again. . . .
A German, making his confession to a priest at Rome, promised, on oath, to keep secret whatsoever the priest should impart unto him, until he reached home; whereupon the priest gave him a leg of the ass on which Christ rode into Jerusalem, very neatly bound up in silk, and said: This is the holy relic on which the Lord Christ corporally did sit, with his sacred legs touching this ass’s leg. Then was the German wondrous glad, and carried the said holy relic with him into Germany. When he got to the borders, he bragged of his holy relic in the presence of four others, his comrades, when, lo! it turned out that each of them had likewise received from the same priest a leg, after promising the same secrecy. Thereupon, all exclaimed, with great wonder: Lord! had that ass five legs?

1. What does Luther say reformers hear?
a. God’s word through the gospels
b. Complaints from Christians about the abuses of the Catholic Church
c. Whispers from devilish and shameful lying lips

2. What does he say Catholic listen to?
a. They listen to the Church, the Pope, and old church customs.
b. They listen to God’s word
c. They listen to Henry VIII who is not an enemy to the Pope’s essence

3. How does Luther say he and Henry VIII are different?
a. Henry VIII would get rid of the body of the Pope but not his essence because he will not change doctrine. Luther wants to destroy the Papacy entirely.
b. Henry VIII is opposed to the essence of the Pope and Luther feels that the Church does not need to be replaced, just reformed.
c. Henry VIII plans to kill the Pope and Luther wants to keep him alive but humiliate him a little like a goose with its feathers plucked.

4. What had all five men received as a relic from the priest and what do they decide about it?
a. The legbone of the donkey that carried Jesus in Jerusalem therefore the donkey had five legs.
b. Silk on which Jesus had sat as he entered Jerusalem therefore it was a most precious relic.
c. The legbone of a donkey that carried Jesus in Jerusalem and therefore they know that relics are fraudulent.

5. What is Luther’s point in telling the story of the relics?
a. Relics sold by the Catholic Church were fraudulent and people often accepted the claims of the church rather than their own reason.
b. That Christians at the time valued relics, particularly those associated with Jesus.
c. Relics were valuable and important tools of religious life but only if they could be verified as real.

Scholarly Sources

Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Printing, Propaganda, and Luther (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Mark U. Edwards is Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for Harvard Divinity School. His work on the Reformation casts Luther’s protest as a print event notable for its masterful use of this medium.

The Reformation saw the first major, self-conscious attempt to use the recently invented printing press to shape and channel a mass movement. The printing press allowed evangelical publicists to do what had previously been impossible, quickly and effectively reach a large audience with a message intended to change Christianity. For several crucial years, these evangelical publicists issued thousands of pamphlets discrediting the old faith and advocating the new. And they managed to accomplish this with little serious opposition from publicists of a Catholic persuasion. . . .
Not only did the Reformation see the first large-scale “media campaign,” it also saw a campaign that was overwhelmingly dominated by one person, Martin Luther. More works by Luther were printed and reprinted than by any other publicist. In fact, the presses of the German-speaking lands produced substantially more vernacular works by Luther in the crucial early years (1518–1525) than the seventeen other major Evangelical publicists combined. During Luther’s lifetime, these presses produced nearly five times as many German works by Luther as by all the Catholic controversialists put together. Even if consideration is restricted to polemical works, Luther still outpublished all his Catholic opponents five to three. By Hans Joachim Köhler’s calculation, Luther’s works made up twenty percent of all the pamphlets published during the period 1500 to 1530. . . Within the larger topic of printing and propaganda in the Reformation and the narrower focus of Martin Luther’s dominance of the press, this book develops three interrelated arguments on how the history of the early Reformation should be written in light of this Evangelical propaganda campaign. First any future history needs to bear in mind what most people likely knew of Luther and his message and when they likely knew it. Such an approach yields a narrative that differs in significant ways from the conventional account. Second, the message Luther intended in his writings was not always the message that his various reading publics received, and the discrepancy between the two—message sent and message received—has profound implications for the story of the early Reformation. Third, the medium of printing not only conveyed challenges to traditional authority with particular force but raised in its own right new issues of authority concerning the propriety of public debate on matters of faith . . . the medium itself became entangled with its message.

1. What contributed to the success of the Protestant movement according to Edwards?
a. The use of the printing press to distribute information to the people.
b. The ability of Protestant propagandists to speak Latin better than the Catholics
c. The Protestant use of pictures rather than words to get the message across

2. How does he describe the role of Luther in this phenomenon?
a. Luther overwhelmingly dominated this mass media movement by writing and publishing his work at an incredible rate.
b. Luther was the theologian but he did not really get involved in the propaganda for the movement.
c. Luther was able to publish a few items but the Catholics had more wealth and power and therefore dominated the mass media movement.

3. What does he remind readers about Luther’s intended message?
a. The message Luther intended with his published material is not necessarily the message his public received from it.
b. Luther’s message was so simple that even the illiterate could easily understand exactly what he intended.
c. Luther’s intended message would not have appealed to the average German so they needed intense propaganda campaigns

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 (Penguin Books: New York, 2016).

Andrew Pettegree is Professor of History at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and founding director of the St Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. He has written thirteen books and countless articles on Reformation in Europe several of which have won major history prizes around the world.

Wittenberg, Luther’s base in Saxony, had no printing press at all until 1502; the whole of the half century of experimentation and growth since Guttenberg had passed it by. Luther himself had reached his maturity…without publishing a book. Yet within five years of penning the ninety-five theses, he was Europe’s most published author—ever….Luther blossomed almost overnight as a writer of extraordinary power and fluency, a natural stylist in a genre that had not to that point particularly valued these skills. In the process, Luther created what was essentially a new form of theological writing: lucid, accessible, and above all short. Crucially at an early stage of the furor caused by the criticisms of indulgences, Luther made the bold and radical decision to speak beyond an informed audience of trained theologians and address the wider German public in their own language, German. This decision to move beyond the language of scholarship, Latin, was deeply controversial, but it allowed complex theological ideas to be presented to a non-specialist audience. It also put his opponents at a disadvantage from which they never fully recovered. Certainly it vastly increased the potential market for Luther’s books; Germany’s printers responded with a hungry enthusiasm.

1. How does Pettegree describe Luther’s new theological writing style?
a. Luther created what was essentially a new form of theological writing: lucid, accessible, and above all short.
b. Luther spoke above the heads of even the most informed audience of trained theologians
c. Luther’s style was appealing but because he still wrote in Latin few found it accessible.
2. Who is his audience and why is this different?
a. His audience was the wider German public rather than trained theologians.
b. His audience as limited to trained theologians
c. His audience was only able to read German, none of them could read Latin

3. Why is the choice of language important?
a. It let him reach his mass audience of non-specialists in theology in a way Catholics writing in Latin couldn’t compete with.
b. It indicated that Luther was not a serious scholar and that his ideas were not backed by scholarship or study.
c. It was important because it indicated that the movement was only intended for Germans, not other Europeans.

Steven Ozment, The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011)

Steven Ozment was Professor of History at Yale University and then Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of eleven books on Reformation and early modern European history and the author of both Western Civilizations and World History textbooks.

During the early 1520s and still two decades later, Luther’s books made up one-third of all German publications. . . . In 1520 [Lucas] Cranach was …

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