A Theological and Journalistic Reformation

HISTORY | Martin Luther’s bold theological stand on Oct. 31, 1517, made independent journalism possible


Today is Reformation Day, marking the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, igniting the Protestant Reformation. But that wasn’t the only result. Luther’s bold theological stand against the Roman Catholic Church also ushered in the era of modern journalism. “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,” writes WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olaksy, “but it was his stress on literacy that made independent journalism possible at all.”

The following essay is adapted from Marvin’s Central Ideas in the Development in American Journalism: A Narrative History, originally published in 1991. —Mickey McLean

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 came 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:

“Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’ Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, ‘We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?’ Remember that you are able to release them, for ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, / The soul from purgatory springs.’”[1]

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 on Oct. 31, 1517, were not academic sentences but clear, vivid statements. For example, concerning the plan to obtain money to build St. Peter’s, Luther wrote:

“The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. … The pope would do better to appoint one good pastor to a church than to confer indulgences upon them all. Why doesn’t the pope build the basilica of St. Peter out of his own money? He is richer than Croesus. He would do better to sell St. Peter’s and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences.”[2]

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.[3] Because Luther had such influence through his writing, the pressure on him to mute the truth became enormous, but he said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. … Here I stand, I can do no other.”[4]

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 one 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.[5] As one historian has noted, authorities “held it was safer to have less Scripture reading than more heresy.”[6]

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.

Furthermore, he was a reporter who desired to print not just good news, but bad news also. Luther’s Reformed theological understanding led him to write:

“God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. … In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith.”[7]

Reformation leaders believed that people would seek the good news of mercy only after they became fully aware of the bad news of sin. This was the basis of the corruption story: Man needs to be become aware of his own corruption in order to change through God’s grace, and writers who help make readers aware of sin are doing them a service.

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.[8] 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.”[9] 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.”[10]

When Luther penned his 95 Theses, the man who would pioneer English-language journalism was only 1 year old. John Foxe became an excellent student and a fellow at Oxford, but God converted him to the Reformed faith and Foxe had to give up his stipend. In 1548 he began writing a scholarly history of Christian martyrdom, but it turned journalistic in 1553 when “Bloody” Mary became queen of England and tried to reinstitute Roman Catholicism there by burning Protestants at the stake. Reports of those killings spread illegally throughout England: Ballads and other publications—one was called Sacke full of Newes—attacked the queen and praised the heroism of the martyrs. …

Facing death in 1554, Foxe had left England and began earning a poor living as a proofreader with a Swiss printer, but he was able to return to England with the ascension of Elizabeth in 1558. He then spent five more years interviewing, collecting materials, and writing, before publishing the sensational account that became known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. To make sure everything was right, he worked seven years more before putting out in 1570 an expanded, second edition that contained woodcuts portraying burnings and whippings; later, large-scale editions increased the number of illustrations.[11]

Foxe’s writing was vivid. For example, he wrote of how John Hooper, tied to a stake, prayed for a short time. Then the fire was lit, but the green wood was slow to burn. Hooper was shown a box and told it contained his pardon if he would give in: “Away with it!” he cried. As the fire reached Hooper’s legs a gust of wind blew it out. A second fire then slowly burned up Hooper’s legs, but went out with Hooper’s upper body still intact. The fire was rekindled, and soon Hooper was heard to say repeatedly, “Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me; Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me; Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”[12] Hooper’s lips continued to move even when his throat was so scorched that no sound could come from it: Even “when he was black in the mouth, and his tongue swollen, that he could not speak, yet his lips went till they were shrunk to the gums.” Finally, one of Hooper’s arms fell off, and the other, with “fat, water, and blood” dripping out at the ends of the fingers, stuck to what remained of his chest. At that point Hooper bowed his head forward and died.[13]

Foxe also described the deaths of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Ridley, chained over another of those slow-burning fires, was in agony, but Latimer seemed to be dying with amazing ease—Foxe wrote that he appeared to be bathing his hands and face in the fire. Latimer’s last words to his suffering friend were, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, [so that] we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”[14]

Foxe’s third famous report concerned the death of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the English Protestants. Imprisoned for months without support of friends, Cranmer received daily ideological hammering from theological adversaries; after watching Ridley die, he wrote out a recantation and apology, in return for pardon. When Cranmer was told later that he allegedly had led so many astray that he would have to burn anyway, his courage returned and he resolved to go out boldly. He wrote in one final statement—a press release of a sort—that his recantation was “written with my hand contrary to the truth which is in my heart, and written for fear of death.”[15] He offered a pledge: “As my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.” Foxe wrote of how Cranmer made good on that promise; sent to the stake, he placed his right hand firmly in the fire and held it steadily there until it appeared like a coal to observers. Soon, Cranmer’s entire body was burned.[16]

Foxe’s book became very popular not only because of its combination of theological fervor and grisly detail, but through its use of colorful Bible-based imagery. For example, Foxe’s report on the impending death of John Hooper described how light overcame darkness as Hooper was led through London to Newgate prison. Officers had ordered all candles along the way be put out; perhaps,

“… being burdened with an evil conscience, they thought darkness to be a most fit season for such a business. But notwithstanding this device, the people having some foreknowledge of his coming, many of them came forth of their doors with lights, and saluted him; praising God for his constancy in the true doctrine which he had taught them. …[17]

Significantly, although Foxe was clearly on the side of the martyrs, he was not just a Protestant propagandist, overlooking the sins of his own side. He openly criticized greed shown by Protestants and, having written about executions by Catholics, did not favor executions by Protestants. In a long sermon Foxe delivered on Good Friday, 1570, he asked for mercy on many because Christ Himself had been crucified by the church-state authorities of his time.



[1] Quoted often; the best brief, readily available summary of the conditions of Luther’s time and his battle against indulgences is found in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York, 1956).

[2] Ibid, p. 61.

[3] Margaret Aston, The Fifteenth Century: The Prospect for Europe (London, 1968), p. 76: “Printing was recognized as a new power and publicity came into its own.”

[4] This response came at the Diet of Worms when Archbishop of Trier Eck asked how opponents of Christianity would “exult to hear Christians discussing whether they have been wrong all these years. Martin … would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men … ? For a time the protection offered by Frederick was the only material force preserving Luther from many enemies who wished to kill him-yet Luther continued to criticize Frederick’s prized relics collection. (Frederick, nevertheless, protected him, and in 1523 finally agreed not to exhibit his relic collection, but to place most of it in storage.)

[5] Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, England, 1980), vol. I, p. 426.

[6] Ibid., p. 330.

[7] Bainton, p. 63.

[8] Luther advocated civil disobedience in some instances but was opposed to anarchistic revolution. If each person were to take justice into his own hands, he wrote, there would be “neither authority, nor government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed.”

[9] Bainton, p. 120.

[10] Eisenstein, p. 304.

[11] John Foxe, Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable, happenying in the church, with an universall history of the same, 6th edition (London, 1610), pp. 586, 606, 609, 612, 946, 1033, 1423, 1527, 1547, 1738, etc. A much more readily accessible paperback edition, but without the woodcuts, is published as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Springdale, PA, 1981).

[12] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, op. cit., pp. 212-213.

[13] Ibid, p. 213.

[14] Ibid., pp. 309.

[15] Ibid., pp. 351-387.

[16] Ibid., loc. cit.

[17] Ibid., pp. 201-202.


Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion.