The Human Side Of Martin Luther’s Reformation


… an incredible read for history buffs, especially those who want to wander off the popular narrative path to know what went on behind the scenes.”

Author: Andrew Pettegree

Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Penguin Press

Publishing Date: 29 Oct. 2015

Genre: Christianity/Church History


Reviewer: ‘Yomi ‘Segun Stephen

Review Rating: 4 (Good)


When an obscure monk named Martin Luther tacked his “theses” on the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, protesting corrupt practices, he was virtually unknown. Within months, his ideas spread across Germany, then all of Europe; within years, their author was not just famous, but infamous, responsible for catalyzing the violent wave of religious reform that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation and engulfing Europe in decades of bloody war.

Luther came of age with the printing press, and the path to glory of neither one was obvious to the casual observer of the time. Andrew Pettegree is perhaps our most distinguished living historian of the print revolution, but he launched his career as a historian of the Reformation. That double vision positions him to comprehend this epic event, not simply as a religious story but also as a story about how ideas were carried and spread in new ways, by new things—things called mass-produced books. Printing was, and is, a risky business—the questions were how to know how much to print and how to get there before the competition. Pettegree illustrates Luther's great gift not simply as a theologian, but as a communicator, indeed, as the world's first mass-media figure, its first brand. He recognized in printing the power of pamphlets, written in the colloquial German of everyday people, to win the battle of ideas.

But that wasn't enough—not just words, but the medium itself was the message. Fatefully, Luther had a partner in Wittenberg in the form of artist and businessman Lucas Cranach, who together with Wittenberg’s printers created the look of Luther's pamphlets, which included the distinct highlighting of the words "Martin Luther of Wittenberg" on the title page. Cranach also created the iconic portraits of Luther that made the reformer such a familiar figure to his fellow Germans. Together, Luther and Cranach created a product that spread like wildfire—it was both incredibly successful and widely imitated. Soon Germany was overwhelmed by a blizzard of pamphlets, with Wittenberg at its heart; the Reformation itself would blaze on for more than a hundred years.


Many have written about the spiritual aspects of Martin Luther’s rise. Much more have debated his 95 theses against the indulgences and its staggering influence on modern world. Some of these perspectives often make simplistic assertions about the Reformation. Most of the time, they portray it like an overnight, not-a-lot-of-work-involved, Holy Spirit-inspired phenomenon.

Brand Luther, however, takes a different view of the happenings surrounding the Reformation of 1517. This book looks at the Reformation mostly through mundane eyes. It looks through capitalist and economic lenses to decode the hidden fires that kindled the Reformation to an unstoppable inferno that spread throughout the world. It examines the effect of Gutenberg's creation (the printing press) on the propagation of Luther’s beliefs.  Also, it reveals how Luther's unremarkable background contributed to the rise of his ideas.

First of the ironies surrounding of Luther's rise is that he lived in Wittenberg, a town with no significant allure to draw large commerce or fame to it. Wittenberg, is said to be a "… a poor, unattractive town, with old, small, ugly wooden houses, more like a village than a town." Even the age of printing almost passed Wittenberg by. Though the printing press had been in existence since the 1440s, the first printing press in Wittenberg was not established until 1502.  Yet "… within the next fifty years Wittenberg would defy all the rules of the new printing economics and become a center of the book world. This was almost entirely due to Martin Luther: his notoriety, his passionate following, and his uncommon talent as a writer."

Secondly, Martin Luther understood the power of uniqueness. The he branded his books was different from other books. It is said that Lucas Cranach, a court painter in Wittenberg "... clothed Luther's works in a new and distinctive livery, immediately recognizable on a crowded bookstall. The result was the development of a form of book that was itself a powerful representative of the movement - bold, clear, and recognisably distinct from what has gone before." Also, Martin Luther's family background as a mining household and his parents’ influence, instilled in him a sense of shrewdness in financial and business matters. With this mind-set, it is said that "… when Luther walked into a printing shop, he did not do so as the naive academic who imagined that the creative process ended with the completion of his manuscript, but as a practical man, well-grounded in the harsh economics of profit and loss, and the disciplines and dangers of a business run on credit. This would be, from the standpoint of the reformation, a lesson well learned." This perspective also helped Luther in putting his books in the hands of powerful people as well as in public spaces, where they can have loads of impact.

It is important to note that the famous 95 theses against indulgences is not Luther's first attack against the Catholic Church’s excesses. He had published a thesis against Scholasticism (an idea based on promoting the works of people like St Augustine over Aristotle’s in the universities) years before. But Luther’s scholasticism publication failed to effect any significant change. It is hard to say whether anyone even took notice.

Interestingly, "… when Luther penned the theses on Scholastic theology, he probably regarded them as far more daring and potentially controversial statement than the later theses on indulgences." However, his failed attempt was a useful lesson for him in later days to come.  


Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree has more examples of the little catalysts that helped Luther and the Reformation movement. The book reveals a human (or flawed) side of the Reformation movement. Though it is clear that God's hands were instrumental in directing Luther's life, the way it panned-out was almost mundane, which reflects the way God sometimes works.

Brand Luther is an incredible read for history buffs, especially those who want to wander off the popular narrative path to know what went on behind the scenes.

Many thanks to Penguin Press for review copy.


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