Yesterday before worship services I read some more articles in the October issue of Tabletalk. One of the featured ones on the 16th century age of the church is Dr. Nick Needham’s “A Century of Change” (author of 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power), a profitable survey of the entire period of Renaissance and Reformation.
While I appreciated many things about this article, his section on the timeliness and influence of Gutenberg’s printing press I found especially satisfying. I give you a portion of that section, encouraging you to read the rest at the Ligonier link below.
And while you are there, read Dr. Jon D. Payne’s article “Why Study Church History?” Well worth your time too, just in case you wondered whether you should bother with the first article. 🙂
The Printing Press Just as important as the Renaissance for the Reformation was the revolutionary new way of disseminating information—printing by movable type. Perhaps one of the basic reasons why previous movements of evangelical reform did not capture the public mind (one thinks of the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Hussites) was that they came on the scene before the printing press had been invented.
In a Europe dominated by the Roman Catholic establishment, the intellectual spread of new “unofficial” ideas was far more difficult before the introduction of movable type.
The invention of printing by movable type was the information revolution of the late Middle Ages. Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, was the great pioneer in the 1450s. By 1500, more than two hundred printing presses were churning out books throughout Europe. Gone were the days when scribes (usually monks) had to copy literary works by hand. For the first time, a publisher could make thousands of copies of a book easily and quickly and put them into mass circulation. This meant that ideas could spread much more rapidly than they could before. It also meant that the ability to read became more highly valued.
As a result, the reforming ideas of the Renaissance were able to flow across Europe relatively easily, and in their wake, the even more radically reforming ideas of Luther, Zwingli, and others. We might say that printing enabled the Reformation to “go viral” in a way that simply would not have been possible in a previous age. The new information technology turned out to be God’s gift to His people.
We can discern the alignment between the printing revolution and the spread of the Reformation in a single fact: it was cities and universities that first embraced the Reformation. In England, for example, London fast became the nation’s hotbed of Protestantism. Here were the great printing presses. Here, too, was a thriving port where merchant ships could bring in Protestant literature from Continental Europe.