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Impact of the Printing Press on the Popularity of Lutheranism in Germany

To what extent was the printing press responsible for the popularity of Lutheranism in Germany in the period up to 1534?

The printing press had a significant impact on the spread of ideas in Europe;[1], the creation of this media phenomenon significantly impacted Martin Luther’s ability to teach and spread his doctrine and religious beliefs. Martin Luther could only preach to a tiny portion of the population, but the printed word could spread his message to thousands more[2]. This medium led to a variety of groups being exposed to Martin Luther’s works which had begun circulating throughout Germany and the demand for the works Luther produced was immense. The thirty tracts produced by Luther between 1517 and 1520 amounted to 300,000 copies[3]. The printing press was not limited to producing texts; its adaptability enabled it to reproduce images, through the use of woodcuts. The interpretation of Luther’s works differed from person to person, which is why Luther’s popularity depended heavily on the audience receiving his work. Due to his doctrine being left to individual interpretation, a German citizen could relate to the doctrine and Luther himself, regardless of their wealth or social status. This common characteristic of his doctrine was a key factor regarding Luther’s popularity. The popularity of Lutheranism clearly relied on the people who he had influenced. The specific groups within the German kingdoms had different opinions and priorities. This makes Luther’s ability to entertain the range of beliefs held by the different groups an impressive feat which may have contributed to his popularity. Although the printing press allowed for the widespread availability of his works, in order to achieve the national presence the doctrine must have played a role. His opinions contained persuasive and provocative traits; these traits are seen within the majority of Luther’s published works. His works were the initial form of attraction, they gained the interest of the academic and began the spread of his works. However to what extent those who bought his work could fully understand his doctrine must be considered when discussing what was responsible for Luther’s popularity within Germany and to what extent the popularity stemmed from the use of the printing press.

The content of Luther’s doctrines cannot be overlooked when considering the cause of his popularity however the extent to which the average Christian could understand the large volume of highly intellectual and complex doctrines is relatively limited. The inaccessibility of Luther’s work made a large proportion of his doctrine incomprehensible to the laity. However, the reproduction of his works was only made possible by their demand. The 95 theses swiftly grasped the attention of academics across German lands. This academic attention led to Humanists analysing his works. Martin Luther’s emphasis on sola scripture and the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church were the key motifs for the production of pamphlets. The work published by Luther in 1520, On the Liberty of a Christian contained doctrine which started the works on sola scripture. This work emphasised the importance of Justification by Faith. Luther reinterpreted a text from Romans 1:17, which stated that ‘the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, “he who through faith is righteous shall live.”[4] Luther interpreted this to mean that God only justified, or made righteous, those who had faith, ‘Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works’[5].  Luther’s doctrine of justification removed the need for the late medieval system of sacraments – there was no place in the reformed teaching for the cycle of sin, sacramental confession, priestly absolutism and ritual penance which had defined the lives of the people since the thirteenth century.[6] The doctrine was a powerful threat to the Church as it allowed the people to rid themselves of anxiety over sin and provided the assurance of salvation despite sin. Previously the Church had a monopoly over salvation but now, through faith and scripture, people could achieve salvation outside of the Church, or at least not have to resort to indulgences (which would require a large chunk of a laymen’s annual income), pilgrimages or acts of piety. This radical split from Catholic doctrine provided the laity with a solid reason to separate themselves from Catholicism and become a follower of Lutheranism. To convert to a different religion was a huge decision, which required a person to be certain of their choice and to believe that the conversion would improve their current circumstances. Luther explains why his doctrine on Justification is important, in a source from the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms:

‘It would be false to try to rule Christians by the Law, persuading them that through their own deeds and the workings of the Law they could win justification before God. For that end God has ordained the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins. And it would be equally false to try to rule the world with the Gospel, for to do that God has ordained law, rulers, power and the sword’[7]


The extract taken from Luther’s doctrine provides further evidence of opposition to Rome. In the specific extract Luther is attacking the Church’s hierarchy. The clear disapproval of the law, is an obvious example of Luther undermining the church’s authority. Despite Luther’s doctrine attracting the initial attention, evidence suggests that the doctrine was spread via sermons rather than printed works.  This factor makes it difficult to know to what extent the average farmer could fully understand the doctrine and begs the question as to what extent Luther’s doctrine led to his popularity in Germany. The evidence of low literacy and very basic theological knowledge suggests that it is unlikely that the theological doctrine produced was responsible for Luther’s widespread popularity.

His ideas gained a wide audience through the printing press – there were 390 editions of his writings published in Germany in 1523 alone whilst by 1525, three million copies of pamphlets in German surrounding the ‘Luther Affair’ had been printed.[8] Although the German kingdoms had a high literacy rate for the period[9], much of the population were illiterate. The urban literacy rate was only 20%.[10] This meant that his doctrine was rarely thought about when purchasing a reproduction of his works. This is where the belief that Luther’s popularity was a by-product of the national interest of printed documents assumes some significance. The initial appeal of Luther’s message was found primarily in the urban communities of Germany. The urban setting provided a concentrated audience, quickly accessible to preaching and pamphlets, as well as a communal structure in which civic reformers could immediately confront the political authorities as fellow citizens rather than distant lords[11]. The ‘Urban Reformation’, however, could only effect a small proportion of the people as only 10% of Germans lived in towns[12]. Many laymen still bought the works without any theological understanding. The printing press itself was an unforeseen phenomenon which transformed the way data and ideas were exchanged and shared. Luther’s ability to take advantage of the invention undoubtedly widened his audience significantly. Luther’s works such as the 95 Theses began to circulate across Germany leading to much of the population gaining access to his works. The works of Luther could be purchased in many different forms, from books to more accessible small, eighteen page pamphlets. As mentioned previously, the ability to mass produce the written word was a new phenomenon. This fact may imply that many of the people who were influenced by Luther’s works never bought his works out of academic interest but rather because of the new market for printed works that was sweeping across Europe. Andrew Pettegree believes that the popularity of Luther’s works was due to the new medium of purchasing pamphlets rather than his theological reforms. His argument provides convincing information regarding the behaviour of those who were intrigued by Martin Luther’s work. Pettegree believes the trend of purchasing pamphlets, coinciding with the circulation of Luther’s works, allowed for the creation of its own momentum. This momentum led to a surge in the purchase of Luther’s works and this surge is what made Martin Luther a household name. Luther’s doctrine provided the laymen of Germany with a fascinating and alluring new world. ‘In the case of Zomere that he was clearly an avid purchaser of pamphlets even though he did not read’.[13]Pettegree’s explanation of the popularity of Luther presents an argument that the printing press as an entity inspired interest in the source, directly referring to a well-documented baker, Zomere, who provides evidence for Pettegrees argument, making the source far more convincing. Pettegree evidently believes that the works of Luther were unavoidable which inspires the argument that the printing press is the most significant factor for the popularity of Lutheranism. Although the source is convincing it only refers to one specific example so it is impossible for Pettegree to provide an accurate argument of the behaviour of the people across the German territories.

The source strongly goes against an argument that Luther’s doctrine was influencing the population in favour of Lutheranism. Pettegree explains how many regular buyers of Luther’s works could not even read which was the case for Zomere. German literacy rates during this period were very low. This implies that many buyers of Luther’s works would not have understood the pamphlets and books.  It is made clear in the source that much of the population were buying Luther’s works due to the novelty of the medium rather than out of intellectual interest. Pettegree argues that the printing press itself created Luther’s popularity by the mass production of his works – not his new doctrinal reforms.  This view of the printed word being a medium is further pushed by the historian C. Scott Dixon. Dixon believes that the printing press allowed Luther’s work to spread across Germany due to the craze of buying pamphlets at the time. Dixon emphasises that due to widespread illiteracy, alternatives to the spoken word were only offered by visual forms of communication, such as the printed image, the pamphlet illustration or the woodcut, which the early reformers harnessed very effectively.[14]  Dixon provides a credible insight into the time of Luther. The direct reference of the term ‘medium’ clearly implies that Luther exploited the new technology to reach more people across Germany and returns to the fact that the population was uneducated and had little or no theological understanding of religion. Dixon and Pettegree’s beliefs are similar to an extent; they both arrive at the same conclusion, that the popularity of Luther’s works was most likely a medium, instead of the population being influenced by Luthers doctrinal reforms.

The new medium excited the entire population.  For the first time laymen were given a window into the educated and religious world. Woodcuts provided this bridge between the academics and the peasants. In Protestant propaganda, woodcuts were what attracted people the most.[15] Only 40 per cent of townsmen, 5 per cent of rural men and virtually no women were literate[16]. So, the pictures were much more easily accepted.  R. W. Scribner stated, “printed propaganda was addressed to the entire German people, but few of them were able to read it, for the Reformation emerged in a society with limited literacy. . . listening or looking would have been the major means of acquiring their knowledge of the Reformation”[17]. The view proposed by Scribner is like that of S.T. Chow, both historians agree on the importance of woodcuts when explaining what attracted people to Luther’s works. The creativity of woodcuts allowed for simple messages and ideologies to be portrayed using a well-produced image.


The woodcut above was created by Lucas Cranach and commissioned by Martin Luther in 1523. The woodcut was used as the cover for many pamphlets.   Cranach was a well-regarded craftsman of the time and he created many other woodcut images for Luther throughout the 1520s. The fact that he used Cranach to create these woodcuts, implies Luther was very focused on improving the accessibility of his works. Although some woodcuts were designed by leading artists such Cranach, Scribner believes that Luther valued woodcuts as homemade gin: cheap, crude and effective.[18] This argument shows that although the cost of Luther’s woodcuts varied, he understood the effectiveness of the printed image in attracting popularity for his works. The image above is portraying the Pope as a monstrous devil shown as a mutilated animal figure; the Pope’s face is represented as the bottom of the creature. The imagery used in the woodcut is intended to influence the viewer.  Due to the clear message, even those who had no theological education could understand the basic meaning. The use of woodcuts was extremely effective.  This belief is supported by S. T. Chow and R.W. Scribner and was evidently an effective method of conveying Luther’s message across the German kingdoms.

The medium provided by the printing press was extremely beneficial for the spread of Luther’s works. Furthermore the medium enabled his works and ideologies to become far more accessible through the use of woodcuts and pamphlets. By looking at the arguments from Pettegree and Chow, the printing press and the medium that was created had a significant role in the popularity of Lutheranism within Germany.  Evidently the printing press was far more responsible for Luther’s popularity than the theological doctrine.

A consensus of negativity towards the papacy had emerged before Luther began publishing his works.  These feelings were fuelled by a growing sense of German identity. The emotions of a population are powerful; Luther’s awareness of circumstances at the time allowed him to take advantage of these feelings, for his personal gain. Luther’s attempt to agree with the opinions of the German population allowed for an emotional connection to grow between his audience rather than only an intellectual agreement. An extract from the Invocavit sermons, March 1522, shows Luthers aims ‘We must first win over the hearts of the people.’[19] This quotation reveals Luthers intent to gain support from the laity via the use of persuasion and the production of works containing political beliefs rather than his doctrine. This source is very important as it came from Luther himself in a sermon. However to what extent this was his true belief or rather a phrase to attract further attention is difficult to know. Luther is now exploiting the medium provided by the printing press to build support and popularity through the communal nationalistic feelings which had been brewing in Germany in recent years. This feature of his later works adds another face to his personality, which appeals to the audiences’ emotions.

During the early 16th century, the population was influenced by young Humanists, like Erasmus, who criticised the forms and doctrine of medieval Christianity. They questioned the way in which the Roman Catholic Church controlled what people could study and followed the principle that learning should be made available to everyone, not just the elite who could use their influence and power to repress and limit the learning of others. E. Cameron argues that a generation of religious teachers refused to tolerate the Roman court’s negative response to Luther’s critique of current practice,[20] and sided with Luther as a result. This argument is supported by H. Schöffler who has a similar argument suggesting that younger Humanists followed Luther however this was due to that group having little too lose.[21] The two arguments provided disagree on why Humanists of the time took Luther’s side. Although this factor is important, both arguments agree that Humanists supported Luther as his popularity grew. With early Humanist support, his works gained academic credibility and this academic credibility gave those receiving his works confidence in the doctrine being produced. The new techniques of textual analysis provided by the Humanist movement encouraged greater uptake in religious interest amongst the common people. This was further encouraged by the emphasis put on the use of the vernacular. Frustrated by the corruption of the Church, the Humanists’ views became increasingly pro-nationalist and their works had started to circulate throughout Germany before Luther began to publish is own works. The influence of the Humanists on the population meant that there were pre-existing nationalist, anti-Papal, feelings. Luther attempted to exploit these feelings with his own works.  In some cases, his works directly preyed on these nationalistic feelings: “We must not, like these asses, ask the Latin letters, how we are to speak German, but we must ask the mother in the house, the children in the street, the common man in the market place about this, and look them in the mouth to see how they speak, and afterwards do our translating”[22] Luther’s words evidently project nationalistic feelings, the sentence is implying that Germany should not be controlled by an external force such as The Holy Roman Empire, but should lead itself. The quotation very clearly shows Luther’s disapproval of foreign influence directly referencing the German language as opposed to the ‘Latin speakers’, and how Germans should not be taught how to speak German by Rome. By proclaiming his loyalty to Germany and disapproval of foreign interference, he is appealing to those who may initially not agree with his religious doctrine. He becomes increasingly provocative and nationalistic in his writings.

The anti-papal message is constantly mention within Luther’s works. This further highlights Luther’s intent to grasp the attention of his audience. By repeatedly feeding this opinion to an audience eager for his work, it is not surprising that the pre-existing feelings of hatred towards the Pope were strengthened during a period of Luther’s works being mass produced.  In a letter to the Christian nobility, Luther openly states that the Pope is the devil and ‘anti-Christ’.

‘It must therefore have been the very prince of devils who said what is written in the canon law: If the Pope were so scandalously bad as to lead souls in crowds to the devil, yet he could not be deposed. On this accursed and devilish foundation they build at Rome, and think that we should let all the world go to the devil, rather than resist their knavery.’[23]

This source was taken from an open letter to the nobility of the German kingdoms. This method of communication suggests that Luther was trying to gain the attention of the nobility, which may have led to his beliefs being exaggerated. The style of writing is different as this is a persuasive text, an attempt at gaining support.  This letter was not for public viewing which reveals that Luther had different personas depending on who he was dealing with. This shows further evidence that Luther would manipulate different audiences to improve popularity. His portrayal of the papacy as evil was an effective way of capitalising on the anti-clergy and anti-papal feelings of the people and therefore encouraged the spread of his message at the expense of the papacy.

The printing press not only helped Luther spread his thoughts and doctrine but also allowed him to receive new information. This would include other academics publishing their thoughts and ideologies. The new medium of printed works meant that Luther was able to understand what the German population was thinking. Cameron believes that Lutheran popularity was built by Luther’s ability to ‘persuade by harnessing peoples ego’[24] through his works.  The medium allowed Luther to adapt his works in order to attract as many people as possible. Cameron argues that Luther appealed to people’s ego by judging them worthy to read and discuss the Bible for themselves. This was a huge change for the German people due to Roman Catholic doctrine only allowing the priest to read the bible. These feelings are seen in Luther’s early works. Luther’s words ‘we who have been baptised are all uniformly priests by virtue’[25] taken from his early writings. Prior to Lutheranism only the Roman Catholic priest would ‘speak to God’. The parish would repent and pray through the priest. This quotation provides the population with belief that they are no different to priests, boosting their egos. This comment would have encouraged laymen to support him due to ‘rising their status in society’. Luther makes it clear that everyone should have a ‘relationship’ with God and that the Holy doctrine should be open for everyone to understand, not just the clergy. This source makes Cameron’s belief that Luther harnessed people’s ego very plausible due to the clear message portrayed. This strategy of preaching to peoples’ egos is clear throughout Luther’s life. A source taken from the 95 theses, his first work, contains similar sentiment.  “It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book.”[26]  The message presented by this source further agrees with Cameron’s beliefs. In suggesting that only priests, and not mere laymen, should read the Bible Luther gains support from the common German.

This source will have intrigued the nation, potentially destroying any previous pro-papacy beliefs. Cameron’s suggestion is supported by this quote due to its provocative nature.  Once again Luther is seen to provide the layman with a sense of religious importance.  By rallying the support of the peasantry through the distribution of pamphlets, Luther was evidently successful in boosting the egos of the illiterate and the poor. This argument suggested by Cameron is very plausible due to the various examples of Luther using this technique in his work.  The ability to fully understand the new theological doctrine produced was extremely rare. This lead to Luther being forced to attract and inspire his potential audience across the German kingdoms by satisfying their ‘heart’ rather than their intellect. Cameron’s explanation of Luther’s ability to win over the German people revolves around the pre-existing opinions held by the laity and nobility, and how this was exploited. Cameron’s evidence shows that Luther’s political and provocative works were successful due to his populist outlook rather than the theological content of his works.

Luther’s popularity has been explained by factors such as the content of his theological doctrine, the medium of the time and Lutheran message of moral and political superiority. The content of Luther’s doctrine is undisputedly the cause for initial interest in Luther’s opinions. However, regardless of the content, the huge popularity received by Luther cannot be accredited to his doctrine, due to the low levels of literacy and poor theological knowledge of his multi-kingdom audience. Although the works were purchased by many laymen, C. Scott Dixon provides a convincing explanation regarding ‘the craze of purchasing pamphlets’[27] due to the new medium of the time. The printing press is critical in this line of explanation because of its key role in the mass production of printed works. S. T. Chow regards the printing press as the most important factor when considering what contributed to the popularity of Martin Luther, through a strong explanation for the importance of woodcuts which could only be mass produced by the printing press. The final contributing factor investigated involves Luther’s political works persuading the citizens of the German kingdoms, harnessing the pre-existing consensus of anti-papal and nationalist feelings. Convincing evidence of this technique is found within Luther’s works, such as in the Invocavit sermons. Regardless of the effect of this technique, throughout the investigation is has been made clear that the growth of Luther’s popularity relied on the printing press. The ability to mass produce texts and images for distribution across Germany makes it immensely responsible for the popularity of Lutheranism in Germany up to the period of 1534.


Primary Sources:


  • Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, Anders Nygren (2002)
  • Martin Luther: A Pure Doctrine of Faith, Michael Stoltzfus (2003)
  • Martin Luther: On the Liberty of a Christian
  • L. Cranach The Elder (1523) The Pope Donkey of Rome
  • www.ecla.com
  • An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility, Martin Luther ,1483-1546, I. The Three Walls of the Romanists

Secondary Sources:

  • D. MacCulloch (2003) Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700: (Penguin)
  • R.W. Scribner (1986) The German Reformation: (Palgrave Macmillan)
  • P.G. Wallace (2004) The Long European Reformation. Religion, Politics, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750: (Palgrave Macmillan)
  • G. Parker (1992) ‘Success and Failure in the Reformation’Past and Present
  • C. Scott Dixon (2002) The Reformation in Germany: (John Wiley & Sons)
  • M.U. Edwards (1994) “Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther”: (Fortress Press)
  • J. Lotherington (2015) Years of Renewal: European History 1470 – 1600  : (Horsham House)
  • Pettegree (2005) Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion: (Cambridge University Press)
  • G. Dickins (1974) The German Nation and Martin Luther: (Hodder & Stoughton Educational)
  • R. Kennedy (2002) What Impact Did the Invention of the Printing Press Have on the Spread of Religion?
  • E. Cameron (1999) ‘The Power of the Word: Renaissance and Reformation Early Modern Europe: (Oxford University Press)
  • R. W. Scribner (1981) For the Sake of Simple Folk, Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation:(Oxford University Press)
  • T. P Dost (2001) Renaissance Humanism in Support of the Gospel in Luther’s Early correspondence:(Ashgate Publishing)
  • S. T. Chow, Animals and Monsters in Woodcuts of the German Reformation
  • H-J. Martin (1990) The History and Power of Writing (University of Chicago Press)

[1] R. Kennedy (2002)

[2] Mark U. Edwards (1994)

[3] John Lotherington (2014)

[4] MacCulloch (2003) Pg119

[5] Martin Luther, On the Liberty of a Christian

[6] E. Cameron (1999) Pg91

[7] Martin Luther, Doctrine of the two Kingdoms

A. Nygren (2002)

[8] D. MacCulloch (2003) p152

[9]  H-J. Martin (1990) The History and Power of Writing

[10] J. Lotherington (2014)

[11] P.G. Wallace (2004)

[12] R.W. Scribner (1986) Pg25

[13] A. Pettegree ( 2005 ) Pg170

[14] C. Scott Dixon (2002) Pg62

[15] S. T. Chow Animals and Monsters in Woodcuts of the German Reformation Pg101

[16] G. Parker (1992)

[17] R. W. Scribner (1981)

[18] R.W Scribner, J Lotherington (1998)  Years of Renewal: European History: 1417 – 1600

[19] Martin Luther (1522) Invocavit Sermon, A. Pettegree (2005)

[20] E. Cameron (1999) Pg87

[21] T.P Dost (2001) Renaissance Humanism in Support of the Gospel in Luther’s Early correspondence

[22] A. G. Dickins (1974) Pg56

[23] An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility, Martin Luther ,1483-1546, I. The Three Walls of the Romanists

[24] E. Cameron (1999)

[25] Marin Luther, Liberty of a Christian.

[26] Martin Luther, 95 Theses

[27] C. Scott Dixon (2002)

[i] L. Cranach The Elder (1523) The Pope Donkey of Rome

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