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  • How does mass communication ignite a reformation? Luther 500 Edition

How does mass communication ignite a reformation? Luther 500 Edition

How Does Mass Communication Ignite a Reformation? The Luther 500 Edition

This year marks the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  How did the ideas of a simple German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), ignite a successful revolution in 1517 that forever changed Christianity, publishing, mass-communication, and education?

Historians emphasize the importance of the printing press, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into vernacular German, as well as his decision to publish his ideas in vernacular German when accounting for Luther’s extraordinary success.  Prior to Luther, most published works were Latin tomes, which were very expensive to produce, and marketed toward at a small, elite, and highly educated audience. 

According to British historian, Andrew Pettegree, “Printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, but Martin Luther was also a determining, shaping force in the German printing industry.”  ( Brand Luther: How and 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 2015).  In his review of Pettegree’s book, Colin Woodward notes that Pettegree’s work reveals “Luther’s master role in the imagination and execution of what had to have been the world’s first mass-media-driven revolution.  Luther didn’t just reimagine the Christian faith, he figured out how to share his vision though the innovative use and manipulation of a nascent communications technology: the printing press.” (“The Power of Luther’s Printing Press” in The Washington Post, December 18, 2015)  Luther’s works were short, accessible to a lay audience, and lucrative to mass-produce.  According to Pettegree, Luther was “an instant publishing sensation.”

Some Big Questions to Ponder and Discuss (here, on our Facebook page @wvuthequestion, or anywhere you please!):


1.  When reflecting on Luther’s impact, one wonders how mass communication in various forms today, including social media outlets, contributes to critique and reform?

2.  Is our language so divisive, and our ability to communicate so commonplace, that it is failing to help address and redress serious social and moral problems? 

3.  Are there current social movements that historians of the future will attribute to our use of the internet and social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter?

4.  What are our moral and intellectual obligations as communicators and consumers of information? Should we hold each other accountable?  If so, how?

5.  What are our obligations to engage in public discourse and participate in social, political, and ethical reform movements?  

6.  What makes a movement qualify as a reformation?   How doe we measure the value and impact of revolutionary ideas?


Are you interested in learning more about Luther's impact and the Protestant Reformation?  Check out the WVU History Department and WVU Humanities Center's symposium, "Reformation Matters" in room G-09 of White Hall at 2pm November 11. 2017.  Speakers include: Katherine Aaslestad (History); Philip Michelbach (Political Science); and Janet Snyder (Art History).  Everyone is welcome to this event and there will be delicious refreshments!