If (as hath been showed) all ought to read the scriptures then
all ages, all sexes, all degrees and callings, all high and low,
rich and poor, wise and foolish have a necessary duty therein....
English Puritan minister Thomas
THE Bible - its events, teachings, and meanings - would have
little impact on human thought if no one read it. But after Martin
Luther's Reformation people did read it - and, more heretically,
they debated its meaning.
Consider that in 1525 in northern Germany, only 5 percent of the
population was literate - most from the learned classes. Yet 150
years later in New England, 95 percent of the population was
literate, and from all walks of life - coopers, farmers, merchants,
Today, issues around reading, hearing, and interpreting the
Bible - literacy issues - get higher priority from historians
trying to understand the dynamics and origins of modern Europe and
Access to the Bible by large numbers of ordinary people for the
first time - one of Luther's reforms - is a key to these dynamics.
Luther demanded that all have direct access to the Word of God in
their own language. People must interpret the Holy Scriptures for
themselves, he stated, rather than have their message mediated by
churchmen, or obscured by what he referred to as profane church
Cultural historian David Hall of Harvard University argues that
"the history of spirituality in Europe and America coincides
closely with the printing of the Bible and its dissemination."
Hence, questions about who and how many read the Bible, how
closely it was read, how affordable Bibles were, and how they
influenced sermons and popular and private writings about religious
ideas - all are being added to the historical picture. Did people
become literate to read the Bible? Or was literacy caused by other
forces in society?
Prior to the Reformation, few in Europe read. Afterwards, the
Bible was forbidden for lay people in the Roman Catholic lands of
France, Italy, and Spain.
But in northern Europe and England, a revolution was under way.
Between 1522 and 1525 Luther's New Testament was an instant
bestseller (hundreds of thousands were sold by century's end)
according to Reformation scholar Mark Edwards of Harvard.
Still, change was gradual. Dr. Edwards notes that, after Luther,
"the literacy rate grew very slowly, and there's no clear evidence
that people at that time learned to read in order to read the
Bible. The drive to read and write is as much, if not more,
commercially motivated. Not until the mid-to-late 17th century is a
critical mass of ordinary people reading the Bible."
The rise of literacy in northern Europe broke apart old
authority patterns. It led to the empowerment of the individual and
the development of diverse Protestant faiths. In churches and in
popular culture, scriptural meanings were debated. New
interpretations led to new sects or denominations, and to new
experiments in local church government in which lay people and
clergy shared power.
Scholars such as Patricia Bonomi of New York University and
Harry Stout of Yale University see in these experiments the
buddings of democracy and self-government in the United States.
In "Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom," which examines narratives of
working-class Londoners, scholar David Vincent finds that they show
"the assertion of the right of every individual to determine his
spiritual identity. All that stood between him and his maker was
the Bible. …