Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther

By Mark U. Edwards Jr. | Go to book overview

Conclusion
A Revised Narrative

What would a narrative look like if it paid primary attention to what the public would have learned about Luther from the local press? Here is one sketch that draws on material from the preceding chapters.

Rumors had been circulating for some months that a monk named Martin Luther had attacked the church's traditional teachings on indulgences. A handful of humanists had in fact read the occasionally cryptic theses that the Augustinian friar and professor had written, but the broader reading public first came to know something about Martin Luther from his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace. It swept through the major centers of the empire and was snapped up in large numbers by the curious.1 In the space of just a few pages, Luther clearly and calmly explained and criticized the scholastic understanding of the sacrament of penance and indulgences, insisting that the associated views and practices were still debatable and lacking adequate scriptural basis. Rather than actually seeking indulgences, it was a thousand times better, Luther taught, that Christians do the good works and suffer the punishment that indulgences were supposed to replace. On the whole, the impression Luther gave was of a morally earnest critic of scholastic theology, concerned that Christians choose good works over indulgences.

This first "best-seller" was quickly followed by a series of short German sermons and devotional works written specifically for the laity. They were issued in a handy format that was cheap to produce, inexpensive to buy, and easily passed from reader to reader. These

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