Gutenberg’s Printing Press
Throughout the centuries, Christians have embraced new tools to take the message of God’s Kingdom to their known world. One of the most influential was Gutenberg’s printing press of 1450, the first ripple which would grow to today’s tsunami of digital mass communication.
In 1455, the first book printed was a Latin Bible. It’s estimated that close to a half million books had entered circulation by as early as 1500. Annual book fairs in major cities offered books from classical Greek to Columbus’ account of the New World. Literacy rates crept upwards as book prices dropped. (credit to: LiveScience.com)
The Impact of the Printing Press
The impact of Gutenberg’s invention was felt immediately and grew over the centuries. Five hundred hears ago, within weeks of posting his 95 theses in 1517, Martin Luther’s theses (in pamphlet form) had circulated throughout Germany. Within three years, these pamphlets were available in seven countries.
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect contributed to huge changes in their culture. The most known is the ending of the British slave trade. They used pamphlets, petitions, books, and rallies to raise public awareness for their many causes. Their concept of Cheap Repository Tracts, in an attempt to reform the working class, saw two million copies sold or distributed in the first year alone.
These tracts were early examples of today’s mass marketing and advertising. With appealing cover illustrations and affordable prices, the tracts were written for the newly literate lower class, providing edifying reading to combat popular and corrupting forms of street literature. Often a story in a tract would link to a previous tract or hint at an upcoming one. Hannah More, the author, imitated the style of street literature and used the same booksellers and hawkers. Military commanders bought the tracts for their troops. More expensive versions were purchased by wealthy readers, underwriting the cost for the poor.
Of course, we know that printed literature has also been used for evil. At rallies before World War II near the Gutenberg Museum, Friedrich Kellner would hold Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf above his head and shout to the crowd: “Gutenberg, your printing press has been violated by this evil book.” Later, during the war, propaganda and pamphlets were used extensively on both sides of the front lines. Throughout those years, Kellner kept a journal of 861 pages which was not published until 2011. Commenting on the purpose of his diary, Kellner explained, “I could not fight the Nazis in the present, as they had the power to still my voice, so I decided to fight them in the future. I would give the coming generations a weapon against any resurgence of such evil. My eyewitness account would record the barbarous acts, and also show the way to stop them.”
Moving beyond the Printed Page
Back to a positive example, the influence of literature distribution, especially into closed countries, is common knowledge for us today. Millions of Bibles and other media have been delivered to believers who live where others are hostile toward the Christian faith. This impact is multiplied when adding broadcasting and digital mass communication.
One of the early forms of mass communication, the telegraph, harnessed electricity to send messages quickly over long distances using Morse code. In a letter to his brother Sidney in 1844, Samuel Morse described the moment when he demonstrated the telegraph, sending “What has God wrought?” (Numbers 22:22) from the basement of the U.S. Capitol to a train station in Baltimore:
“That sentence of Annie Ellsworth’s was divinely [inspired?], for it is in my thoughts day and night, ‘What hath God wrought.’ It is his work, and he alone could have carried me thus far through all my trials, and enabled me to triumph over the obstacles physical and moral which opposed me… have I not occasion to exclaim, ‘What hath God wrought’?” (Click to tweet this quote)
Today’s New Tools
Each of these Christians had obstacles to overcome. Luther’s and Kellner’s lives were threatened. Hannah More broke the glass ceiling of her day and faced her critics. Gutenberg died in poverty. Samuel Morse, an artist and sculptor, was devastated by the news of his young wife’s sudden death. One day he received a message that she was ill; the next day, he received a message that she had died. She was buried before he made it home. Later, in 1832, he put aside his painting for twelve years to pursue the invention of the telegraph and Morse code.
What would these believers of centuries past do today with blogs, Twitter, and Facebook Live? Can you imagine? What had to be carefully typeset or translated from Morse code is now easily read in a person’s own language over the Internet. Bill Gates has said, “The information highway will transform our culture as dramatically as Gutenberg’s press did the Middle Ages.” (credit to: AZQuotes.com) (Click to tweet this quote)
Gutenberg wrote about his printing press:
“God suffers in the multitude of souls whom His word can not reach. Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spread the public treasure.
“Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.
“Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men.
“Through it, God will spread His word; a spring of pure truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light hithertofore unknown to shine among men.” (Click to tweet this quote)
What are we doing with the tools God has gifted to us? Are we effectively stewarding this opportunity from God? “Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth.” (Click to tweet this quote)
Are you embracing today’s tools to change our world?
- Gutenberg quote from BibleStudyTools.com.
- Information about Hannah More and the Clapham Sect taken from Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More–Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior, especially Chapter 14, “An Imagination that Moved the World” (page 224).
- “One of the stories I love is how Gutenberg’s printing press set off this interesting chain reaction, where all of a sudden people across Europe noticed for the first time that they were farsighted, and needed spectacles to read books (which they hadn’t really noticed before books became part of everyday life); which THEN created a market for lens makers, which then created pools of expertise in crafting lenses, which then led people to tinker with those lenses and invent the telescope and microscope, which then revolutionized science in countless ways.” (attributed to Steven Johnson)
- The painting is in the public domain and depicts William Caxton showing his printing press to King Edward IV and his family. Caxton established the first printing press in England in 1476. As the first English retailer of printed books, Caxton printed Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Fables of Aesop and many others. (credit to “The History of Print” by prepressure.com)
The painting is in the public domain in the United States.