For millenia, the Word of God has come to us from carefully copied manuscripts by Jewish scribes to the hand-delivered letters of Paul carried over Roman roads and launched across the Mediterranean. Throughout the centuries, Christians have embraced the latest tools to deliver the news of God’s Kingdom to their known world. As you travel with me through the centuries, look for the parallels to today’s blogs and social media as we go to the ends of the earth for Christ.
Gutenberg’s Printing Press
The huge leap forward in getting God’s message into the hands of more people was Gutenberg’s printing press. Invented around 1440 to 1450, Gutenberg’s printing press was the first ripple which would lead to today’s tsunami of digital mass communication. The impact of Gutenberg’s invention was felt immediately and grew over the centuries.
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 climbed upwards while book prices dropped. (credit to: LiveScience.com) The press paved the way for Bible translation into other languages and impacted people and culture in innumerable ways.
The parallels I see today are the rapid dissemination of knowledge and people flocking to central places for the latest content. Also, much information online is available in multiple languages or can be translated in-the-moment.
The Impact of the Printing Press
About seventy years later, 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 had made their way into seven countries. Today’s information travels even more rapidly.
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect contributed to huge changes in their culture. Their most recognized contribution is to the ending of the British slave trade. They used pamphlets, petitions, books, and rallies to raise public awareness for their many causes. Social media in today’s world is very influential in raising awareness for multiple causes (and unfortunately propagating fake news, too).
Additionally, the Clapham Sect’s 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. 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.
As I read about Hannah More, I couldn’t help but imagine her finding an eye-catching photo and choosing engaging topics as if she was one of today’s Christian bloggers using cyberspace to take God’s truth to her readers.
Of course, we know that books have also been used for evil. Propaganda and pamphlets have been used extensively on both sides of the front lines during war time. 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.” During the war, 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.”
How many Christians today, blogging or posting on social media, have considered the future impact of their words?
Traveling beyond the Printed Page
Back to a positive example, the influence of literature distribution, especially into closed countries, is common knowledge for us today. 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, suggested to him by Annie Ellsworth) 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’?”
What was hand-delivered by horseback could now be translated from a code. Messages measured in miles could be delivered in minutes. Today, this acceleration of news and knowledge translates to seconds over the Internet.
Have you considered how you are using the amazing tool of 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)
Have you found ways to travel the information highway, offering the words of Christ? Have you considered the future impact of your words today?
- “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)
- 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).
- Thoughtfully consider the idea of reaching into the future through your blogging in my post: Are You Sharing Your Faith Online?
- Samuel Morse tragically lost his wife, Lucretia, while he was away doing a portrait of Lafayette. By the time he learned she was ill, she had already died. By the time he made it home, she was already buried. This tragedy was the seed of the idea for the telegraph. More than a decade later, he put aside his paints and brushes to invent the telegraph and Morse code.
- 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.