In Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism: A Narrative History, WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky traces the influences on the U.S. press from 16th century Europe through the early 20th century. The book, which was first published in 1990, is based on a journalism history class Marvin taught at the University of Texas in the 1980s.
In the excerpt below, Marvin looks to the Protestant Reformation as the source of modern journalism’s independence from government control. —Mickey McLean
Rise of the Corruption Story
In America, we expect journalists to have some independence from government and other leading power centers. We are not surprised to glance at the morning newspaper or television news show and see exposure of wrongdoing. We assume that the press has a responsibility to print bad news as well as good. And yet, that which seems ordinary to us is unusual in the history of the world, and even in much of the world today.
How did the unnatural act of independent journalism come to seem so natural? To begin answering that question, we need to go back, back beyond the start of American journalism, back even before Gutenberg. Journalism—information and analysis concerning recent events, published in multiple copies or disseminated beyond the immediate reach of the speaker’s voice—is many centuries old. Journalistic products emerged in many lands and in many varieties, but they most often promoted the official story of governmental power and wisdom: “If you obey, we will take care of you.” (A more modern way of saying the same might be, “Depend on us to establish the proper environment for your life.”) Official, state-allied religion often received protection also. Published news was what authorities wanted people to know.
Throughout the many centuries before printing, official story publications came and went. One of the better known early journalistic vehicles was the Acta Diurna, a handwritten news sheet posted in the Roman Forum and copied by scribes for transmission throughout the empire. Acta emphasized governmental decrees but also gained readership by posting gladiatorial results and news of other popular events. Julius Caesar used the Acta to attack some of his opponents in the Roman senate—but there could be no criticism of Caesar. (Had there been independent journalism, he might have faced only character assassination on the Ides of March.) Other handwritten publications also emerged during ancient and medieval times, with the goal of passing on news that state or state-church authorities wished leading citizens to know. This was true in Asia and other continents as well as in Europe. Sometimes, ballads and poems that mocked the official news vehicles were passed on orally from person to person, but the official version, with support from the state church, endured from generation to generation.
In Western Europe, kings with support from the Catholic Church were said to rule by divine right, and the official story was the only story allowed. Leaders might acknowledge that a different story prevailed in heaven—there, God was sovereign and biblical principles were practiced—but only those who went away to monasteries or nunneries might be able to see God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This dualistic sense of spiritual and temporal realms removed from each other was evident not only in journalism but in artwork and other cultural realms as well. The Bible itself was removed from daily life and available only to the elite who knew Latin; Pope Innocent IV in 1252 forbade translating the Bible into vernacular languages.
The tiny and fairly barbaric part of the world where English was spoken was no exception to the general rule. In 1275 the statute of Westminster I outlawed “tales whereby discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the king and his people or the great men of the realm.” Anything that could inspire such discord—including the Bible, which stated laws of God under which every man and woman, whether king or commoner, had to live—was banned. After John Wycliffe disobeyed Papal rulings and translated the Bible into English during the late 14th century, English church authorities cracked down, with the synod of Canterbury in 1408 forbidding the translation of Scripture from one language to another. Wycliffe’s books were burned in 1410 and 1412. His bones were dug up and burned in 1428.
A technological revolution began around 1450 with the development of movable type in the Mainz workshop of Johann Gutenberg. But technological changes matter little as long as “world views”—clusters of convictions about what’s important in life—remain the same. The demand from monasteries and kings or commercial leaders for big, printed, Latin Bibles was growing. Printed volumes met that demand, but the Bibles were usually for show rather than tell. Printing created potential for change and pressure to change from those who saw opportunities, but as long as reading was discouraged by state and church authorities, and as long as independent printers were jailed or killed, there would be little change. The limited effect of the technological revolution, by itself, was indicated by early post-Gutenberg developments in England. Printing began there in 1476 when William Caxton, given royal encouragement and grant of privileges upon good behavior, set up a press in Westminster. Others followed, but were careful to avoid publishing works that might irritate the king or his ministers. Regulations limited the number of printers and apprentices. Royal patents created printing monopolies. It was illegal to import, print, or distribute threatening books, such as English translations of the Bible. In this policy England remained in line with other state-church countries during the early 1500s—but then came the providential sound of a hammer on a door, and the beginning of a theological onslaught (aided by journalistic means) that changed Europe.
Modern journalism began in 1517 as the German prince Frederick the Wise was putting the finishing touches on his life’s work of building up Wittenberg’s sacred relic collection. Through purchase and trade he was able to claim a “genuine” thorn from Christ’s crown, a tooth of St. Jerome, four hairs from the Virgin Mary, seven pieces from the shroud sprinkled with Christ’s blood, a wisp of straw from the place where Jesus was born, one piece of gold brought by the Wise Men, a strand of Jesus’ beard, one of the nails driven into Christ’s hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one twig of Moses’ burning bush, and nearly 20,000 holy bones.
Announcements of relic collection highlights were made regularly through proclamations and assorted announcements, the typical journalistic products of the time. Few people could read—most were discouraged from even trying, for reading could lead to theological and political rebellion—but town criers and local priests passed on official story messages promoting the goals of governmental authorities and the official, state-allied religion. In 1517 Wittenberg residents were told that all of Frederick’s treasures would be displayed on All Saints Day, and that those who viewed them and made appropriate donations could receive papal indulgences allowing for a substantial decrease of time spent in purgatory, either for the viewer/contributor or someone he would designate. Total time saved could equal 1,902,202 years and 270 days.
Quiet criticism of the indulgence system was coming from Professor Martin Luther, who stated that the Bible gave no basis for belief in indulgences and argued that the practice interfered with true contrition and confession. But, despite Luther’s lectures, indulgence-buying continued as champion salesman Tetzel offered altruism at bargain prices:
Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?” Remember that you are able to release them, for “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,/ The soul from purgatory springs.”
The pitch was strong, but Luther decided to oppose it head-on by making his ideas of protest accessible to all, not just a few. The 95 theses he hammered to the cathedral door in 1517 were not academic sentences but clear, vivid statements. For example, concerning the plan to obtain money to build St. Peter’s, Luther wrote:
The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. … The pope would do better to appoint one good pastor to a church than to confer indulgences upon them all. Why doesn’t the pope build the basilica of St. Peter out of his own money? He is richer than Croesus. He would do better to sell St. Peter’s and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences.
Luther then gave printers permission to set the theses in type—and they spread throughout Europe within a month.
The effect of Luther’s theses and his subsequent publications is well known but what often is missed is that Luther’s primary impact was not as a producer of treatises, but as a very popular writer of vigorous prose that concerned not only theological issues but their social and political ramifications. Between 1517 and 1530 Luther’s 30 publications probably sold well over 300,000 copies, an astounding total at a time when illiteracy was rampant and printing still an infant. Because Luther had such influence through his writing the pressure on him to mute the truth became enormous, but he said “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. … Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Luther’s lively style and willingness to risk death for the sake of truth-telling would be enough to make him a model for today’s journalists, but it was his stress on literacy that made independent journalism possible at all. Literacy was low throughout Europe until the 16th century—perhaps only about 1 out of 100 persons could read. Reading was looked upon as a servile activity; just as corporate CEOs today have secretaries to do their typing, so the kings of medieval times remained illiterate and had designated readers. Nor were those of low estate encouraged to read by state or church authorities. A 16th century French treatise argued that people should not read on their own, less they become confused; ordinary folk especially should not read the Bible, because they should learn only from priests. As one historian has noted, authorities “held it was safer to have less Scripture reading than more heresy.”
Luther and other Reformation leaders, however, emphasized the importance of Bible reading; Christians were to find out for themselves what God was saying. Literacy rates soared everywhere the Reformation took root, and remained low wherever it was fought off. Luther not only praised translation into the vernacular languages but made a masterful one himself. In preparing his German translation Luther so understood the need for specific detail to attract readers that when he wanted to picture the precious stones and coins mentioned in the Bible, he first examined German court jewels and numismatic collections. Similarly, when Luther needed to describe Old Testament sacrifices he visited slaughterhouses and gained information from butchers. He was a vivid reporter as well as a tenacious theologian.
Furthermore, he was a reporter who desired to print not just good news, but bad news also. Luther’s Reformed theological understanding led him to write,
God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. … In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith.
Reformation leaders believed that people would seek the good news of mercy only after they became fully aware of the bad news of sin. This was the basis of the corruption story: Man needs to be become aware of his own corruption in order to change through God’s grace, and writers who help make readers aware of sin are doing them a service.
Luther also made journalism significant by arguing that the path to progress is through change in ideas and beliefs, rather than through forced social revolution or reaction. In Luther’s thought the most significant warfare was ideological, not material, so he emphasized dissemination of ideas through publication and opposed attempts to destroy opposing ideas through burning either books or authors. “Heretics,” he said, “should be vanquished with books, not with burnings.” Luther wanted an exchange of views, not sword thrusts. He described printing as “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.” Others felt differently about those perceived as heretics. In 1529 Henry VIII of England banned importation of either the writings of Martin Luther or other works, including Bible translations, that supposedly engaged in “reproach, rebuke, or slander of the king.” Thomas Hilton was burned in 1530 for selling books by William Tyndale that advocated the supreme authority of Scripture against both state and church. Richard Bayfield, John Teukesbury, and James Bainham were burned in 1531 and 1532, and Tyndale himself was seized in Antwerp in 1536 and killed; his Bible translation was burned in St. Paul’s Cathedral. After 1534, as Henry VIII established a national church in England under his headship, those who would not adhere to the latest twist in the official story—Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, and others—also suffered execution.
Henry added new anti-press legislation almost as often as he added new wives. In 1534 his “Proclamation for Seditious Books” ordered that no one should print any English book without a license from the king’s councils or those persons appointed by the king as licensers. His “Proclamation of 1538” left the press with “only one master, the king.” The sweeping language of Parliament’s regulatory law of 1542–1543 indicates how the official story was to have absolute dominion: “Nothing shall be taught or maintained contrary to the King’s instructions,” and nothing shall be published “contrary to the King’s instructions or determinations, made or to be made.”
Henry VIII’s structure of government and society was simple: The state, with its official church, was at the center, giving orders to other social institutions. But in the thought of men such as John Calvin, Scotland’s John Knox, and other leaders of the Reformation, the kingdom of God could not be equated with state interests. Instead, the Reformers believed that God reigns everywhere and man can serve God directly in every area of life—government, journalism, education, business, or whatever. Reformed thinkers asserted that there were laws superior to the state or any other institution, and suggested that workers in those various areas did not have to wait for marching orders from the institutional Church, but could instead study the Bible and apply it to their own activities. The Reformers did not advocate extremist intransigence or easy disobedience of governmental or church authority. John Knox, for instance, appealed for moderation and compromise whenever truly fundamental issues were not at stake. But under such a doctrine, for the first time, journalists could be more than purveyors of public relations. They had their own independent authority and would appeal to biblical principle when officials tried to shackle them. The corruption story and the official story were heading for the first of their showdowns, and records of Henry’s Privy Council, responsible for controlling the press, began to show regular proceedings against writers and speakers for “unfitting worddes” and supposedly seditious libel. During the reign of “Bloody Mary” from 1553 to 1558, the confrontation with those who based their lives on “sola scriptura”—the Bible only—began.
One of the first Protestants to die at the stake was John Hooper, publicly burned at Gloucester on February 9, 1555. He was joined by about 75 men and women who were burned as heretics that year, and many more during the following 2 years. Soon, reports of those killings spread illegally throughout England: Ballads and other publications—one was called Sacke full of Newes—attacked the queen and praised the heroism of the martyrs. One notable underground pamphlet, The Communication betwene my lord Chauncelor and judge Hales, depicted the tyranny of the state church.”
These journalistic critiques readily went from the theological to the political, because the two were intertwined. Mary’s marriage to Philip, heir to the Spanish throne, led many to believe that Spain would soon be ruling England in dictatorial fashion. One pamphlet, A Warnyng for Englande, gave an account of
the horrible practises of the Kyng of Spayne/ in the Kyngdome of Naples/ and the miseries whereunto that noble Realme is brought./ Whereby all Englishe men may understand the plage that shall light upon them/ if the Kyng of Spayn obteyne the Dominion in Englande.
Coverage of the debate and the burnings showed the typical path of l6th century journalism: From theological debate to theological commentary on current news to sensational coverage.
The l6th century journalist who made the greatest impression on several generations of Englishmen and women originally had no desire to report on current events. John Foxe, born in 1516, was an excellent student. He became a fellow at Oxford, but was converted to the Reformed faith and had to give up his stipend. In 1548 he began writing a scholarly history of Christian martyrdom, but it turned journalistic in 1553 when Mary became queen. Facing death in 1554 Foxe left England and began earning a poor living as a proofreader with a Swiss printer, but he continued to collect historical material about past persecutions and testimony about current ones.
Foxe published two volumes in Latin during the 1550s, but switched to English for his journalistic output, with the goal of telling the martyrs’ story in a readable manner. He was able to return to England with the ascension of Elizabeth in 1558 and then spend five more years interviewing, collecting materials, and writing, before publishing the sensational account that became known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. To make sure everything was right, he worked 7 years more before putting out in 1570 an expanded, second edition that contained woodcuts portraying burnings and whippings; later, large-scale editions increased the number of illustrations. Foxe showed no interest in ecclesiastical promotion or governmental work. Until his death in 1587 Foxe kept revising the work, inserting corrections or additions that many people sent him, and avoiding the mere substitution of fables of his own for the official stories of old.
Foxe’s writing was vivid. For example, he wrote of how John Hooper, tied to a stake, prayed for a short time. Then the fire was lit, but the green wood was slow to burn. Hooper was shown a box and told it contained his pardon if he would give in: “Away with it!” he cried. As the fire reached Hooper’s legs a gust of wind blew it out. A second fire then slowly burned up Hooper’s legs, but went out with Hooper’s upper body still intact. The fire was rekindled, and soon Hooper was heard to say repeatedly, “Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me; Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me; Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Hooper’s lips continued to move even when his throat was so scorched that no sound could come from it: Even “when he was black in the mouth, and his tongue swollen, that he could not speak, yet his lips went till they were shrunk to the gums.” Finally, one of Hooper’s arms fell off, and the other, with “fat, water, and blood” dripping out at the ends of the fingers, stuck to what remained of his chest. At that point Hooper bowed his head forward and died.
Foxe also described the deaths of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Ridley, chained over another of those slow-burning fires, was in agony, but Latimer seemed to be dying with amazing ease—Foxe wrote that he appeared to be bathing his hands and face in the fire. Latimer’s last words to his suffering friend were, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, [so that] we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
Foxe’s third famous report concerned the death of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the English Protestants. Imprisoned for months without support of friends, Cranmer received daily ideological hammering from theological adversaries; after watching Ridley die, he wrote out a recantation and apology, in return for pardon. When Cranmer was told later that he allegedly had led so many astray that he would have to burn anyway, his courage returned and he resolved to go out boldly. He wrote in one final statement—a press release of a sort—that his recantation was “written with my hand contrary to the truth which is in my heart, and written for fear of death.” He offered a pledge: “As my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.” Foxe wrote of how Cranmer made good on that promise; sent to the stake, he placed his right hand firmly in the fire and held it steadily there until it appeared like a coal to observers. Soon, Cranmer’s entire body was burned.
Foxe’s book became very popular not only because of its combination of theological fervor and grisly detail, but through its use of colorful Bible-based imagery. For example, Foxe’s report on the impending death of John Hooper described how light overcame darkness as Hooper was led through London to Newgate prison. Officers had ordered all candles along the way be put out; perhaps,
being burdened with an evil conscience, they thought darkness to be a most fit season for such a business. But notwithstanding this device, the people having some foreknowledge of his coming, many of them came forth of their doors with lights, and saluted him; praising God for his constancy in the true doctrine which he had taught them. …
Significantly, although Foxe was clearly on the side of the martyrs, he was not just a Protestant propagandist, overlooking the sins of his own side. He openly criticized the greed shown by Protestants under Edward VI, and, having written about executions by Catholics, did not favor executions by Protestants. In a long sermon Foxe delivered on Good Friday, 1570, he asked for mercy on many because Christ himself had been crucified by the church-state authorities of his time.
Foxe’s stress on accuracy was maintained by Miles Coverdale, who wrote in 1564 that “it doeth us good to read and heare, not the lying legendes … triflying toyes & forged fables of corrupted writers: but such true, holy, … epistles & lettets, as do set forth unto us ye blessed behavior of gods deare servantes.” For a time it appeared that a free press, with careful fact-checking, might arise—but, although Queen Elizabeth’s version of glasnost allowed direct criticism of her predecessor, Mary, it did not allow objections to her reign or to the domination of the established, Anglican religion. A proclamation on July 1, 1570, offered a reward to those who informed against anyone writing or dispersing books in opposition to the queen or any of her nobles. Other ordinances set increasingly harsh penalties for unlicensed printing; on political matters, any challenge to the official story was treason.
The secret tribunal known as the Star Chamber did not hesitate to prosecute and persecute. William Carter, a Catholic who printed in 1580 a book critical of the queen, was arrested, tortured, and executed in 1584. More frequently, the victims of state repression were Puritan rebels, including Hugh Singleton, Robert Waldegrave, John Stroud, and John Hodgkins. Puritans as an organized journalistic group first went public in 1572 with An Admonition to Parliament, a 60-page attack on state churches. Admonition authors John Field and Thomas Wilcocks spent a year in prison, but other pamphlets soon appeared. Puritan John Stubbes in 1579 wrote his critical pamphlet, had his right hand cut off, and then raised his left hand in a salute to the queen.
One of the best-read Puritan products at the end of the l6th century was a series of pamphlets published in 1588 and 1589 and called the Martin Marprelate tracts; these tracts humorously satirized and ridiculed the heavy-handed theological treatises put out by defenders of the established church. The tracts, printed by John Hodgkins on a press that was dismantled repeatedly and moved around by cart, irritated king and court so much that a massive search for its producers began. Hodgkins escaped harm until he was unloading his press one day in the town of Warrington, before curious onlookers. A few small pieces of metal type fell from one of the boxes. A bystander picked up a letter and showed it to an official, who understood the significance of the discovery and summoned constables. Arrested and repeatedly tortured, Hodgkins refused to admit guilt and implicate others.
The bravery of Hodgkins, like that of Martin Luther, John Hooper, John Stubbes, and many others, could not be ignored; persecution of the Puritans instead of stamping them out, led to new conversion. When James I became king of England in 1603 and Puritans presented petitions for religious and press freedom, he threatened to “harry them out of the land, or else do worse.” James, arguing that he was “above the law by his absolute power,” and that “it is presumptuous and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can do, or say that a king cannot do this or that,” advised subjects to “rest in that which is the king’s revealed word in his law.” But that is something that Puritan writers, omitted as they were to following God’s law whatever the costs, would not do.
Royal officials made it clear that proponents of the corruption story would be prosecuted whenever they suggested that all, including the king, were naturally corrupt, in need of God’s grace, and obliged to obey Biblical principles. The Star Chamber, in a 1606 case de Libellis Famosis, stipulated that truth was no defense against a charge of seditious libel, which was defined as anything that would reduce public respect for the monarch or his officials. The Star Chamber’s powers of inquiry were supplemented in 1613 when James I granted to another government body, the High Commission, power over “books, pamphlets and portraitures offensive to the state.”
In the long run, however, James himself undermined the idea of royal authoritarianism by setting up a committee of 54 scholars to prepare a new translation of the Bible. When the committee’s work was done, the magnificent “King James” translation had made the Bible more popularly accessible than ever. In Ryken’s words,
Beginning with a conviction that the Bible was where a person encountered God most directly, religion became in significant ways a literary experience. The acts of worship emphasized by the Reformers and Puritans were overwhelmingly literary acts: reading the Bible, meditating on its meaning.
According to a contemporary opponent of the Puritans, those who attended one Puritan service had their Bibles open and looked up verses cited by the preachers. They took notes and, after the sermon, “held arguments also, among themselves, about the meaning of various Scripture texts, all of them, men and women, boys and girls, laborers, workmen and simpletons.”
The connection of Reformed faith and literacy became evident throughout England as it had in Europe. But that was not the only way the ideas first developed and popularized by Martin Luther had consequences for journalism. The Puritans also set in motion a movement toward a different social structure. The change began with an emphasis on reading and thinking. Edward Reynolds wrote:
The people are hereby taught, first, to examine the doctrines of men by the rule and standard of the Word; … for though the judgment of interpretation belong principally to the ministers of the Word, yet God has given all believers a judgment of discretion, to try the spirits and to search the Scriptures, whether the things which they hear be so or no.
Church authorities were no longer the central arbiters—they also were under the authority of Scripture and could rightfully be criticized by anyone who could point out in the Bible where they had gone wrong. “Capable is the poorest member in Christ’s church, being grown to maturity of years, of information in the faith,” Reynolds wrote, for “Are we not all a royal priesthood?” Out of this sense of individual competence grew an idea of the formal church organized as a major activity among others, rather than (along with the state) the center of power. Journalists could have independent authority under God, and not merely serve as public relations appendages to state or state-church.
Other innovative journalistic approaches could grow logically out of the Puritan emphasis on individual salvation. Everyday “human interest” stories and not just official doings would for the first time be considered important, for, as Puritan Richard Greenham wrote:
Surely if men were careful to reform themselves first, and then their own families, they should see God’s manifold blessings in our land and upon church and commonwealth. For of particular persons come families; of families, towns; of towns, provinces; of provinces, whole realms.
Furthermore, the Puritans’ style of communication reflected a desire to have ordinary individuals receive information that could help them choose rightly. Puritan William Perkins argued that in expressing ideas, “the plainer, the better.” Robert Bolton argued that delivery of truth, rather than “self praise and private ends,” was the goal of communication, and John Flavel wrote that “words are but servants to matter. An iron key, fitted to the wards of the lock, is more useful than a golden one that will not open the door to the treasures.”
All of this, and more, developed in one century from those ideas put down in words hammered onto the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. Material developments were useful, but beliefs and bravery carried the day and led to a new era.