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Martin Luther
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Martin Luther

The Reformation roots of an independent press

Media | Martin Luther’s emphasis on literacy helped make modern day journalism possible

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

Unnatural Acts

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.

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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.


1. Quoted often; the best brief, readily available summary of the conditions of Luther’s time and his battle against indulgences is found in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (New York, 1956).

2. Ibid, p. 61.

3. Margaret Aston, The Fifteenth Century: The Prospect for Europe (London, 1968), p. 76: “Printing was recognized as a new power and publicity came into its own.”

4. This response came at the Diet of Worms when Archbishop of Trier Eck asked how opponents of Christianity would “exult to hear Christians discussing whether they have been wrong all these years. Martin … would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men … ? For a time the protection offered by Frederick was the only material force preserving Luther from many enemies who wished to kill him—yet Luther continued to criticize Frederick’s prized relics collection. (Frederick, nevertheless, protected him, and in 1523 finally agreed not to exhibit his relic collection, but to place most of it in storage.)

5. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, England, 1980), vol. I, p. 426.

6. Ibid., p. 330.

7. Bainton, p. 63.

8. Luther advocated civil disobedience in some instances but was opposed to anarchistic revolution. If each person were to take justice into his own hands, he wrote, there would be “neither authority, nor government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed.”

9. Bainton, p. 120.

10. Eisenstein, p. 304.

11. Quoted in Frederick Siebert, Freedom of the Press in England, 1476–1776 (Urbana, Illinois, 1952), p. 45.

12. Henry VIII broke from Rome not on grounds of principle, as did Luther and Calvin, but in order to make himself the principal arbiter of theology, especially when it came to his own divorce of first wife Katharine of Aragon. Benjamin Hart suggested correctly that “to place the king at the head of the church was a far more oppressive and corrupting influence on Christianity than the pope in far off Italy. The bishops, formerly responsible to the Roman authority, often served as an effective check on royal power. Now they were little more than a political arm of the state, used to stamp out religious dissent, which was seen as a threat to social order.” (Benjamin Hart, Faith and Freedom (Dallas, 1988), p. 61)

13. Siebert, p. 49.

14. 34 and 35 Henry VIII, c. 1. The 1542–1543 law stated, “There shall be no annotations or preambles in Bibles or New Testaments in English. The Bible shall not be read in English in any church. No women or artificers, prentices, journeymen, servingmen of the degree of yeomen or under, husbandmen, nor labourers, shall read the New Testament in English. Nothing shall be taught or maintained contrary to the King’s instructions. And if any spiritual person preach, teach, or maintain anything contrary to the King’s instructions or determinations, made or to be made, and shall be thereof convict, he shall for his first offence recant, for his second abjure and bear a fagot, and for his third shall be adjudged an heretick, and be burned.”

15. The Bible had to be carefully followed, and the interpretations of those who had studied it at length were not to be negligently disregarded. But in the end, neither individual consciences nor church leaders were to be in charge: The Bible was viewed as clear enough so that ordinary individuals could read it themselves and see its truths for themselves.

16. When Henry died in 1547 and his son Edward VI briefly took over, restrictions were eased, but when Mary assumed the throne upon Edward’s death in 1553 and attempted to reassert Catholic dominance, freedom fled.

17. For more details see M. A. Shaaber, Some Forerunners of the Newspaper in England (New York, 1966), p. 76.

18. Ibid., p. 71.

19. See, for instance, The complaynt of Veritie, made by John Bradford, and The wordes of Maister Hooper at his death were published in 1559, and A briefe Treatise concerning the burnynge of Bucer and Phagius at Cambrydge came out in 1562. These and others are cited in Shaaber, p. 77.

20. John Foxe, Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable, happenying in the church, with an universall history of the same, 6th edition (London, 1610), pp. 586, 606, 609, 612, 946, 1033, 1423, 1527, 1547, 1738, etc. A much more readily accessible paperback edition, but without the woodcuts, is published as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Springdale, PA, 1981).

21. Foxe was following the biblical tradition of the apostle Luke, who wrote at the beginning of his gospel that “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning” in order to “write an orderly account” dependent not on speculation but on eyewitnesses.

22. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, op. cit., pp. 212213.

23. Ibid, p. 213.

24. Ibid., pp. 309.

25. Ibid., pp. 351387.

26. Ibid., loc. cit.

27. Ibid., pp. 201202.

28. Miles Coverdale, ed., Certain most godly, fruitful, and comfortable letters of such true saintes and holy martyrs of God, as in the late bloodye persecution here with in this realme, gave their lyues for the defence of Christes holy gospel: written in the tyme of theyr … imprysonment … (London: John Day, 1564), p. ii.

29. The Stationers Company, a group of government-certified printers granted a publishing monopoly, sent out spies to determine each printer’s number of orders, number of employees, and wages paid them. That information, along with identification of customers and works currently being published, allowed officials to make sure presses were not used for “seditious” purposes.

30. Siebert, pp. 9192.

31. G. W. Prothero, Select Statutes and other Constitutional Documents illustrative of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I (Oxford, 1894), p. 400.

32. Ibid., pp. 427428.

33. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids, 1986), p. 124.

34. Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley, 1967), p. 380. The last word of that quotation, “simpletons,” shows how the Puritan emphasis on Bible reading by everyone was folly to those who scorned democracy.

35. Jack Bartlett Rogers, Scripture in the Westminster Confession (Grand Rapids, 1967), p. 383.

36. Quoted in Ryken, p. 384.

37. Everett Emerson, ed., English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton (Durham, NC, 1968), p. 153.

38. Ryken, p. 105. The Puritans did at times fall into repetitive prolixity to make sure that their meaning was clear; sometimes their motto seemed to be “clarity, clarity, clarity,” as a fuller quotation from Perkins indicates: “Preaching must be plain, perspicuous, and evident … It is a byword among us: It was a very plain sermon: And I say again, the plainer, the better.”

39. Ibid., pp. 105, 106.


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