How Martin Luther Changed Christianity With the Help of Technology

Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529. (Deutsches Historisches Museum)
Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529. (Deutsches Historisches Museum)

Five centuries ago, Christians in Europe who hoped to go to heaven knew they might first have to spend a few thousand years in a fiery purgatory, where they would be purified of their outstanding sins.

It was not a pleasant thought, but the Catholic Church offered some hope: A cash offering to the local priest could buy an “indulgence” certificate, entitling the believer to a shorter purgatory sentence.

In practice, the money often went into the pockets of corrupt church officials and their political allies. So in 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther decided to protest the practice. On or about Oct. 31 of that year, he publicly presented 95 handwritten “theses” against the sale of indulgences.

Luther expected only to prompt a debate within Christian circles, but with that act he sparked a revolution. The Protestant Reformation that followed his protest upended the political and ecclesiastical order across Europe.

For the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) has mounted an exhibition that chronicles Luther’s life and work. One of the objects on display is an actual 16th century indulgence chest, complete with iron plates, heavy hinges and five separate locks. People wishing to purchase an indulgence dropped their coins in a slot on the top of the box.

“It was meant to be shut tight,” says Tom Rassieur, who curated the MIA exhibition.

More than 400 artworks and historical objects are on display in the exhibition, including some of Luther’s personal possessions and archaeological artifacts from his personal residence in Eisleben, Germany. Many of the items have not been displayed outside Germany before, and the exhibition as a whole is the most comprehensive collection of Luther-related objects ever assembled in one place.

“When we were contacted by museum officials in Germany,” says MIA director Kaywin Feldman, “our number one question was, ‘How can we make this the best Luther show ever?’ ”

The exhibit makes clear that Luther’s spectacular success was in large part a propaganda phenomenon. His broadside against Catholic Church practices might have gone unnoticed were it not for the introduction a few decades earlier of a new technology: the printing press. Luther’s challenge to church authority was incendiary, and German printers immediately recognized a hot property.

“As an entrepreneurial venture, they set the 95 Thesesinto type, printed them and reproduced them,” says Rassieur. “When they saw how rapidly they were selling, they made copies and copies and copies. It went viral.”

The MIA exhibit includes several versions of the printed theses, including a pocket-sized edition just four pages long. One copy was printed in Basel, in present-day Switzerland, not more than two months after Luther posted his own handwritten version.

“That means Luther’s words had already reached out hundreds of miles,” Rassieur says. “When Luther’s ideas started to spread, there was no way they could be stopped.” No one knows how many copies of the 95 Theses were printed, but Rassieur says there were probably “thousands and thousands,” given the number of editions that were immediately produced.

As with the Internet centuries later, Luther showed how a new information technology could change the world.

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Tom Gjelten

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