Media History Project

Religion and Printing

From their beginnings in the 15th century, printing presses were tools for promulgating faith and religious points of view. In the nearly seventy years between Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible and the printing of Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament, there were about twenty translations of the Bible in German. Instead of depending upon the explanations of priests, common people read for themselves what the Gospels said about the poor and oppressed.

The religious reformers were indifferent to secular learning, one reason that the humanists felt alienated from the Reformation. The two great movements may have been critical of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were also mistrustful of each other. Reformers saw humanism as a pagan reversion to classical culture. The humanists saw the Reformation as a backsliding to the Dark Ages. Luther exalted faith, was derogatory of scholarship, and had no use for reason as the guide for men’s conduct. The humanists had no taste for theology. Heaven and Hell were myths to the humanists, perhaps less real than the myths of Greece and Rome.



The reformers left the established Church. The humanists, although they initially praised Luther’s attacks on corruption, pulled away from Protestant theology. The two movements occurred during the same historical period, and both used printing extensively to disseminate their literature, but their proponents had little in common beyond a mutual dislike.


Before the invention of printing, when few but Church scholars were literate or had access to books, the ecclesiastical authorities thought little about heresy in books, being more concerned about preachers who spoke to the masses in the common language. Medieval bishops actually supported civil illiteracy.

In the decades after Gutenberg the Church turned to printing. It set up its own printshops, mixing religious with political purposes. With the publication of a Bible in the German vernacular, that relaxed attitude changed because Rome saw it as a challenge to its power as the sole interpreter of God’s Word.

Church and state were cautious about new religious books in any language but Latin. They had no problem with romances, folk tales, and children’s books in the vernacular, but worried about anything that challenged the control of authorities. The archbishop of Mainz, Gutenberg’s city, required permission to print any book. One of the principal concerns of the Church about printing had less to do with common people, most of whom were illiterate anyhow, than with priests and monks themselves.


ALPAHBET TO INTERNET: Mediated Communication in Our Lives

by Irving Fang

Published 2008 by Rada Press