How Did Luther’s Use of Language Allow the Protestant Reformation to Succeed?

May 2013

Word Count: 3990
Word count: 299

    Since its creation, Luther’s Reformation has been a centre of theological debates and increasingly since the internet called a “Social Media Revolution”. Theological analyses, mainly from the nineteenth Century, often focus on Luther’s interpretation of scripture and attribute great credit to this for the Reformation’s ability to unite Germans and its success. Other historians attribute the success to the liberating nature of Luther’s message. Since the sixteenth century, the press has frequently been seen as vital to Luther’s success. In addition to confirming the press’s importance, I will also show how Luther’s use of language in fact played a greater role than most historians mention. For this investigation it will be assumed that the Protestant Reformation did succeed, as the Lutheran ideologies are still present and this investigation will not be debating this issue.
    Luther’s “use of language” is interpreted as literally his language, but also how he changed and distributed his language. This will be analyzed in four sections: his translated Bible, his hymns, his use of the printing press, and his language in comparison with the Catholic opposition’s use. I became aware of the often-underestimated significance of Luther’s hymns through my personal interest in music. The Catholic opposition concludes after Luther’s use has been described and can be compared to the its response.
    The sources which will be considered include museums such as the Story of Berlin Museum and the Gutenberg Museum, two museums which can provide thorough background to developments in Germany. Biographies on Luther such as that by Obermann and modern interpretations on the Reformation such as Edwards’ book will also be explored as they provide comprehensive research on the Reformation from acknowledged academic experts. German analyses from the 19th Century will also be used because of the differences between Lutheran and Catholic interpretations.

    In October 1517 a little-known Wittenberg theologian, Martin Luther, famously sparked the Protestant Reformation with his 95 theses nailed to the local church, voicing his concerns on the growing corruption in the Church of Rome and how to solve the problem between the overruling power of the Church and the German peasants living under its rule. To spread his message Luther and his allies took advantage of the recently-invented printing press and within the first decade of the Reformation, 6-7 million pamphlets advocating Lutheran ideologies were sold. Rather than the theologic and scholarly language Latin, Luther controversially promoted his message in German, the language of the “stupid people”, as Cardinal Cajetan put it in 1518. Luther saw that the Church was abusing its power as sole interpreter of the Bible and thus argued the Bible should instead be open to everyone, including the common German, for interpretation. To express this, Luther translated the Bible from the incomprehensible and exclusive language of the scholars to vernacular German. In doing so, Luther gave rise to a new religion giving each believer the right to interpret the Bible and at the same time created the first basis for a modern, common German Language, today’s Hochdeutsch. Despite being excommunicated before the peak of his Reformation, Luther’s Protestant Reformation was so well-known and widespread that the entire city of Berlin followed Luther’s movement just four years after Luther’s theses. It is remarkable that, in the face of the extreme power of the Church, the Protestant Reformation was not crushed, but instead flourished.
    Luther and his message certainly could not have survived against a sentence of excommunication and death threats alone. The Protestant Reformation had to reach and unite every German to be able to withstand the powerful Church of Rome and in fact come to a moderate compromise between sides in 1555. Historians like Karl Blind agree Luther’s movement was not just theological, but also crucial to the precipitation of a national German movement. Blind's argument was summarized by modern political scientist Benedict Anderson as due to the homogenization of the German language. Thus language, one of Luther’s most powerful weapons used to advocate his message and influence his followers, will be investigated as to how Luther’s used it to aid the success of the Protestant Reformation.

Obstacles Faced by Luther in 1517
    Central Europe in 1519 was a conglomeration of states mixed within each other;  a “jigsaw puzzle” as articulated by Simon Winder, author of Germania, a modern novel highlighting Germany’s long history. In fact, this describes a very accurate representation of the lands in central Europe at the time. France, Poland, Spain, even the southern Holy Roman Empire were complete political states with a common language, political system and identity. This contrasted starkly with the rainbow of Germanic regions at Europe’s center, whose language was that of the peasants unlike the Latin of the scholars or the Hebrew and Greek of the clergymen. The language can however not be simplified to just “the German language”, as many speakers of the language often could not understand the dialects of other regions often not far away. Luther is quoted saying that people living just 30 miles apart could not understand each other due to differences in dialects. Even each dialect lacked rules as to how to write German. Again as Luther himself wrote, “I have so far read no book or letter in which the German language is properly handled. Nobody seems to care sufficiently for it; and every preacher thinks he has a right to change it at pleasure, and to invent new terms.” Appealing to the whole German nation would prove to be a large problem for Luther.
    In France, England, Switzerland and the Netherlands, national identities had already begun to form at the time of the Reformation. As Obermann argues in his book, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Germany lagged behind here because “all resources for national cohesion were sacrificed to a medieval imperial dream”. These sacrifices were made by the Holy Roman Empire’s dynastic emperors for three generations. In 1519, It was suggested by the government of the Hapsburg Netherlands that Europe should be divided into nations, an independent German nation with the king included. Emperor Charles I quickly denied the proposition, as a large empire was needed for the “defense of Christendom”. When the states of Germany suggested the creation of a national council which would experiment with the idea of a united German Church like the Church of England created at the same time, Charles I forbade any such council. However, the common German would not be aware of these actions as he did not see his land as the Holy Roman Empire; he considered only as far as the common language region, and perhaps the regions over which the relevant elector or prince presided. Sworn oaths and allegiances were not “Germany” but to the local duke.
Success Through Luther’s Translated Bible
    Luther’s concentration on his translations amidst excommunication and threats of death shows how crucial this was to him. He revealed his first edition of the New Testament in September of 1522 and completed the Old testament and thus the full Bible in September of 1534. The Old Testament was such a challenging task that he originally refused to do it. With the help of many friends and advisors, he completed very different translations of the scripture the Old and New Testament in comparison to that of previous and contemporary versions. There were no dictionaries or rules of proper grammar, thus it took Luther 12 years and many helpers to complete the edition of the Bible, which was amended repeatedly until Luther’s death in 1546.

Uniqueness of Luther’s Version
    The first and most critical decision Luther made in translating was to base the translation on the original languages. Instead of using the Latin Vulgate as other translators had done in the past, Luther went to the roots of the Vulgate, the original Hebrew and Greek texts. He thus freed himself from the bonds of Catholic translations, important for conveying his powerful, contrary message against the papists and could now begin his translations without guidelines of previous translations and with freedom to manipulate the German language for the greatest effect.
    The chosen dialect for his translations was that of Saxony. Although chosen because he was conveniently from the area and was also held in the Wartburg castle during his translation, it was the ideal dialect a translator could have chosen. Saxony’s geographic location at the very center of Germany in the Holy Roman Empire allowed for maximum appeal to all Germany. A Bible based on the dialect from Zurich would have been far less likely to be understood by Germans as far away as Wittenberg, and perhaps this is the reason Zwingli’s Bible from Zurich does not receive as much recognition.
    Nonetheless, the 30 miles Luther observed does not stretch very far and Luther needed to make adjustments to gain the maximum amount of followers in the whole of Germany. Luther went out to speak to the common person in the marketplace and found he needed to alter the words for the sake of understanding, instead of grammatical accuracy.  Often Luther would spend weeks searching for the right word; one that conveyed the intended meaning but also sounded right to the ear. Luther’s earliest biographer states Luther even asked the local butcher to cut up several sheep so he could learn the names of each organ. This careful attention to the oral aspect of the translation was particularly significant as most Germans were part of the illiterate lower class. The word from the Bible had to be spread to such peasants by public readings, which, as Philip Schaff estimates, could have reached ten times the amount of people, distributing itself vastly in Germany. Its readability carried its impact far beyond any other translations; while others have gone out of use, Luther’s Bible remains in use to this day.
    Luther himself only knew Greek and Hebrew to a certain extent, but his colleagues and fellow translators, such as the theologian-humanist Melanchthon, made up for what Luther’s own brilliance could not. However, in the crucial part of the equation, the Saxon dialect, Luther was proficient. Luther is often quoted as expressing himself with such colloquialisms, lack of restraint and willingness to surprise his audience to enforce his message. For example, Luther addressed the devil: “But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite.”
    Extracts from the Old Testament translation demonstrates the vast difference in language used between Luther and earlier and contemporary versions. Luther chose to substitute the more vernacular words like “wirstu” and “finster” for the less common words among the people: “wirst du” and “vinsternus”. Unpopular, complicated words like “erbarm” and “abgrund” were left out. “Weysheyt” and “schwebet” were more common spellings and thus replaced “weißhait” and “swebet”. Germans heard their own language and understood the ideas free from forced attempts by wealthy scholars unable t convey the biblical metaphors and symbolism.

An Instant Hit
    The words Luther wrote became the everyday words of the people. The phrases Luther used in an attempt to translate the Greek and Hebrew idioms became common, just as the King James Version created common idioms for English. As Professor Warren Washburn Florer describes in a philological article, Luther’s Bible was “the important factor in the New High German written language.” By examining the change in gender from Middle High German to New High German, he shows Luther’s writing influenced all of Germany even in this most fickle area of language. Where Luther changed the gender of a noun, so did it later in New High German. Philologist Friedrich Kluge claims a comparison between Luther’s Bible and Johannes Eck’s contemporary German Catholic Bible shows that Luther’s Bible follows the rules of the modern High German more than its Catholic counterpart. This conveys the acceptance of Luther’s Bible into the language and use of it  as the basis for the first step towards today’s modern High German.
    Schaff writes that Luther’s first edition of the New Testament in 1522 was so popular that all previous translations immediately became obsolete. Schaff, who wrote an extensive eight-volume History of the Christian Church in 1882 while teaching theology in America, was a fervent Protestant who often began arguments over the importance of teaching the original German theology in German. This may have influenced his view as he provides little evidence besides the features of Luther’s Bible and only one example of a Bible contemporary of Luther which is no longer printed.  Nevertheless, besides insulting Luther’s Bible as a “unfaithful translation”, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 admits Luther’s work had “indisputable linguistic merits” which allowed it to surpass previous German translations, unpopular due to their “antiquated language”.
    Mark Edwards, Jr. estimated the cost of a simple unbound, undecorated New Testament to be equivalent to two weeks’ wages of a baker, fourth months’ wages of a serving maid at the hospital of Vienna, 430 eggs, or 150 kilograms of wheat. Despite these costs, Luther sold unbelievable quantities of his Bible. If Luther had accepted money for his Bible, he would have been very wealthy, as between 1534 and 1574, 100,000 copies were sold. Just his New testament sold about 5000 copies in the first two months. This figure is further emphasized when the total number of Bibles sold and the literacy in Germany are taken into account. Edwards, as well as the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, estimate German literacy at the beginning of the Reformation at 5%. Given that the German population at this time was about 7.2 million, about 415,000 people could read. Dutch historian Kooiman calculated that half a million complete Bibles and parts of the Bible were printed just in Luther’s lifetime. Assuming that 85,000 Bibles were not printed without the necessary demand, more people than were literate were buying the Bible.
    Luther made people want to become literate. Normally it would take the common German people, “dreamy, drunken and incapable of intrigue” in Charles I’s eyes, incredible amounts of effort and motivation to accomplish such a task. But Luther’s language was able to appeal to every corner of Germany, the illiterate and literate alike. Even a contemporary of Luther, the young theologian Erasmus Alber, realized the profound effect Luther had on Germany. He called Luther the German Cicero because he not only reformed religion but also the German language. Thus, Luther was able to convey his message and influence his followers much better than his Catholic opponents.
    Before Luther, Germans saw the Church as the power which governed their lives through the Bible, left in an incomprehensible language. Now it was in the language of the peasant, most often held as the only book in their homes. Germans realized their right to interpret the Holy Book and as witnessed by Johann Cochlaeus, Catholic opponent of Luther, readers of Luther’s Bible took the new Word as pure truth. The result was that they felt themselves learned enough to challenge not only Catholic laymen, but also such pious people as monks.

The Power of Luther’s Hymns
    To further spread his message, Luther used his lesser-known knowledge of music and created hymns carrying the liberating Lutheran ideologies. This medium is often overlooked as historical sources by historians studying Luther’s movement, but its impact on the dissemination of his message should not be underestimated. Lyrical music was the most contagious medium of his language forms, as a hymn could engrave a message into people’s minds by making them sing it themselves. Luther was exceptionally musically proficient according to John Walter, court composer to the elector of Saxony: “[Luther’s] discourse concerning music was most noble.” This musical knowledge allowed Luther to accurately convey feeling through music and to create melodies which could be sung in the sanctuary. From there, Luther again used his substantial knowledge of the vernacular German and allowed Germans to take part in mass by not restricting congregational singing to only the clergy and choir. Luther illustrated that the hymns let the word of God “come to life”, further engaging Germans in Church happenings. Furthermore, the nature of a hymn allowed these hymns to infiltrate the German life easily; it did not have to be purchased and was transmitted orally, thus breaching economic barriers and disseminating quickly.
    Coleridge acknowledged this: “Luther did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as by his translation of the Bible.” This is provocative as Luther’s Bible is more often credited with the successful impact on the Reformation. Nevertheless Coleridge’s assertion shows that the English knew Luther’s hymns, continuing on to describe his hymns as becoming known to every German “by heart” and spread through translations to places such as England. Project Wittenberg, tasked with collecting works from Luther and his fellow Lutherans, shows that Luther was a prolific hymn-writer, writing 39 hymns, all of which have been translated into English and several other languages. Luther’s most popular hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, one I remember singing in a Presbyterian Church often, is published today in 564 hymnals. To compare, “Silent Night” is cited as published in only 481 hymnals. Coleridge’s assertion can be said to be justified, given that Luther’s works were also popular at the time: of 10 hymnals published between 1524 and 1545 the majority of hymns inside all the hymnals were written by Luther. Catholic opponents found they were concerned about and even envious of Luther’s works with hymns, as they could not convey their words in song due to their own principles.
Use of the Printing Press and Propaganda
    Three-quarters of a century before Luther’s movement, Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type. Suddenly, writing could be printed and copied as easily as setting the correct ink-covered letters in and pressing down on a piece of paper. In the previous several hundred years, literature and science was constrained to the activities of monks, who would only copy manuscripts. This lead to extensive libraries, but minimal progress and new works. Around 1450, the press was created and enabled just two people to produce more prints than 250 monks could produce in the same amount of time. The business spread and by the time of Luther there was a printing press in almost every major city; two hundred in Europe, sixty in Germany. It wasn’t until the Reformation that the new invention revealed its true potential.
    Luther referred to the printing press as “God’s highest and extremist act of grace.” Luther and his friends used the new press skillfully to their advantage and simultaneously revealed how powerful it could be. Luther’s 95 theses were translated by friends, and only a fortnight after publication, the whole of Germany was familiar with Luther and the whole of Europe in a month. Luther realized the potential power and deliberately wrote his message in German to give it to the local Wittenberg publisher. In the subsequent years of the Reformation, Luther and fellow Evangelicals produced hoards of pamphlets establishing remarkable recognition and support. Luther’s popularity increased such that his signature on treatises eventually became the simple pen-name M. L. A., a shortening of the previous Martin Luther, Augustinian. Of the 10,000 pamphlet editions that appeared between 1500 and 1530, 75% were created at the height of the Reformation, 1520-1526, most of which on the topic of the Reformation. His treatises were just as popular and numbered twenty copies to every literate person in the empire, reinforcing the idea that the illiterate were also beginning to read. Prior to the press, one had to be in a high position of power or in direct contact with their audience to affect so many people so fast.
    Pamphlets were Luther’s most valuable weapon as they could be copied and distributed most easily. He used the language he created in translating the Bible in the outstanding number of pamphlets he published, which were purchased easily for the cost of only a pound of wax. As Köhler shows, this was certainly not a cheap price, but was still in range of the target audience, the common German. Within the first decade of the Reformation, 6-7 million Lutheran pamphlets were sold. Between 1518 and 1525, more works of Luther were published than the next seventeen evangelical publicists combined. Using every surviving pamphlet they could find, Köhler and the Tübingen Flugschriften Project under his direction studied Luther’s pamphlet propaganda and revealed they made up 20 percent of all pamphlets in Germany between 1500 and 1530. This is remarkable, as his Reformation did not start until more than halfway through this period.
    Bernd Moeller established his thesis in a 1979 essay, that without the printing press, there would not have been a Reformation; Luther’s propaganda had such great appeal on Germans because of the natural communal feeling which Germans possessed and with which Germans found a connection to Luther. Harvard historian Steven Ozment has used Moeller’s thesis as the starting point and focus of his counter-argument, arguing that Reformation propaganda had such appeal due to its liberating rather than communal nature. However, Ozment overlooks why the common German would relate this information to himself and how he would learn of such revolutionary thoughts. Without the ability to appeal to the German community, Luther could not have inflated the strong nationalism which he needed to overcome his opponents. In fact, Luther’s Reformation can be compared to a similar movement a century and a half before. John Wyclif and his pupil Jan Hus spoke strongly against the Church just as Luther did, but also spanning two generations and two areas in Europe (England and Bohemia). However, they were not able to spread their movement and gain enough support before Hus was executed and Wyclif posthumously excommunicated. They were preaching liberation from the church much like Luther, however, the lack of time and perhaps printing press attributed to the lack of translations to appeal to the commoners. Luther in comparison had gained so much support his sentence of excommunication in 1521 could not be fully enforced as he had too much widespread support and his movement could not be quieted.

The Catholic Response
    To understand why Luther’s use of language aided the success of the Reformation, we must understand not only why his use was so successful but also why it triumphed over his opponents. The Catholics also had access to the printing press and could distribute more propaganda because of the Church’s larger budget. Theoretically, the Catholics should have been able to surpass Luther’s publications, therefore gaining more support. Indeed, Catholic opponents’ publications with titles like Concerning Doctor Martin Luther’s Teaching and Preaching, That They Are Suspicious And Not To Be Considered Completely Trustworthy warned Germans that they should not think Luther was the font of all knowledge.
    However, the opposition produced few publications, and what they did publish only acted against their goals. At the start of the Reformation, Luther realized any publicity is good publicity as by publishing works against Luther, the Catholics only increased German awareness of Luther and his movement. Indeed, Catholic publications directly contradicted  Catholic policy. In every pamphlet or treatise an opponent published, the argument was that such religious matters should not be debated with peasant Germans, yet, by publishing a pamphlet in German, they were letting the peasant German know of these religious disputes. Therefore, if Catholic opponents did nothing against Luther’s controversial vernacular printings, the printings would flourish; but if they published anything against Luther, it would be a contradiction in terms and simultaneously increase the Germans’ awareness of Luther’s movement and the Church’s own conflicting and inconsistent nature. Thus, the Church published far less works in German and instead focused on keeping their Latin-speaking clergy. Meanwhile, Luther continued to speak directly to the Germans and gain support.
    Luther triumphed over his opponents also because of the vast difference between his and the Papists’ approach. The Catholic approach was to keep the citizens of their empire on their side while simultaneously insulting them. Thomas Murner, a Franciscan theologian who published 5 treatises against Luther’s, referred to Germans as the “ignorant and rebellious commoners” and the derogatory “Karsthans”– hoe-carrying peasant. Luther preached freedom while the Catholics patronized. The Catholic opposition simply failed against Luther’s mass production of language and ability to appeal to the German people.
    The existence of Luther’s widespread support, without which Luther might have become another figure of failed change just as Wyclif and Hus became, was crucial in keeping the Protestant reformation alive. As language was the only way to communicate with followers, Luther’s use of language was thus essential to the proliferation of his movement.
    Ozment realizes the common Germans were attracted to Luther’s message because of its liberating nature but neglects to appreciate fully how language allowed Luther to appeal to Germans without a common language between Germans. Unlike Zwingli, Luther’s choice of language and use of hymns gave him the possibility to reach every German and accurately convey the complex metaphors of the Bible. Similarities between his Bible and the developments in the German language reveals his Bible’s profound effect on Germans, uniting them through language.
    Luther’s use of language was by nature directly against the church’s doctrines, therefore stripping the power form the church, for the church could not use the same method in defense and lost support. The people accepted his preachings because it gave them power; originally the book interpreted solely by the dogmatic Church was now in the hands of every German in a language they could understand and thus interpret. The effect was the increase of strong challengers to the Church as well as a desire to read. Such provocative writings made people want to become literate and as a result, there is a large unexplained abundance of Bible and pamphlet printings. Luther’s use of language was able to reach beyond the literate, triumphing over the Catholic opposition. Appendix 1

Ward, Prothero, and Leathes. "Germany at the Accession of Charles the V." Map. Maps Educational Technology Clearinghouse. Florida Center for Instructional Technology, n.d. Web. Appendix 2
Genesis 1:1–3.
The Koburger Bible of Nürnberg, 1483
In dem anfang hat got beschaffen hymel und erden. aber dye erde was eytel und leere. und die vinsternus warn auff dem antlitz des abgrunds. vnd der geist gots swebet oder
ward getragen auff den wassern. Un got der sprach. Es werde dz liecht. Un das liecht ist worden.

Luther’s Bible, ed. 1535
Im anfang schuff Gott himel und erden. Und die erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auff der tieffe, und der Geist Gottes schwebet auff dem wasser.
Un Gott sprach. Es werde liecht. Und es ward liecht.

Psalms 51.3,6-8
Caspar Amman, 1523; after the Hebrew original
Erbarm dich mein, o got, nach deiner barmhertzigkait…
Dir / allein dir hab ich gesündet / und das böß in deinen augen hab ich gethan /
Darumb wirst du gerecht sein so du röden wirst /
Und wirst rain scheinen so du richtten wirst.
Nym war in der sünd bin ich zu der geburt berait /
und in der sünd hat mich empfangen mein muter.
Nym war die warhait hast du begert in der mauren /
und in verborgenhait hast du mir zuwissen thon die weißhait.

Martin Luther, 1524; after the Hebrew original
Gott sey myr gnedig nach deyner guete / …
An dyr alleyne hab ich gesundigt / Und ubel fur dyr gethan.
Darumb wirstu recht bleyben ynn deynen worten /
Und reyn erfunden wenn du gerichtet wirst.
Sihe ich byn ynn untugent gemacht /
Und meyne mutter hat mich ynn sunden empfangen.
Sihe du hast lust zur warheyt /
Du lessest mich wissen die weysheyt heymlich verborgen.
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