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“Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.” — Martin Luther

“What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage . . . for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored.” —Mark Twain

1450; 1492; and 1517—three years from the eons of human history that have shaken and shaped our world down to this very day. 1492 is easily remembered due to the “Columbus sailing the ocean blue” ditty. If your memory is still good, you may recall from your catechism days that 1517 is the year Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door. And in 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable type printing press in Mainz, Germany.

“My times are in Your hand,” we read in Psalm 31:15. What a comfort it is to know the Lord is watching out and caring for us. But the Lord’s care and protection does not end there. God controls the world, commands the universe, and writes man’s history for the good of His Church.

Before Gutenberg began printing on his press, a monk could take up to fifteen months to copy a Bible by hand. The first printing run of the Bible in Latin on his press took Gutenberg three years, but produced around two hundred copies. The new printing methods began to catch on quickly and spread throughout Europe. As a result, books and information (think early newspapers) became readily available and at a steadily declining cost. Many historians agree that without Gutenberg’s gift, the following period of the Renaissance would have been impossible.

We know there were several religious reformers who came before Luther. Yet, while their teachings smoldered and sputtered, the reformation at Luther’s time burst into flames and continued. One difference was the printed word. When Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg in 1517, broadsheet copies of this document were being printed seventeen days later in London. Luther’s tracts, books, and sermons were being printed at a frenzied rate, and the people clamored for more. While the Roman Catholic Church lauded the use of the press for the printing of Scriptures, they also decried the fact that their erstwhile monk, Martin Luther, had become the world’s first best-selling author. Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German sold five thousand copies in just two weeks. From 1518 to 1525, Luther’s writings accounted for a third of all the books sold in Germany. Religious scholars agree that Gutenberg’s press played a major part in helping the Reformation to take hold.

Even though Columbus’s 1492 “discovery” of the New World was surely preceded by the native Americans, Vikings, and others, it was his landing that led to the eventual exploration and settling of the land. After a few short decades, the Catholic French were safely ensconced in Canada. The Catholic Spanish were entrenched in South America and spreading northward into the North American continent. The Protestants of England and other countries sought religious refuge in the lands between—the future United States of America. These Christian outcasts came to the New World with their printed Bibles and tracts, books of sermons and theology. They built schools to teach the same to the ensuing generations. It is estimated that at the time of our American Revolution, 90% of the American colonists were literate, compared to some 50% of their English brethren. This was surely an example of adhering to the Lord’s directive to “Teach them [God’s Words] diligently to your children. . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:7) Where would our Lutheran heritage be in this country if it were not for the faithful resolve of Luther and our forefathers, and the inventive genius of Gutenberg?

Thanks be to God for His intervening hand in our history!

David W. Bernthal is a retired teacher. He lives in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.