This year, as many have already noted, marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, the generally-accepted official start to the Protestant Reformation. For this monumental anniversary, let’s look at some of the most important—yet often overlooked—factors that allowed the Reformation happen. Let’s not give Luther all the credit, though he certainly deserves a lot. Let’s look at the great supporting casts in the markets, trades, and town halls that made it all possible.
You’ve probably never considered the Reformation from this angle, but without these means, the Reformation would not have happened. For Reformation 500, let’s credit the entrepreneurs, businessmen, and social networks, for they were just as important and vital, and will be for the next Reformation as well.
Business and Entrepreneurship
Perhaps the greatest impact for all of the Reformation came in the work of a man who had no training at all in divinity or theology, who wrote nothing as far as we know, and made no contribution to the theological debates. His monumental contribution was purely material. The man was Johannes Gutenberg. His advance was the introduction to Europe of movable type and of the printing press.
By Luther’s time, about 3 to 4 percent of the population could read. While that doesn’t sound like much, it was enough when one person could read out loud to a room full, and especially when the nobles and people whose estates and money were at stake were the first to be educated to read. Luther wrote his 95 Theses in Latin for debate among his fellow clergy, but he translated the Bible into German, and he wrote several tracts and pamphlets in German, and the people read and heard them all. The tracts got copied, and copied, and copied, etc. “More books were printed in the forty years between 1460 and 1500 than had been produced by scribes and monks throughout the entire Middle Ages.” By Luther’s time there were printing presses in sixty-two cities in Germany alone. In the mere three years between the posting of the Theses and 1520, Luther wrote thirty tracts which printers turned out into 300,000 copies. The printing press was the internet of the day, getting vital information and new ideas about Christian freedom and responsibility out to millions of people globally.
This was accomplished, not because someone decided to increase his quiet time by ten minutes in the morning, not because he built a church campus with a Youth Center and a Starbucks, not through yet one more sermon series on obeisance to sermons and contributing to the building fund, but through good old fashioned business entrepreneurship. Gutenberg did not have in mind lofty ideas of spirituality or reforming the church at all. He was a goldsmith and an inventor; he was what today some leftist would call a greedy capitalist: he was trying to find a way to print more stuff faster and make more money—which is perfectly, biblically sound as long as it is done within the realm of God’s law. He used his skills as a goldsmith working with metals to create moveable type; he put these together with a screw-press to do the printing. Along with advances others had made in production of paper and oil-based ink, he created the Facebook of his era and revolutionized human communication. He did this not from within the walls of a church building, but from the workrooms and offices of business. The people who reprinted Luther’s pamphlets hundreds of thousands of times may have done so less out of a concern for piety than for profit, but in doing so they “ran the race,” and I suspect a good number of those among them today sit among the great cloud of witnesses.
We should not fear to gain business savvy. William Tyndale, for example, was as much a businessman as a theologian. He encountered great opposition with his English translation of the New Testament, especially in England where it really counted because they spoke English. The account of his first edition runs thusly:
A curious tale is related of how he contrived to turn the devices of his foes to advantage. The Archbishop of Canterbury [Whalem at the time] was buying up his translations for burning and commissioned a certain Packington to scour the continent for more. The man went straight to Tyndale himself and informed him that he had discovered a merchant who would clean out his stock.
“Who is this merchant?” said Tyndale.
“The bishop of London,” said Packington.
“Oh, that is because he will burn them,” said Tyndale.
“Yea, marry,” quoth Packington.
“I am the gladder,” said Tyndale, “for these two benefits will come of it: I shall get money from him for these books and bring myself out of debt, and the whole world shall cry out on the burning of God’s Word, and the overplus of the money shall make me more studious to correct the said New Testament, and so newly to imprint the same once again; and I trust the second will much better like you that ever did the first.”
And the account concludes: “And so forward went the bargain: the bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money.”
The work of translation itself did not go without an ironic legacy: after Tyndale was betrayed and executed in the Netherlands, the King of England ordered the Bible to be translated into English for the churches. He assigned this task to Myles Coverdale who was not proficient in Greek and Hebrew, nor did he have time to meet the strict deadline the king put on him. As a result, Coverdale essentially copied most of Tyndale’s translation. In the heritage of the English Bible that followed, Tyndale’s laid the foundation of Coverdale’s, Rogers’ “Matthews” Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, and the King James. The Chicago Divinity professor E. J. Goodspeed writing in 1925 said, “None of these is more than a revision of Tyndale,” for which Tyndale contributed “more than all others combined. He has shaped the religious vocabulary of the English-speaking world.”
Small group solidarity, resistance, and social change
One of the least talked-about aspects of the spread of the Reformation is the role played by the orders of monks originating within the Roman church. The bonds built between brothers within these orders were often in reality stronger than allegiances to pope or prince. This is because they were real human relationships, shared commitments, shared sacrifices, emotions, and lives. These things transcend other relationships, and that’s why God has structured society from the bottom-up, placing the family as the nuclear unit of dominion, then the church, then community, and state. Relationships built through the family, local business, and church should serve as the glue of all else.
Luther himself belonged to the order of Augustinians, or Austin Friars as they were called in England. When the controversy around Luther broke out in Germany, the people who gave him the readiest hearing in England—even at the risk of angering the king—were the Austin Friars. Some of the greatest names of the Reformation either belonged to the Austin Friars at Cambridge or had associations with them: Thomas Bilney, Hugh Latimer (the Oxford Matyr), Robert Barnes, William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale, and Thomas Cranmer (later Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the English Book of Common Prayer). Many of these men went to school together, ministered together, and met regularly at a tavern called the The White Horse Inn (the real one). Over beer they talked, discussed, and debated. They had fellowship, they had community, and they developed deep personal bonds that, for the gospel and the work of God’s Kingdom, flowed naturally and effectively. In short, they developed a community solidarity which helped them work together, resist evil, and forge ahead.
Perhaps nowhere in modern history has the theme of community solidarity (of members uniting as one group and gaining strength thereby) appeared more prominently than in Poland under Communistic rule in 1980. A strongly Roman Catholic country by tradition, Poland was suffering food and supply shortages in the waning decade of Communism. In 1978, during this time of state atheism and suppression of religion, the Roman Catholic Church elected Karol Wojtyla, Bishop of Krakow, as the first ever Polish Pope. Renamed John Paul II, the new Pope quickly traveled to speak in Poland in 1979 and was cheered by millions. In defiance of the official atheism and oppressive conditions, he preached for freedom of religion, human rights, and an end to violence. He inspired the nation—as well as much of Eastern Europe and the rest of the world—to believe that something bigger than Communism was on their side. They only needed the bravery to stand together in faith.
Within a year, after the government vaulted meat prices during an already acute shortage, self-organized strikes broke out all over Poland. The price hikes came on July 1. Meanwhile, the government was plundering supplies to send to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics which were scheduled to begin on July 19. In an fateful twist, a rail worker in Lublin was poking around some freight cars that sat waiting for shipment to Moscow. Spying the cars full of paint cans, the worker curiously popped one open. To his surprise he found it packed with choice meats. More cans revealed more scarce goods. The news spread. The workers immediately made the connection. Hoards of food were being diverted to Moscow to make the failing Soviet Union appear prosperous as nations and media flooded in from around the world for the Olympics.
People were furious. Strikes spread like wildfire. The rail workers welded the train’s wheels to the rails and distributed the meat and food to the people. A month later, support was so strong that a non-governmental trade-union named “Solidarity” was created and forced the government to begin to back down.
The communist State immediately reacted, however, enforcing martial law and outlawing the Solidarity union. But the attempt to destroy the union failed, only driving the united movement underground. In 1983, another visit from the Pope provided a stage for massive regathering and rallying of Solidarity with hopes and expressions of eventual victory. His message to the Poles remained constant from 1979 until the Communist State ultimately fell: “Fear not.” Pope John Paul II’s efforts at toppling Communism reached far beyond his 1979 visit to Poland. He had lived through dictatorship himself, worked with underground churches throughout the Eastern Bloc in direct defiance of Communist rule. His leadership among the Poles is now widely accepted as one key factor leading to the end of Soviet rule.
The lesson of Solidarity is that when individuals unite around a legitimate God-honoring purpose, they gain a strength that can overcome the greatest of enemies. Had the Poles remained as disassociated individuals, or even in associated but complacent churches, they would likely never have had the strength to oppose that enemy. Despite whatever individual skill they had, they need the strengths that community provides in order to advance the cause.
As part of the work Reformation, we must join in such fellowship with each other, support each other, and look for ways to bring others into a working community of Reformation-minded believers. Truth is, outside of the Body of Christ, there is no genuine community; but within it, truth, justice, and solidarity transcend the walls of every institution. We need to strengthen that community among ourselves, and then offer others a way in that demonstrates freedom and prosperity than any of the inflated promises corrupt governments or central banks can offer. In doing so, we will strengthen our shared commitments to Christ, to the faith, and to overcoming the adversities that lie before us in the way.
In other words, we need both the one and the many: we need pervasive individual effort in business and entrepreneurship, as well as networking efforts to unite the strengths and aims of the Christian body as a whole. If we lack focused and faithful individual efforts, the community will be like a herd of thoughtless cattle: weak before the forces of political propaganda, easily herded into the corrals of tyranny. But if we have only individual efforts and no focused community, we will be more like a herd of cats: everyone self-willed, independent, disorganized, and not able to be organized; each distracted chasing their own rat, after their own prize, hissing at the next when they get too close. We must have dedication to both goals, individual output and concentration on community. But the focuses must not only be on the modes of organization, but on the means: business, work, capital, savings, stewardship, fellowship, mission, cause, small group, activism, justice. With these goals, the members of the church, as the Body of Christ, will thrive, and Reformation can spread once again.
 Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 199.
 Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250–1550, 199.
 See Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston, MA: The Beacon Press, 1952), 195–6.
 Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Making of the English New Testament (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1925), 13.
 Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 113–4.
 Imanuel Geiss, Zukunft als Geschichte: Historisch-politische Analysen und Prognosen zum Untergang des Sowjetkommunismus, 1980-1991 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998), 101.
 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, “Miracle of Solidarity Ended Communism: Polish Patriots Changed History 25 Years Ago,” Human Events, September 26, 2005; available at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1492257/posts, accessed December 1, 2008.
 Andrew Nagorski, “After Pope John Paul II: Look to Home,” The New Republic, April 18, 2005; available at http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/JPII/nag.html, accessed December 1, 2008.
 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, “Miracle of Solidarity Ended Communism: Polish Patriots Changed History 25 Years Ago.”
 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, “Miracle of Solidarity Ended Communism: Polish Patriots Changed History 25 Years Ago.”