Book Review: Brand Luther

Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation by Andrew Pettegree (Penguin: New York, 2015), 338 pgs.

The flood of words in books and articles, on blogs, and at conferences commemorating, discussing, and making hay of 1517 is already here. One of the insights of Andrew Pettegree’s new book on Luther and the media of his day is that this flood is nothing new. The German printing market boomed in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in large part thanks to Luther’s very modern ability to write about theology in clear, brief, and convincing vernacular language, and fortunes were made printing and publishing in the German world where each printer could without hindrance reprint the Luther texts from Wittenberg he knew would sell by the hundreds and thousands. Pettegree marshals a very detailed knowledge of that particular story into line with the larger stories of the Reformation and Luther’s life and career.

            Pettegree does not write for the specialist. He uses the word “Reformation” with a capital R and without any discussion of a variety of “reformations,” including a Catholic one. Although the book covers the period from roughly 1480 to 1580, the word “confessionalization” does not appear once even when he is talking about the clarification of confession and political status at events like the Diet of Speyer in 1529 or the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580. Commendably, he wants to make the outline of the history of the Reformation, the biography of Luther, and the role of printing in both comprehensible to someone neither pursuing a degree in or making a living from the subject.

            The narrative heart of the book is the biography of Luther, traced from his father’s investment in copper mines to his death at Eisleben seeking to reconcile feuding brothers. Someone without much or any very clear knowledge of Luther’s life story will gain it from this book. Into the bargain, Pettegree draws Luther without enlisting him as the herald or hero of something much larger than himself. Pettegree’s Luther is not the harbinger of modern freedom of conscience, the German nation, or even of all the Lutheranism that followed him. He was a man of singularly great intellect and facility of expression who was courageously tenacious or foolishly obtuse, depending on one’s sympathies. He was mighty at Worms in defending a conscience captive to the Word of God, uniquely instrumental in the history of the German nation and the German language, and the theological progenitor of what Pettegree calls a new way of being a Christian community instantly recognizable to modern Lutherans in its devotion to Scripture and the primacy of congregational song. Yet Pettegree is careful never to make Luther merely the sum of everything or everyone he influenced, a cipher we fill in for ourselves in commemoration of the great man.

            This is most clear when Pettegree narrates Luther’s two major absences from Wittenberg between 1517 and his death in 1546—his friendly imprisonments at the Wartburg in 1521-22 and at Coburg Castle in 1530. It was during those times that we have the clearest picture of how much Luther was involved in from day to day as he wrote and agonized about all he could not control. He gave detailed instructions to his wife Katie in 1530 about how a manuscript should be yanked from one printer and given to another, even as the first printer sent a beautiful final copy of the book to him, arriving after Luther’s excoriating instructions were already en route home. As he wrote at a superhuman pace in 1520-22 and managed and reviewed everything from university curricula to the placement of pastors in rural Saxon parishes to numerous manuscripts at divers and sundry printers all at once, Luther’s energy is astounding and his very human frustrations and dislikes evident.

            The “brand” the title identifies is the distinctive appearance of Luther’s writings that the reformer promoted after early mishaps with Rhau-Grunenberg, the only printer in Wittenberg when Luther arrived there. There were six other centers of printing in the German world: Leipzig in nearby ducal Saxony with its own university, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Basel, Cologne, and Strasbourg. Wittenberg’s sole printer was terribly backward by comparison, and once the thirty-four-year-old, hitherto obscure professor of Bible began to make a sensation with the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses, which were quickly reprinted throughout the German world, Luther knew that Wittenberg needed a sophisticated, modern look for its German-language Flugschriften, the very brief, very pungent writings so popular across Germany, and for its academic works in Latin and eventually for the German Bible, issued in parts from the September Testament of 1522 to the first complete Bible printed by Hans Lufft in 1534. With the aid of Lucas Cranach and the Lotter printing family, Luther put together a “look” for even the smallest pamphlets that would make his name and Wittenberg’s name sufficiently famous for both “Luther” and “Wittenberg” to be used on writings that were not strictly his and certainly had not been printed in Wittenberg. A specialist in the history of books, especially printed books, Pettegree is at his most detailed when laying out the nature of early modern printing and why, for instance, a Leipzig printer with Catholic convictions would petition his staunchly Catholic ruler for the right to print Luther’s works for sale in his staunchly Catholic territory. The interconnection of Luther with the emerging print media of his time is so necessary to understanding his success in view of his early obscurity and later ignominy, and Pettegree demonstrates the interdependence of the writer and his market masterfully.

            In connection with that central story of Luther and his use of what were then new media in ways before unused by any theologian, Pettegree deftly adds a general sense of the flow of the Reformation (including the humanists like Erasmus and Pirckheimer initially sympathetic to it), political and theological opposition to it (including a very sympathetic portrait of John Eck), and its eventual theological diversity, introducing at least briefly everyone from the more famous Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin to the less famous but important Rhegius, Zell, and Müntzer. He is eloquent obviously on the role of printing and its suppression in markets more highly regulated than Germany’s, like France, England, or the Low Countries, where the suppression of early print media meant the suppression of nascent Lutheran sympathies. In a few paragraphs or a few pages, he covers topics as various as Zwingli’s progression from parish priest to his battlefield death, the relationship between Duke George of Saxony and Jerome Emser, and the southwestern German origins of the Bundschuh cause leading to the Peasants’ War of 1525. He is able to discuss all of this without becoming pondersome or superficial.

            There is much to enjoy here, not least the detailed maps of Luther’s world and well-chosen illustrations of major figures. There is much Pettegree says that is characteristically concise and precise that we cannot here discuss. Amid a flood already begun and perhaps now itself 500 years old of Lutheriana, this new book can retell the story you may already know with accuracy and fresh facts and insights and tell a newer story about Luther’s relationship to media fruitful for reflection on our own time of massive changes in how people come to see what they see and know what they know and finally to believe what they believe.


Rev. Adam Koontz

Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMS)

Lititz, Pennsylvania