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Fall 2017

Attack of the Theses

book cover imageRemembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism
by Thomas Albert Howard.
Oxford University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 216 pages, $40.

J. Kinlaw

Even if a person somehow did not know 2017 marks the quinquennial of the Protestant Reformation, she soon will. The hydrant of Reformation studies has long been open. Martin Luther left behind some 80,000 pages of writings; his legacy was already fiercely debated before he died. As this year’s Reformation Day approaches, the volume of scholarship and popular evaluations of his 1517 revolution will increase to a flood. In Remembering the Reformation, Thomas Albert Howard reminds us that commemorating the event has a long history in itself. By placing in historical context twenty-first century commemorative events, he helps brace us against the stream of the firehose.

One of the fundamental lessons of this volume is that while humans have always commemorated, Western cultures owe a lot to the Reformation for the very act of observing centennials and the like. There is of course a Hebrew precedent in the word jubilee, which evokes the ram’s horn sounded at Yom Kippur. Ancient Greeks and Romans adopted the term, and Roman Catholics, cognizant of these Hebrew origins, have observed jubilees since at least the late medieval period. In fact Pope Paul V called for a Catholic jubilee in 1517 (originally to be held eight years later), which prompted a German Jesuit to call the Protestant observance a “pseudo-jubilee.” In early modern Europe and its colonies, remembrances of 1517 (a Säkularfest in German-speaking areas) breathed new life into the commemorative act. In Remembering the Reformation, each of four central chapters focuses on a historic commemoration of Martin Luther’s life and work, from 1617’s centennial to this year’s quinquennial. Howard shows how each of these builds on the previous, so that the celebrations (or mourning) of 2017 depend in some fundamental way upon previous iterations. The reader is also struck by what could be called a generative quality of memorials: public remembrance creates something, and to commemorate is to historicize.

It is worth noting that Howard’s “Reformation” equals Martin Luther. While acknowledging the reception of the Reformation in the U.S. as well as Great Britain and its colonies, this work is very clearly the fruit of long hours in German archives. It is a short book—too short, in fact, to live up to its grand philosophical subtitle. (And yet we can appreciate his decision—or that of his editor—to think of plural meanings of Protestantism, rather than some singular significance.) It is thus not so much “an inquiry into the meaning of Protestantism” as an impressive, timely collection of archival material related to five hundred years’ worth of “remembering the Reformation.” Given the sheer tonnage of works of this kind produced so far this century (including one with the same title), brevity is welcome.

Furthermore, Howard sets this book apart from many others by incorporating material evidence. Any historian will acknowledge the importance of incorporating such evidence into text-based scholarship. No scholar wants silos of sources. By including twenty images spread over fewer than 150 pages of text, Howard shows himself among the minority who puts the interdisciplinary ideal into practice. There is of course a large supply of textual evidence, but Howard reads these alongside material evidence: coins, medals, woodcuts, and statuary. The result is more practical than yet another volume of conference proceedings. It is a sort of Baedeker’s for a subject in need of one.

Lutheran iconography—both typological and visual—is particularly intriguing. In early Protestant sermons, Luther is a new Moses—or a Noah, an Elijah, a Samson. What is more, at least three Lutheran symbols were already circulating widely by around 1600: the rose, a swan, and the lamp. By the time of the bicentennial, miracle stories had accrued to these biblical analogies and Lutheran symbols. For example, there were enough accounts of Lutheran images surviving fire that by 1717 an “incombustible Luther” stood alongside other popular Luthers. There was even a book on the subject published that year. All this strikes the reader as early-modern examples of medieval hagiography. The founder of Protestantism was for all intents and purposes also its first saint.

Among the most famous of these hagiographic stories is the prophetic dream of Luther’s primary political ally, Frederick III of Saxony. On a broadsheet marking the centennial of 1617, an anonymous Leipzig printer depicts Luther writing his theses on the door of Wittenberg’s castle. His quill pen is gigantic; the end of the feather reaches Rome, where it threatens to knock the “crown” off the head of Pope Leo. “The Dream of Frederick the Wise” helped to solidify Luther as “a true son of Paul,” sent by God to correct Roman error. Two jubilees later, in 1817, a lithograph recycles the image of Luther and his pen. By the tercentennary, the Thesenanschlag, or “attack of the theses,” had become the defining event of the Reformation.

That reading and writing are at the center of Protestantism is well known: Luther is a chief beneficiary of Gutenburg’s printing press, which began spreading through Europe in the late 1400s. Howard leaves the history of technology to one side, and this is understandable if we consider the excellent work done on this topic (Andrew Pettegree’s work on Luther’s “brand” is a recent example). This volume could have benefited, however, from acknowledging the technological and economic developments that lie behind the monuments he highlights—both the physical commemorative statues and the wide circulation of religious ideas.

Nonetheless Howard provides an excellent resume of European history; he is obviously at home on the intellectual front. This is clearest in his chapter on the nineteenth century—”an age of memory and retrospection par excellence.” It is a golden age for Lutherdenkmal, statues of the reformer and his allies—the largest unveiled at Worms in 1868. During this time the commemorations begin to pile up; what began as a centennial jubilee becomes something like a smorgasbord of anniversaries, from Diet of Worms (1821) to Peace of Westphalia (1848). These commemorations make plain that by the Luther’s legacy was no longer purely or even primarily religious.

1817, for example, was also the fourth anniversary of the Battle of Nations, when Russia, Prussia, and friends pushed Napoleon back into France. For many, this victory was inextricably linked to 1517: Luther embodied a Geist, “repository of a noble past and the herald of a bright future” for Germany. He had long been seen as more than a monk, but the 1800s made him a nationalist—a force of progress and enlightenment. This chapter in the story of Luther’s reception is nowhere clearer than in the case of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. As Rector of the University of Berlin, he delivered an address (in Latin) in observance of the tercentenary of the Diet of Augsburg—a treaty of 1530 that attempted to establish a to-each-his-own religious policy throughout German lands. Here the central metaphor is not the pen but the trumpet: Luther is the instrument that “proclaimed the wondrous sound of Christian freedom” and ended the slavery of the individual conscience, says Hegel.

Even if Howard does not actually address “the meaning of Protestantism,” one can detect hints of its “rhyme and reason.” First, Luther depended on princely power to survive—historians call this close church-state connection (among both Protestants and Roman Catholics) “confessionalization.” It was both church officials and the Elector, for example, who called for the initial “Jubel-Fest” of October 31, 1617. And it was no coincidence that Hegel’s Berlin address coincided with the Prussian king’s efforts to establish a national church. He and his sons saw their Hohenzollern dynasty as “protector of the Wittenberg Reformation.” They repaired the church there, and added memorials.

A second immediate quality of the Reformation was factionalism: the peasant’s war is the best-known example, thanks in large part to scholarship from the (communist) German Democratic Republic after the second World War. Howard also highlights the schismatic tendency of Protestantism in the early standoff between Lutherans and Calvinists. A puritan impulse was already present in the 1500s. The Bible and Luther were together “poison to Papists and Calvinists alike,” according to a popular saying. If the former threatened individual access to scripture, the latter diluted the reforms of Luther. And here the “confessional” quality of Protestantism overlaps with what has recently been called its “fissiparousness.” In other words, any “irenicsim” of Protestantism was severely limited from the beginning. We can see the schismatic tendency already in Frederick’s dream. The prince’s dream climaxes when Luther’s “pen of iron” sprouts many others: “Suddenly I heard a loud noise,” the prince recounted to his brother, and “a large number of other pens had sprung out of the long pen of the monk.”

The “pens” have only multiplied since, and we will still hear arguments this year about whether Luther was more of a saint or a schismatic. But Howard ends on a hopeful note, calling for a calm, clear-sighted reflection on Christianity’s past and its future. Among the largest Lutheran events this year will take place in Africa, where there are more practicing Protestants than there are in central Europe. This globalized spiritual energy is indeed reason for hope. 

J. Kinlaw is assistant professor of history and humanities at The King’s College.

Posted: October 1, 2017

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