Crossing the Channel

by

The rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation from Wittenberg, Germany, throughout Europe and across the Channel to England was not spawned by the efforts of a globe-trotting theological entrepreneur. On the contrary, for the most part Martin Luther’s entire career was spent teaching in the village of Wittenberg at the university there. Despite his fixed position, Luther’s influence spread from Wittenberg around the world in concentric circles — like when a stone is dropped into a pond. The rapid expanse of the Reformation was hinted at from the very beginning when the Ninety-five Theses were posted on the church door (intended for theological discussion among the faculty). Without Luther’s knowledge and permission, his theses were translated from Latin into German and duplicated on the printing press and spread to every village in Germany within two weeks. This was a harbinger of things to come. Many means were used to spread Luther’s message to the continent and to England.

One of the most important factors was the influence of virtually thousands of students who studied at the University of Wittenberg and were indoctrinated into Lutheran theology and ecclesiology. Like Calvin’s academy in Geneva, Switzerland, the university became pivotal for the dissemination of Reformation ideas. Wittenberg and Geneva stood as epicenters for a worldwide movement. 

The printing press made it possible for Luther to spread his ideas through the many books that he published, not to mention his tracts, confessions, catechisms, pamphlets, and cartoons (one of the most dramatic means of communication to the common people of the day was through messages encrypted in cartoons). 

In addition to these methods of print, music was used in the Reformation to carry the doctrines and sentiments of Protestantism through the writing of hymns and chorales. Religious drama was used not in the churches but in the marketplace to communicate the central ideas of the movement — the recovery of the biblical Gospel. 

Another overlooked aspect of the expansion of the Reformation is the impact of the fine arts on the church. Woodcuts and portraitures were produced by the great artists of the time — Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Peter Vischer. The portraits of the Reformers made their message more recognizable, as it was associated with their visage in the art world. 

Students from England who studied at Wittenberg also had a major impact in bringing the Reformation across the Channel to Great Britain. Probably the most important person in the English Reformation was William Tyndale, whose translation of the Bible into English was of cataclysmic importance. In 1524, he left England for the continent and studied for a period of time at Wittenberg. His first edition of the New Testament was published in Flanders in 1526, five years after the fated Diet of Worms during which Luther gave his famous “Here I Stand” speech. Thousands of these Bibles were smuggled into England. Many were burned as the work of a heretic, but still others escaped the fire and produced a theological fire of their own. 

Another important person was Robert Barnes, an Augustinian monk from Cambridge who was burned at the stake in 1540. Seven years before his martyrdom, he had matriculated at the University of Wittenberg. There also was Martin Bucer, an important Reformer who was invited by the English Protestants to come to Britain and become a professor at the University of Cambridge in 1551. 

In addition to those who influenced the English Reformation directly from Luther’s Germany, were those whose influence came by a more circuitous route, that is, via Geneva, Switzerland. John Calvin himself had to flee from Paris because of the views he learned from his friends who had been influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther. This Frenchman found his refuge in Geneva, where his pulpit and teaching ministry became known around the world. Geneva became a city of refuge for exiles who fled there for safety from all over Europe. Of the countries that sent exiles to Calvin’s Geneva, none was more important than England and the British Isles. John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland, spent some time in Switzerland at the feet of Calvin, learning his Reformation theology there. Though Calvin was twenty-six years younger than Luther, Luther’s views made a dramatic impact on the young Calvin’s life while he was still in his twenties. Though Calvin is usually associated with the doctrine of predestination, it is often overlooked that there was nothing in Calvin’s view of predestination and election that was not first articulated by Luther, especially in Luther’s famous work The Bondage of the Will

When Calvin was teaching in Geneva, Bloody Mary came to the throne of England. Under her reign, many Protestants were burned at the stake. Those who survived the stake fled in large numbers to Geneva. Some of the exiles from England under Calvin’s tutelage set upon the task of translating the Bible into English. This Bible, called the Geneva Bible, was the first Bible to have theological notes printed in the margin, which notes were heavily influenced by Calvin’s preaching. This Bible was the predominant Bible among the English for the next hundred years before it was supplanted by the popular King James Version. It was the original, official version of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. It was the Bible of Shakespeare, the Bible the Pilgrims brought with them on the Mayflower to America, and it was the Bible of choice among America’s early colonists. 

From Wittenberg directly to England, or from Wittenberg to Geneva to England, in this roundabout route, the seeds of the Reformation that were planted in Germany sprouted into full bloom as they made their way into the English empire. To trace the pathway from Wittenberg to London, one must follow a series of circuitous routes, but the origin of that movement in Wittenberg is unmistakable, and its influence continues even to this day.

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