October 27, 2017
A midwestern university shows its faith in some very old works
by Sarah Healy
If you live in southeastern Wisconsin and love gazing at or smelling or drooling over old religious books (and honestly, who doesn’t love that?), you are in luck! Concordia University Wisconsin, located north of Milwaukee on the coast of Lake Michigan, is showcasing a collection of rare religious texts as part of Reformation 500, an “initiative… to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation through a series of special events.”
In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Meg Jones reports that the exhibit showcases “27 rare books… chosen for their importance in the Lutheran Reformation.” Of the books on display, many are “first printings of influential works by notable theologians from the Protestant Reformation including Martin Luther.”
If you were napping in sophomore history, the Reformation is thought to have started on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther decided he’d had it up to here with the Catholic Church selling “indulgences”—essentially, saleable absolutions from sin—and hammered a declaration of principles to the door of his church in Wittenberg. The document was somewhat clunkily titled Disputation on the Power of Indulgences (there were obviously no editors back then to suggest a pithier title), though history has better remembered it as The Ninety-Five Theses.
There had been attempts to reform Catholicism before, but Luther’s timing was serendipitous: his Theses coincided with the rising use of the printing press and moveable type. The previous century had seen Johannes Gutenberg lead a revolution in movable type; by Luther’s day, a printing press could churn out 250 pages per hour, enabling him and his supporters to disseminate their ideas quickly and cheaply.
The books, which usually line an entire wall in Concordia’s rare books room, will be displayed in Concordia’s main library during regular hours. This week has already seen the university host a symposium and lecture series on the Reformation, with concerts, film screenings, and religious services scheduled for the days ahead.
But what are the books included in the display? A few highlights:
- A 1555 Latin catechism written by German reformer Johannes Brenz
- A copy of Matthew Flacius’s “Key to the Interpretation of Scripture” from 1629
- An edition of Luther’s works compiled by Flacius and published in Jena in 1560
- The 6th volume of a 1662 printing of Luther’s collected works
- Copies of Seneca’s writings produced in the mid-1600s
- A seventeenth-century manuscript history of Nuremberg, Germany
The books have been donated to the university over decades. “My sense is we have a lot of pastors’ libraries. Many were immigrants who came here,” English Professor David Krenz told Jones. Theology professor Jason Lane added that this is particularly poignant because these books were “what [the immigrants] treasured… they had to give up a lot of their possessions when they got on the ships. But they brought these. They were the primary books of their libraries.”
If standing up to the most powerful institution of his time and starting a theological revolution aren’t badass enough for you, consider that Luther’s openness to new technologies possibly earns him the title of “original social media mogul.” As Krenz hypothesizes, “Had Luther been alive today, he would have tweeted, he would have been on Instagram.”
Sarah Healy is an intern at Melville House.