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The Power of Literature

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Date April 30, 2019

The substance of this article was first given in the form of a lecture on behalf of The Reformation Translation Society.

* * *

ON the night of October 30th, 1517, at his castle in Schweinitz in Germany, the Elector Frederick of Saxony had a peculiar dream. Germany was then just on the threshold of a great Reformation and the contents of the Elector Frederick’s dream were a remarkable preview of how that Reformation was to be accomplished. ‘Brother,’ said Frederick to Duke John the next morning, ‘I must tell you a dream which I had last night, and the meaning of which I should like much to know. It is so deeply impressed on my mind, that I will never forget it, were I to live a thousand years.’ The Elector went on to relate how, as he lay awake in bed approaching midnight, he had been pondering how he should observe the next day which was the feast of All Saints: ‘I prayed for the poor souls in purgatory, and supplicated God to guide me, my counsels, and my people, according to truth. I fell asleep and then dreamed that Almighty God sent me a monk, who was a true son of the Apostle Paul. All the saints accompanied him by order of God, in order to bear testimony before me, and to declare that he did not come to contrive any plot, but that all he did was according to the will of God. They asked me to have the goodness graciously to permit him to write something on the door of the church of the castle of Witten­berg. This I granted through my chancellor. Thereupon the monk went to the church, and began to write in such large characters, that I could read the writing at Schweinitz. The pen which he used was so large that its end reached as far as Rome, where it pierced the ears of a lion’ that was crouching there, and caused the triple crown upon the head of the Pope to shake. All the cardinals and princes running hastily up, tried to prevent it from falling. You and I, brother, wished also to assist, and I stretched out my arm … but at this moment I awoke, with my arm in the air, quite amazed, and very much enraged at the monk for not managing his pen better.’ Then, ‘having fallen asleep again,’ the Elector continued to relate, ‘the dream returned. The lion, still annoyed by the pen, began to roar with all his might, so much so that the whole city of Rome and all the states of the Holy Empire, ran to see what the matter was …. I dreamed that all the princes of the Empire, and we among them, hastened to Rome, and strove one after another to break the pen; but the more we tried the stiffer it became, sounding as if it had been made of iron. . . Suddenly I heard a loud noise; a large number of other pens had sprung out of the long pen of the monk.’

It was as Frederick and his brother were thus spending the morning of October 31st, 1517, discussing this dream at Schweinitz, that six leagues away at Wittenberg, Martin Luther was surveying the script of his Ninety-Five Theses. The evening of that same day he boldly nailed them to the church door at Wittenberg. Men would not heed his protests against the indulgences sold by Tetzel; there­fore he took up his pen and saw to it that his words were written in this imperishable form. The Reformation had begun! Soon the printing presses of Hans Lufft and others at Wittenberg were working almost day and night pouring out Luther on The Epistle to the Galatians (1519), The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), The Freedom of the Christian Man (1520) and many other titles. Pedlars carried these wares all over Europe, and merchants across the seas to England and Scotland. The books were reviled, sequestered, and burned; but it was in vain. ‘Rome,’ said Theodore Beza, ‘over­came the world by her power, the Pope overcame Rome by his cunning, and Luther overcame them both by his pen!’

The Reformation was the first great period in the world’s history to reveal the power of the printing press. The invention of printing made it possible for books to pave the way in a popular movement; it provided a means through which ideas could be circulated and truth made known on an unprecedented scale. Herein lies an explanation of the rapidity of the sunrise that took place over Europe four hundred years ago. How was it, we may ask, that whole nations threw off the yoke of Rome and turned Protestant? How was it that in places where the voices of Luther and Calvin were never heard, their doctrines were embraced as the Word of God? It was because books became, in the hands of God, a mighty regenerating power. From the Danube to the Tweed, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, the pen was the hammer which broke in a thousand pieces the errors of centuries.

It is a remarkable example of the wisdom of God, displayed in providence, that not only was the printing industry established before the Reformation began, but that it was established most thoroughly in the very land where the Reformation was decreed to commence. For it was in Germany, between the years 1440-50, that printing had been born. By the year 1500 it was practised in fifty-one German towns and there was probably no other country in Europe so well prepared to produce books on the scale which the Reformation called for.

The superiority of printed books over hand-written manuscripts was enormous and, not least among the new factors which the invention involved, was the degree of permanence that writings now came to possess. Manuscripts could easily be lost or destroyed but not so with books. A striking illustration of this can be seen, for example, in connection with Luther’s own works. Nearly two hundred years after the great Reformer’s death, early in the month of May, 1738, three men sat reading in a house in Little Britain in the City of London. All three were seeking the way of salvation, and on that eventful day one of their number, William Holland, had brought with him a copy of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians. Charles Wesley, who was one of the trio, proceeded to read the Preface aloud. Upon which, related Holland, ‘there came such a power over me as I cannot well describe; my great burden fell off in an instant; my heart was so filled with peace and love that I burst into tears …. When I afterwards went into the street, I could scarcely feel the ground I trod upon.’ A few days after this, on May 24th, 1738, John Wesley tells us how he went ‘very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street’ where he found one (doubtless it was Holland) reading Luther to the company there gathered. ‘While Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,’ Wesley proceeds, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine.‘ How little did Luther conceive when he sent his works to the press that even two centuries later they would contribute to a revival in England!

But, just as the Elector of Saxony had dreamed, it was not only Luther’s books that were to knock the crown off the Pope’s head in the 16th Century. We find his example being quickly followed, and these ink and paper missiles were soon flying from all directions.

A group of French Reformers, being forced to flee from France, established a centre for the publication of books and tracts in Basle about 1524. ‘Seeing’, writes Merle D’Aubigne, ‘the importance of diffusing the Scriptures and pious books in their country, they resolved to unite their zeal, their talents, their means and their labours. ‘Would to God’, they exclaimed, ‘that France were com­pletely filled with gospel volumes.’ With this object in view, they sought to establish several presses in Basle which might inundate France with the Word of God.’ Farel appears to have supervised matters of editing and translating, while another French leader, Anemond, urged on and superintended the press. Here were men willing to sacrifice not only their time, but their possessions and even, if need be, their very lives, to spread the Gospel among their countrymen. D’ Aubigne records how their courage was not in vain: ‘These epistles, these books, all these flying sheets were the means of regenerating the age. While dissipation came forth from the throne, and darkness from the steps of the altar, these un­observed writings sent over the French nation rays of light and seeds of holiness.’

Books were similarly pouring into England in the 1520s, and the cause of the Papacy never recovered from the defeat experienced by Cardinal Wolsey and his agents who desperately struggled to stem the tide. The circulation of the Scriptures and Reformed books proved to be a force which nothing could withstand. This victory owed more to William Tyndale than to any other man for it was he who first, realising the power of print, took up his pen in the cause of Christ. Conscious that there were no presses in England to support the truth, Tyndale voluntarily suffered ten years exile and finally martyrdom on the Continent in order that he might effect the translation of an English New Testament and the writing of his once famous books, such as The Obedience of a Christian Man and The Practice of Prelates.

That light, o’er all thy darkness Rome,
In triumph might arise,
Freely an exile I become,
Freely a sacrifice.
(A translation of the lines which appear below Tyndale’s portrait in Hertford College, Oxford.)

Tyndale’s books were smuggled by merchants from Flanders and Zeeland into London, and conveyed into the hands of men like Thomas Garret, curate of All Hallows in Honey Lane, Cheapside. Garret was a ringleader in an ‘underground’ organization designed to distribute evangelical books on a large scale. In 1527 we find him in Oxford, acting the part of a colporteur with a load of books including Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Here he was discovered and thrown with several other evangelicals into a dungeon beneath Christ Church for six months; four of his companions died from the cruelties of this imprisonment but Garret lived several years more after his release till he was eventually martyred in 1540. Colporteurs, in the 16th century, were men ‘of whom the world was not worthy,’ and they frequently went to a violent death. Those who still make it their work to distribute books or tracts (and in some measure that is the duty of every Christian) should realize that they step in the glorious path of martyrs!

If there was any volume which pre-eminently served to confirm Protestantism in England it was perhaps John Foxe’s great Book of Martyrs. During the years of the Marian persecutions (1553-1558), Foxe was overseas at Basle, preparing his book and assisting the famous printer John Oporinus. Foxe’s work was first printed at Basle in 1559, and it was later commanded by royal authority to be placed in all the parish churches of England. Speaking of the benefits of printing, Foxe writes, ‘Hereby knowledge groweth, judgment increaseth, books are dispersed, the Scripture is seen, the doctors are read, times compared, truth discovered, falsehood detected and all through the benefit of printing. Wherefore I suppose, that either the Pope must abolish printing, or he must seek a new world to reign over; for else, as this world standeth, printing will doubtless abolish him. But the Pope, and all his college of cardinals, must understand, that, through the light of printing, the world beginneth now to have eyes to see, and heads to judge. . . By this printing, the doctrine of the Gospel soundeth to all nations and countries under heaven; and what God reveals to one man is dispersed to many; ‘and what is known in one nation is opened to all.’

As the Reformation movement developed, its centre moved from Wittenberg to Geneva, and under Calvin’s influence that city became the busiest evangelical publishing centre in the world. No less than thirty printing presses were in constant use and some of the finest printers in Europe such as Robert Estienne of Paris worked around Calvin. Books were published in many languages, and some idea of the tremendous circulation can be gained from the fact that in one year (1561) nine editions of the French Psalter of Marot and Beza were published. Several of the most important books to be printed in English in the fifth century came from the Genevan presses. The Book of Common Order printed at Geneva in 1556 laid down the form of worship and discipline shortly afterwards adopted in Scotland; John Knox’s Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and his fine volume on Predestination were printed at Geneva; above all, there was The Geneva Bible of 1560 published for believers in Britain, containing, as well as a new translation of Scripture, a mass of precious marginal notes.

When we turn to the Puritan movement in England we find that its growth and progress was throughout bound up with the use of literature. The early Puritans in their struggle to conform the Church more closely to the Word of God had a hard task to get their views in print. By Elizabeth’s statutes of 1559 no divinity books could be printed without ecclesiastical sanction; thus though the Puritan John Bodley (father of the founder of the Bodleian Library, Oxford) had a seven years licence from the Queen to print The Geneva Bible in England he never did so, presumably because Archbishop Parker withheld his approval. Some, like John Field and Thomas Wilcocks, who published their famous Admonition to the Parliament for the Reformation of Church Discipline in 1572, printed without ecclesiastical sanction and braved the wrath of the prelates. Despite the fact that Field and Wilcocks were thrown into prison, along with a London bookseller who had sold their Admonition, their work ‘passed through no less than four editions in about two years, notwithstanding all the vigilant endeavours of the bishops to suppress it’. It is clear that Puritan literature was already a power in the land.

Opposition to Puritan writings reached a crisis in 1586 when Elizabeth’s Star Chamber issued a severe decree for the control of all printing. The story of how this decree was defied by Martin Marprelate (a pseudonym for an unknown writer) and of how his witty and pungent tracts against the church hierarchy caused a commotion all over England, is too long for us to relate here. Martin Marprelate used a secret press, which was kept moving from place to place to elude the government’s searchers. ‘This obscure, hidden, hunted press,’ says one writer, ‘had a marked effect on the history of English literature.’ J. R. Green in his Short History of the English People likewise speaks of the ‘powerful effect’ of the Marprelate tracts and writes, ‘a new age of political liberty was felt to be at hand when Martin Marprelate forced the political and ecclesiastical measures of the Government into the arena of public discussion.’ The press was at last seized in August, 1589, and subsequently the publisher, John Penry — an heroic Welsh evangelist — was captured and executed. He carried the secret of Marprelate’s identity with him to the grave.

Towards the end of the 16th Century another class of Puritan writings began to make their appearance. These were not violent and controversial like the Marprelate tracts, but their influence was more deep and profound. They contained devotional, experimental and practical divinity, and were designed to teach the common people the way of salvation and the nature of a godly life. It may be that some of the Puritan leaders saw that little could be done to make men and women concerned about the purity of the Church till they were first made concerned about their own spiritual condition. Whether this was so or not, the effect of the books of men like Richard Greenham, Arthur Dent, William Perkins and John Dodd was very far reaching, and the kind of writing which they popularized became the outstanding characteristic of Puritan divinity.

It would be a difficult task to trace the numerous ways in which Puritan literature has affected the course of our national history. In their own day their books were a great force in the land, influencing both high and low, rich and poor alike. Had we entered the humble cottage of a Puritan three hundred years ago, we should not only have been likely to see a few godly books like Richard Rogers’ The Practice of Christianity or Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven on the window shelf, but upon the very walls various printed folio sheets would frequently be pasted up. Our eye might well fall on Joseph Caryl’s Plain Directions for the more Profitable Hearing of the Word or perhaps on Joseph Alleine’s Rules for a Christian’s Daily Self-examination.

Not all 17th-century Englishmen, of course, had the same esteem for Puritan literature, but there was no knowing when the most indifferent might fall under its power. For example, a London bookseller, in the reign of Charles II, relates how a worldly gentle­man, dressed in Cavalier style, came into his shop enquiring for play-books. The bookseller informed him that he had none, but entreated him to read a book which would do him more good than any play-book; it was John Flavel’s Keeping the Heart. The customer quickly showed his distaste for such a subject, but at length he took it away with a promise that it could be returned after reading if he still thought the same about it. A month later the gentleman returned, this time in subdued dress and with serious countenance. Addressing the bookseller, he declared, ‘Sir, I most heartily thank you for putting this book into my hands; I bless God that moved you to do it, it hath saved my soul; blessed be God that ever I came into your shop.’ He thereupon bought a hundred more copies to distribute among the poor.

Puritan books, soaked in prayer and Biblical truth, were thus often a means of conversion. John Wilson went up to Cambridge from Eton full of prejudices against the Puritans. There he picked up in a bookshop Richard Rogers’ SevenTreatises and, as a result, he later became one of the great leaders of the Puritans in New England. About 1630, a boy in Shropshire read ‘an old torn Book’ called Bunney’s Resolution and was awakened to his lost condition. Shortly afterwards, he narrates, ‘a poor pedlar came to the door that had some ballads and some good books: and my father bought of him Dr. Sibbs’ Bruised Reed.’ This book and ‘a little Piece of Mr. Perkins‘ Works’ established the youth in the Gospel and, before many years had passed, he shook his native county with the power of his preaching for his name was Richard Baxter. A godless Welsh minister in the 17th Century brought home an article from a fair wrapped in a torn folio page from Perkins’ Works. That one page was the means of his salvation.

The influence of Puritan books extends far beyond the confines of their own period. For example, it would not be too much to say that the spiritual history of Scotland in the 18th Century was radically altered by a discovery which the youthful minister of Simprin, Thomas Boston, made in one of the cottages of his parish­ioners in 1700. It was a copy of Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modem Divinity published in 1646. The book brought new life to Boston’s preaching and after its republication in 1718 it brought new life to Scotland. Few books have caused such a spiritual revolution.

Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted was another Puritan book which became prominent in Scotland’s spiritual history. The minister of a Highland congregation, a man more eminent for scholarship than evangelical fervour, once borrowed the material in Alleine’s book for his own sermons. The result, we are told, ‘was a widespread awakening, which long prevailed in the district of Nether Lorn.’ Alleine’s book was also used in the conversion of the eminent Scottish evangelical leader, John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787). Some twenty years or so after Brown’s death, a young man named James Nisbet left his native Kelso, in Scotland, to start a publishing business in London. He had evidently come under the influence of John Brown and the old writers, for his first publica­tion in London was a reprint of Brown’s Christian Journal, and this proved a profitable and successful start for the venture developed into the famous publishing firm of James Nisbet & Co. In 1861, Nisbet combined with Nichol of Edinburgh and Robertson of Dublin in publishing the greatest series of Puritan reprints that has ever been issued. Nisbet & Co. continued the work alone in 1870 by bringing out the complete works of Thomas Manton in twenty-­two volumes. Were it not for the existence of these last century reprints, the present day resurgence of Puritanism would scarcely have been possible. And all this has a distant, though real, con­nection with the fact that way back in the years 1734-35 John Brown was helped through the reading of Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted!

The 18th Century Methodist revival in England was deeply indebted to Puritan literature. Henry Scougal, Joseph Hall, Matthew Henry, Elisha Coles and others were the authors who prepared Whitefield for his herculean ministry. He never varied in his attachment to them, and towards the end of his life he testified, ‘Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour; and for these thirty years past I have remarked, that the more true and vital religion, hath revived either at home or abroad, the more the good old Puritanical writings have been called for.’ Almost all the 18th Century leaders (except John Wesley) were similarly assisted by Puritan books. William Grimshaw found Christ through Owen on Justification; A. M. Toplady learnt grace through Manton on John XVII; Daniel Rowland sustained his apostolic ministry through the riches he drew from his Puritan folios; James Hervey owed his grasp of theology to the same source ‘Be not ashamed of the name Puritan,’ he would say. ‘The Puritans, one and all of them, glory in the righteousness of their great Mediator; they extol his imputed righteousness in almost every page, and pour contempt on all other works compared with their Lord’s. For my part I know no set of writers in the world so remarkable for this doctrine and diction.’

There is one more example of the power of 17th Century literature which we must narrate in closing. In the 1840’s an Essex boy, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, used to love to spend his holidays in his grandfather’s manse at Stambourne. It was in a corner of that old house that Spurgeon laid the foundation of the ministry which was before long to encircle the globe. Up a quaint old winding stair and opening out of one of the bedrooms, there was a little room. It had once been the minister’s study and closet for prayer, but now its window had been blocked up to avoid the wretched system of window-duty which was then in force. ‘In my time,’ wrote Spurgeon, ‘it was a dark den, but it contained books, and this made it a gold mine to me. Some of these were enormous folios, such as a boy could hardly lift. Here I first struck up acquaintance with the martyrs; next, with Bunyan and his ‘Pilgrim‘, and further on, with the great masters of Scriptural theology, with whom no moderns are worthy to be named in the same day. Even the old editions of their works, with their margins and old-fashioned notes, are precious to me …. I wonder whether some other boy will love them, and live to revive that grand old divinity which will yet be to England her balm and benison.

‘Out of that darkened room I fetched those old authors when I was yet a youth, and never was I happier than when in their company. Out of the present contempt, into which Puritanism has fallen, many brave hearts and true will fetch it, by the help of God, ere many years have passed. Those who have daubed up the windows will yet be surprised to see Heaven’s light beaming on the old truth, and then breaking forth from it to their own confusion.’


This article was first published in the January 1960 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

Literature That Changes Lives

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    The substance of this article was first given in the form of a lecture on behalf of The Reformation Translation Society. * * * ON the night of October 30th, 1517, at his castle in Schweinitz in Germany, the Elector Frederick of Saxony had a peculiar dream. Germany was then just on the threshold of […]

    The Bruised Reed
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    The substance of this article was first given in the form of a lecture on behalf of The Reformation Translation Society. * * * ON the night of October 30th, 1517, at his castle in Schweinitz in Germany, the Elector Frederick of Saxony had a peculiar dream. Germany was then just on the threshold of […]

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    The substance of this article was first given in the form of a lecture on behalf of The Reformation Translation Society. * * * ON the night of October 30th, 1517, at his castle in Schweinitz in Germany, the Elector Frederick of Saxony had a peculiar dream. Germany was then just on the threshold of […]

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