Johannes Gutenberg (c.1398-1468)

Christians who Changed their World

This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.

Because of the work of Geert Groote and the Brethren of the Common Life, literacy rates were growing in northern Europe during the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The desire to promote church reform and personal piety drove them to found schools, which then became an increasingly important part of literate culture in Germany and the Low Countries.

One challenge faced by the rising literacy rates was production of books. Along with establishing schools, the Brethren of the Common Life copied texts, and professional scribes opened shops as well. The problem was expense. Although paper had begun replacing vellum and parchment in Europe in the 1200s, which reduced the cost of materials, the process of hand copying them continued to be time consuming and expensive.

This changed due to the work of one man, Johannes Gutenberg.

Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, in about 1398. Much of Gutenberg’s early life is a mystery, but he seems to have come from a family of goldsmiths who were also masters of the mint of the archbishop of Mainz.[1] An uprising against the patricians in town forced the Gutenbergs out of Mainz, however. Johannes eventually ended up in Strasburg, probably after completing a degree at the University of Erfurt.

Gutenberg may have worked with intaglio printing (i.e. printing using engraved copper plates), invented in Germany in about 1430. By around 1450 he had developed the idea of moveable metal type and creating a press that could be used to print pages.

This was a complex process. In order to create moveable metal type, Gutenberg had to design a typeface that incorporated all of the standards of the handwriting of the day, including abbreviations, combined letters (“ligatures”), multiple letter forms, etc. These had to be engraved onto a hard metal punch, which was used to create a matrix, which was then made into a mold to cast the letters. He then had to develop an alloy that could be melted and poured into the molds and was hard enough not to deform from the pressure of the press, but soft enough not to cut the paper.

He also had to develop ink that was thick enough to stick to the type, but thin enough that it would transfer cleanly to the page without blotting. This was adapted from the oil paints that were increasingly used during the fifteenth century by northern European artists.

Then there was the press. Gutenberg took his basic design from the wine presses used in his area and modified it to provide even pressure on the paper so that it would take the ink evenly.

Gutenberg’s first printing efforts were devoted to shorter works such as indulgences and possibly a Latin grammar. He began work almost immediately, however, on his most famous work, the 42-line Bible, better known as the Gutenberg Bible.

What made Gutenberg invest so much time and effort into creating this new technology, and with it, the first mass production industry in history?

Part of the reason is undoubtedly economic: he saw that the rising demand for books could not be met with the existing system of hand copying texts, and thus realized that there was a market for books that could be produced more quickly at lower cost.

But there was more to it than that. Gutenberg saw what he was doing as a spiritual mission, aimed at spreading the Bible to the people. Just as the Brethren of the Common Life started schools and copied manuscripts to put the sources of the faith into the hands of the people, Gutenberg was motivated to bring the Bible to the masses. As he explained it,

God suffers in the multitude of souls whom His word can not reach. Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spread the public treasure. Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.[2]

Reflecting on the fact that his printing press was adapted from the wine press, which was associated with drunkenness, Gutenberg further remarked:

Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread His word; a spring of pure truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light hithertofore unknown to shine among men.[3]

It is perhaps even more remarkable that the demand was so high for Gutenberg’s Bibles. They were massive books, essentially indistinguishable from the handwritten Bibles of the day, so even though they cost less than a handwritten Bible they were expensive. Yet there was still a strong market for them, though the new production technology did lead to some confusion initially.

For example, a book seller bringing the first batch of printed Bibles from Germany to the University of Paris, the most prominent theological school in Europe, was arrested and charged with witchcraft: no one could understand how he could possibly have gotten so many Bibles without using magic to do so!

The implications of the new technology were not clear either. For example, an abbot gave a speech to his monks praising the new technology, and urging his monks to be sure to copy the new books that it made available so that they would not be lost to future generations.

The same passion for the Bible that led Christians to start schools throughout church history motivated Gutenberg toward technological innovation to make the Bible available far more widely than it had ever been before. And just as the schools had far-reaching implications beyond church reform, the printing press did as well. To pick just a few examples:

  • Printing allowed for the widespread dissemination of ideas.
  • The mass production of books made it harder to suppress ideas or for them to disappear accidentally.
  • Printing led to a higher degree of accuracy and standardization of texts.
  • The decrease in the cost of books made it possible for people to learn outside of the traditional educational system. For example, John Calvin was entirely self-taught in theology.
  • The decreased cost of books also led to an increase in the size of personal and institutional libraries, which spread knowledge and stimulated readers’ creativity, thereby leading to the further growth in knowledge.

It is no wonder that Time magazine named Gutenberg the “Man of the Millennium.”

Gutenberg’s story highlights another aspect of the biblical worldview: the idea that work should be meaningful and that drudgery should be avoided. As the quotation above said, he wanted to see the Bible “no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.” The idea of harnessing technology to make work more productive and to eliminate drudgery was not new: it had long been part of Christian theology and practice. We will look at this in more detail in the next installment.

[1] The archbishop had the right to issue his own coins.



Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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