The five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in Europe is kind of a big deal right now. As in, I feel like I have seen it pretty much everywhere online, I attended a conference themed on it, I know local churches with Reformation Day parties this year (even ones that wouldn’t normally have gone to the trouble), etc. It is pretty amazing. Now, while I was trying to focus on United States history with my kids this year, for a two week period (last week and this coming week), we are putting it all aside and replacing it with a unit study on the Reformation. What a great time we have been having! Our focus in this Reformation unit is primarily art and literature, which necessarily includes copywork and theology and singing and other such wonderful things. Yesterday my children and I sang David Erb’s version of Psalm 46 (which they had learned at music camp in the summer), and then Martin Luther’s famous Mighty Fortress. And I think, especially for the big boys, it really meant a lot to them, having known more about the history of the music and the words and the musicianship represented there.
We are essentially jumping in deep with these books for our unit:
I introduced the subject, era, and keynote people with ABCs of the Reformation and some excerpts of The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History. And the kids each had books on Martin Luther they read on their own. But as the kids asked questions about the “whys” behind the Reformation, we ended up leaving the theological men and their stances of the mid-1500s behind and stepped further back into the world of Johannes Gutenberg. We very much loved Fine Print and are currently enjoying Ink on His Fingers as well, plus some other little snippets on him, his life, his work that have simply repeated & filled out what we found in those books.
Undoubtedly the most stunning thing we realized, though, is that my family has a unique bookcollector right next door… my father collects old Bibles… he has studied them, loved them, researched them, worked with other collectors, learned some dying craft of mending pages and bindings, and he has even traveled in order to acquire or restore Bibles. So I asked him if we could take a peek at one of his early copies. Not only did he allow us to take a peek at it, but he dropped it off so we could fully explore its pages at our leisure. What a gift! This particular copy was printed in 1549, using the sort of mechanisms, leather-over-wood binding, goldleaf, moveable type, handmade ink, etc. that Gutenberg himself created and implemented.
The kids took turns gently turning pages, smelling & feeling the cotton paper, examining the old inks, following worm holes through sections of pages, fingering the thick embossed leather on the cover. This particular copy was not printed until 1549 (let’s be honest: that’s pretty old!! And to have it in the family, where we don’t need to wear special gloves or keep it under glass, etc. is a special gift we don’t take for granted), so the kids wanted to figure out if someone like Martin Luther or John Calvin could have touched this book. They wanted to know if this would have been chained up to keep it from being stolen; if it would have belonged to a church, a common family, or an elite; they wanted to know about the gold leaf & the leather – where would they have come from? While I don’t have specific answers to most of those specific questions about this specific copy of God’s Word, it was really fun to talk about and imagine and ponder. Who else has held this book and read its pages and had their soul fed in the last 468 years?!
We then spent an hour over lunchtime yesterday watching this video, where Stephen Fry walked through a lot of Gutenberg’s footsteps and recreated his craft and science and system of creating the printing press which changed the world. It has been really fun to learn, through books and the video, about the process of setting the type. I love the odd spellings and letters in the old English copy here!! I read Psalm 23 to the kids, which even Evangeline knows by memory in the ESV, and had them all follow along with it in this book… which doesn’t even have verse designations… and they were impressed by the difficulty of discerning the words because of the spellings and the spacing and such. The video really touched on that too, so that was a helpful nuance.
What a contrast I noticed… little Simeon had just received his own little tiny pocket-sized Bible this week… which I picked up for 49-cents when I was grabbing another armload of used children’s books at Goodwill… and this little thing has no real monetary value, no big dramatic story behind it, it was probably printed with very little effort along with thousands of identical copies… yet it is a treasure to this tiny boy who now walks around with it tucked in his arm, and sets it beside him while he plays (such as here, below, when he was playing in the little toy kitchen)…
And it is the Reformation that makes this kind of thing possible. Where there was chaos, God brought order. Where there was unrest, God brought peace. With a family so deeply in love with books and written words, this is a unit study that hits home deeply. It makes me speechless and just boggles my brain. The world had only manuscripts reproduced by scribes and owned only by the truly elite. The “paper” (vellum from calf skins) was even hard to come by, let alone inks and reeds, and then the immensity of time it took to copy it all! Wow. It’s utterly phenomenal how God brought Johannes Gutenberg to the apex of art & science to bring us the printing press.
I guess I’d say personally speaking, the internet and the printing press are the two biggest things that I think God created through mankind to change the world. And while I am not ready yet to wrap my head around studying the history and creation and implementation of the internet with the kids, I am absolutely stunned by the breathtaking world of the printing press’s creation.
The printed words brought us the printed Word.
What better gift could the Reformation have brought us?!
And then, because this 1549 copy of course is in English, we have so very much to be thankful for in the Reformation fight for Scripture in the vulgate too. We get to worship in our native language, we get to have more copies of the Bible than we even need (and we even carry it around in our pockets, thanks to places like OliveTree!).
The Reformation was a tool our King used to give us these gifts.
As for me my household, we are grateful.