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Publish or Perish: The Impact of Printing on the Protestant Reformation

Publish or Perish highlights the role of printing and publishing during the Protestant Reformation. Curator Eric J. Johnson selected medieval and early Reformation-era printed works that highlight the remarkable collection of Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in October 1517, he was merely doing what any other professor with a set of statements for debate might do. He drew up his points, had them printed, and posted them to inspire debate. Luther could hardly have known that by the end of the 16th century this simple act of publication would be just the first of 4,790 separate editions of his works printed in Germany alone.

The first three years of the Reformation (1518–1520) saw total book production in Germany quadruple, with a further doubling of production by 1524. As the years rolled on and more writers entered the fray, the publishing industry expanded to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for books. For the evangelical reformers and the Catholics who opposed them, it truly was a situation of “publish or perish.” Print your ideas, disseminate them as widely and quickly as possible, or else face defeat—and even death—in the struggle for hearts, minds, and souls.

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See how printing/publishing paved the way for the Protestant Reformation in a Thompson Library exhibition #ASCDaily