A Review of Thomas Albert Howard's
Remembering the Reformation:
An Inquiry into the Meaning of Protestantism
Xueying Wang

Among the many books that have been published on the Reformation in honor of its quincentenary in 2017, Thomas Albert Howard’s Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford, 2017) takes a unique and insightful perspective. Instead of elaborating on the Reformation per se, Howard traces the history of how the Reformation was remembered, celebrated, and, at least in some cases, used and abused on its major commemorative occasions. In four chapters, Howard traces the history of commemorations of Reformation in 1617, 1717 (Chapter 1), 1817 (Chapter 2), 1883 (Chapter 3), and several commemorations of the Reformation in the twentieth century (Chapter 4). 

In the preface, Howard acknowledges his indebtedness to Jan Assmann’s distinction between the past itself and the remembered past: The past remains set in the past and changes no more, but which part of the past gets selected in the social memory of a new era and how it is remembered by different parties mutate often. Howard’s study of past commemorations of the Reformation elucidates the underlying frameworks in which the Reformation was remembered and interpreted. To borrow a metaphor from the author, just like a geologist drills into the earth to examine the sediment of remote geological times, this historian drills into layers of social memory of the Reformation in an effort to elucidate the circumstances and Zeitgeist of different eras in the recent human past.

The first centenary of Luther’s posting of Ninety-Five Theses, 1617, is a natural starting point for Howard’s project, for it sets in motion centenary celebrations in subsequent centuries. Without the 1617 commemoration, Howard notes, the 2017 celebration might not have taken place. In 1617, Georg I, Elector of Saxony, officially launched celebratory activities in response to the request of Wittenberg University’s theology faculty to celebrate the “first Luther Jubilee.” Both Lutheran authorities and local parishes embraced this decision. Through his reading of a wide array of evidences, including sermons, prayers, pamphlets, newspaper articles, plays, woodcuts, pictorial biographies of Luther’s life, commemorative coins and medals, Howard maintains that the celebrations in 1617 were unmistakably confessional in character. According to Howard, since Lutheran churches were still solidifying their religious identity at that time, the memory of Luther’s initial actions was shaped by what they considered as threats—the Catholic Church, the Reformed Church, and dissident Lutheran groups. Whereas Lutherans disagreed on whether reconciling with the Reformed Church and building a unified Protestantism was worthwhile, the threat of an increasingly assertive Tridentine Catholic Church was felt on all fronts. As Howard observes, in numerous official documents, exegeses, sermons, and artifacts, Luther was portrayed as “one little monk,” who bravely rebelled against the bloated, papalist system, just like David had risen up against Goliath, or Samson against the pagans.  The same strand of thought underlies another biblical analogy: Luther is like Moses, who liberated the faithful from the bondage of “Egypt,” the superseded papal church. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church returned fire. Pope Paul V declared 1617 to be a Catholic Jubilee, and some Catholic priests called Luther a minion of Satan and arch-heresiarch. According to Howard, the same protestant confessionalism and anti-Catholic sentiment to a large extent set the tone for the second centenary jubilee of 1717.

The tercentenary, 1817, constitutes for Howard an important turning point in the commemoration of Martin Luther. As Howard observes, in contrast with the jubilee of 1617 and 1717, which were by and large religious events, the Reformation jubilee in 1817 infiltrated social, political, and intellectual arenas. The movement of Enlightenment radically reoriented the understandings of Luther and his legacies. Instead of focusing on Luther’s criticism of beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, intellectuals in 1817 portrayed Luther as a proto-Enlightenment figure who bravely used human reason to break through the shackles of religious authorities in the Middle Ages. As Howard puts it, “the form, not the content, of Luther’s challenge to the papacy” was emphasized and praised. The emphasis on Luther’s use of reason in pursuit of freedom was coupled with another Enlightenment-era concept—the concept of historical progress. Roman Catholicism was viewed less as a false church than as a massive impediment to historical progress, a dungeon of darkness, superstition, and suppression of human freedom.

Another major theme in the 1817 celebration, as Howard accurately observes, was German nationalism. It emerged partly in reaction to Napoleon’s military victory over Prussia. In the late eighteenth century, Luther started to be hailed as a German hero who embodied the national spirit of the German people (Volksgeist). Howard draws attention to two significant events: the Wartburg rally and the establishment of a united evangelical church. In October 1817, German students from eleven universities convened at Wartburg Castle near Eisenach in Thuringia, where Luther had translated the New Testament. The tercentenary of the Reformation seemed to be the perfect occasion for the students to express their nationalist and ideological longings: just like Luther defeated the papal tyranny and superstition, the students wanted Prussia to defeat foreign forces and build a German nation characterized with national unity and political freedom. Meanwhile, in a different form, the ruling elites of Prussia sought to unify Protestant churches for the sake of "national interest." Friedrich Wilhelm III (1797-1840), regretting the division of churches in Prussia, initiated a unification of the Lutheran and Reformed churches into a united evangelical Church (Unionskirche). However, Howard hastens to add, not everyone approved of the direction of the 1817 jubilee. The Kiel pastor Claus Harms, for instance, uttered his worries that the “unionism” and “rationalism” were subverting the doctrinal purity of Luther’s message. Luther, he reminded his contemporaries, was first and foremost a man of the church. Harms’ concerns were shared by a number of other orthodox Lutherans.

The celebration of Luther as a national hero became even more prominent in 1883, when Germany celebrated Luther’s 400th birthday. Howard emphasizes that at this time Germany had recently become unified under the Prussian Protestant leadership of Otto von Bismarck. Against this background, the acclamation of Luther as a German hero had amounted to nothing less than what Howard calls “Luthermania” and “Germania.” In this rhetoric, the image of Luther as a great emancipator from papal authority took a sharp turn. Instead of freeing human reason from the suppression of stifling authorities and tradition, Luther is now portrayed as a hero who emancipated “the state from the tyranny of the Church.” Ironically, Luther, who had been considered a great liberating figure since the Enlightenment era, was now acclaimed as an imperialist aligned with Bismarck. In a short work titled “Luther and Bismarck,” the author Hermann Hoffmeister maintains that Luther and Bismarck stood together for “Germanness, Christianity, and the principle of monarchy.” Meanwhile, Howard mentions that Luther’s 400th birthday was celebrated in a very different light in the United States. As Howard puts it, the New England Protestants had “discovered” Luther anew, seeing his revolt from Rome as a model of New World liberties, which made Luther a banner of national independence, mental freedom, and democracy—therefore, a distant forefather of the United States. 

In the book’s final chapter, “The Twentieth Century: A Memory still Mutating,” Howard undertakes to canvass the complex treatments of Luther through a most eventful century. As Howard skillfully demonstrates, the two world wars, the division between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cold War, the Second Vatican Council, and widespread secularism—all had their impact on the social memory of the Wittenberg Reformer. Not surprisingly, the two world wars amplified the divide in the understanding of Luther in and outside of Germany. Howard accurately observes that the 1917 jubilee in Germany witnessed the overt radicalizing of theology, out of which the Nazi-sympathizing “German Christian” later grew. Even in the German professoriate, no less a figure than Adolf von Harnack explicitly connected Luther with German national greatness and the country’s wartime efforts. The strident nationalist reading of Luther continued when the 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth was celebrated in 1933. In particular, Luther’s anti-Semitic attitude and his exhortations to political obedience were favorably invoked by Nazis. Hitler himself made reference to Luther as “a great German.” Unsurprisingly, Protestants outside of Germany, in Howard’s words, “begged to differ.” In an attempt to disentangle Luther from the German nationalistic interpretations, they sought to differentiate between Luther the German and Luther the Protestant. Luther himself, however, also received criticisms. According to Howard, in British and American tributes to Luther in 1917, distinction was frequently made between the young Luther, a champion of freedom and conscience, and the mature Luther, an ethnically compromised mouthpiece of the power interests of German princes. It was this latter spirit, many accused, that led to “Prussianism.” This kind of sentiment intensified in the 1930s and 1940s. Howard points out that some political critics identified Luther’s exhortation to obey political authorities as the root cause of German authoritarianism. One of them, Peter Wiener, went as far as calling Luther “Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor”!

After the Second World War, Luther’s fame continued to fluctuate along with Cold War geopolitics and ideological struggles. In particular, Howard points out that with the division of Germany, Luther’s treatment in the East contrasted strikingly with his treatment in the West. Initially, the GDR in the East hailed Thomas Muentzer, the leader of Peasant’s Revolt, as the true hero of the Reformation, because he was the one who translated revolutionary zeal into social action. Luther, in contrast, was deplored as reactionary because of his decision to side with German princes. The negative attitude, however, gradually softened as the GDR sensed the need to garner support from Protestant churches in the GDR, and later the need to attract tourists from West Germany. By the time the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth was celebrated in 1983, Luther was reclaimed as “one of the great sons” of Germany by the GDR. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the FRG and the rest of the West also faced the task of reevaluating Luther’s legacy. One notices strenuous efforts in West Germany to divest Luther of nationalistic hue. Besides, the FRG also sought to distance itself from Marxist interpretations of Luther in the East, indicating that such assessments of Luther by GDR scholars and politicians were ideological and unable to withstand closer historical scrutiny. Howard highlights a speech given by West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, which was notable for candid recognition of instrumentalization of Luther for political purposes throughout history. Affirming that Luther was primarily a religious man, not of “revolution, politics, worldly power and earthly strife,” Kohl, ironically, could not help but attribute some Whiggish values to Luther, such as freedom of conscience, toleration, even pluralism and federalism.

In his description of the post-war commemorations in the West, Howard devotes special attention to a new chapter in the Catholic-Lutheran relationship. Howard stresses that the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in 1967 followed directly on the heels of Vatican II, which issued the deeply influential Unitatis redintegatio (Decree on Ecumenism) declaring that the Catholic Church is to “embrace them (Protestant Christians) as brothers, with respect and affection,” in pursuit of the restoration of unity among all Christians. In harmony with the ecumenical ethos, a number of Catholic scholars have reevaluated Luther in a more positive light. As Howard observes, since mid-century, Catholic historiography had witnessed a shift from viewing Luther as a heretic to regarding him as deserving more open-minded evaluation. Despite qualms among some Lutherans, the Lutheran world generally responded positively to the Vatican’s irenic message. In the 1967 celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation, in an unprecedented move, invited the Catholic Cardinal Jan Willebrands to give one of the keynote speeches. This event was followed by the first official meeting between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in November 1967 in Zurich. Many more meetings between the two churches have since taken place in many places throughout the world. 

Howard’s manuscript went to press before the 500th anniversary of the Reformation took place. This reviewer of his book, however, is finishing the book review on October 31st, 2017, having witnessed, as Howard predicted, “a dizzying array of commemorative activities”—celebrations in Lutheran churches, academic conferences, the publication of countless books and articles, special radio programs, and programs on social media. Howard also accurately predicted the ecumenical ethos predominating the 2017 commemorations. Pope Francis, in a homily commemorating the 500th anniversary, urged Catholics and Lutherans to “pray together for unity.” On the local level, many Catholic universities have organized symposia and other special events to mark the Reformation’s anniversary. On the radio, among many other programs dedicated to the Reformation, WBEZ, the local NPR station in Chicago, invited Lutheran and Catholic theologians to speak on the same panel about the meaning and impact of the Reformation. In these kinds of settings, ecumenical peace is often emphasized, and the memory of Luther tends to be cast in a positive light.

Having traced the anniversary commemorations of the last 500 years in a most impressive way, Howard raises an important and insightful question—which portions of what we consider as the legacy of the Reformation are actual consequences of the Reformation, and which portions are merely attributed to it? While it is impossible to completely separate these two kinds of “legacies,” Howard’s book reminds its readers to be cautious when attempting to pinpoint the consequences of the Reformation. In this way, Howard’s book engages in a dialogue with Brad S. Gregory’s much debated book, The Unintended Reformation, which aims to identify the social and ideological consequences of the religious Reformation. Ultimately, Howard presents his project as reflection on how to remember the Reformation rightly. He has convincingly shown that the memory of the Reformation has been influenced by political and social circumstances, and often distorted by ideological and political agendas. Now the question is, how should we remember Luther rightly in 2017 and beyond? Howard is explicit about how not to remember the Reformation: recognizing the extreme complexity of the Reformation, one must avoid making blanket, simplistic assertions about the legacy of Luther. One legitimate question for Howard that is not yet answered, in my view, is whether it is right to remember Luther in today’s ecumenical, peace-making rhetoric. Both Lutherans and Catholics from 1617 would be most astounded if they were to see the peaceful atmosphere that surrounds the jubilee of 2017. If Luther’s criticisms were theologically sound, shouldn’t Luther be rightly remembered as a "Moses" who liberated the followers of Christ from a false Church? If that were the case, the ecumenical celebration of Luther would be legitimately viewed as a compromise of Luther’s legacy. On the flip side, if Luther’s criticisms for the Catholic Church ultimately cannot be justified, should not Luther be rightly criticized for false theological beliefs and for splitting the Church? These sorts of questions, of course, sound extremely jarring in an age when we do not want to make judgments on what others believe. After all, we, like our predecessors, are children of our own time, the conditions of which inevitably affect our own memory of Luther and the Reformation.


Xueying Wang teaches theology at Loyola University Chicago. She was a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow at Valparaiso University from 2015 to 2017.

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