Thomas Albert Howard, Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism. Oxford: Oxford, 2016. Hb. xiv + 194. US $40.
With the quincentenary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses against the sale of indulgences on the church doors of Wittenberg, there is much to ponder as Protestants. Much has changed since October 31, 1517, and not merely in the context of world Christianity. But there is another important truth to consider: we are not the first Christians to celebrate an anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Far from it, there is a long legacy of celebrating and remembering the inherited legacy from that very important period in Christian history, and world history for that matter.
It this legacy of remembering the Reformation that Howard addresses. The book itself is rather small in its dimensions and short in its breadth. The prose is simple (though not simplistic) and engaging. It contains a mere four body chapters along with an introduction and conclusion. The book also contains many self-evidently helpful images of realia from past celebrations of the Reformation. These objects include commemorative coins, postage stamps, posters, paintings, and sculptures. These images become essential aids in Howard’s account of remembering the past.
Essentially, Howard is interested in the remembered past rather than the past itself. He is not writing a history of Protestantism or an history of the transmission of Protestant ideas in the wake of the Reformation. Rather, Howard’s focus is on the acts of remembrance such as celebrations, dedications of statues, church gatherings, conferences, political rallies, university lectures, etc. These acts of remembrance were diverse and differed in important ways from country to country and from century to century.
The chapters themselves focus on 1617 and 1717 together; 1817; 1883 (the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth); and finally the twentieth century. Throughout this treatment, many diverse understandings of Luther immerge especially when comparing the remembrance of Luther in Germany and the US. However, there are also several common threads throughout Howard’s treatment. One of these threads is growing sense that Luther changed the world and paved the way for many of the greatest developments in Europe and beyond including the Enlightenment. Howard catalogues a remarkable number of individuals who viewed Luther as the catalyst for all that followed him. A sense that Luther’s feeing the church from the papacy led to an all-encompassing spirit of freedom in the protestant world. This spirit of freedom in turn came to include the call for political freedom, freedom from oppression, and for some even freedom from religion.
In the conclusion, Howard offers many helpful thoughts for this current year’s remembrances of Luther. To be sure, however, the insights of Howard’s book are too wide ranging to be distilled into one short review. Suffice it to say, however, that each generation must struggle with the temptation to cast Luther in its own image. Simultaneously, each generation must be aware that its own cultural context shapes, for good or ill, its own reception of Luther. This is no less true now than in any previous generation. In the end, this is a fascinating volume that helps the reader understand, not only the history of Reformation commemoration, but also the legacy of the reformation in a secondary way.