With the arrival of Christmas upon us, it is not uncommon to see rankings of the most influential people over the past year.
Reading about The Next 100 Most Influential People in the doctor’s office this month reminded me of a similar ranking that was published twenty years ago at the turn of the millennium.
Entitled Biography of the Millennium: 100 People—1000 Years, the A&E film production interviewed a variety of historians, theologians, academicians, and politicians as to the 100 individuals they believed to have had the greatest influence (for better or worse) in world history from 1000 AD to 2000 AD.
While the inclusion and ranking of many of the individuals on A&E’s top 100 list may be debatable, few can argue the choice of the number one influential person of the millennium
This German inventor made it possible for billions of people to read the Christmas story for themselves each year —reaching his eternal goal to shine the light of God’s Word around the globe.
The top influencer? Johannes Gutenberg.
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 transformed the world—signaling the dawn of the information age. As historian Thomas Carlyle declared, “He who ﬁrst shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.”
Printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1455, the most signiﬁcant book he would ever print would be his ﬁrst: a copy of the Latin translation of the Bible known as The Vulgate.
In the years that followed, the Gutenberg press also enabled the translation of the Bible from its original languages of Hebrew and Greek into the common languages of the people.
Consider the vision of Gutenberg’s work: “Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books, which conﬁne instead of spreading the public treasure. Let us break the seal which seals up holy things, and give wings to truth, in order that she may go and win every soul that comes into this world, by her word, no longer written at great expense by a “hand easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.”
From our 21st century perspective, it is hard to fathom the radical precedent of having a Bible translated in your own language. And while it is easy for us to take for granted reading the Christmas story this time of year, Gutenberg realized the power of unleashing God’s Word’s by putting Bibles into the hands of the average man and woman–achieving his eternal goal:
“Yes, it is 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 heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”
By making the Bible much more accessible, Gutenberg’s invention led to an increase in literacy and inspired Christians to create and innovate in the areas of literature, science, music, and art to name a few disciplines of discovery. Furthermore, his invention fueled technological and artistic innovations by helping spread the ideas of the Renaissance, and political and religious revolutions as well, most importantly, the Reformation and the spreading of Christianity.
Susan Scola, Docent Emeritus of the National Gallery of Art notes, “Reformation leaders such as John Calvin and his followers in France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands developed political ideas to give people a voice, including constitutional government, representative government, and the right of people to change the government.”
And as I share in my book In Whose Image?, the impact of Gutenberg’s press is almost beyond estimation–being the only means of mass communication for the next four hundred years.
Along these lines, the great composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention. Entitled “Festgesang,” it was performed at the Leipzig Festival in 1840. The melody of this homage to the worldwide impact of Gutenberg’s work would later be used in William Cummings version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”—still sung by millions today.
As we contemplate the birth of Jesus this December, it is amazing to consider how Gutenberg’s God-inspired invention opened the doors for the spread of the Gospel worldwide through the printing of the Bible and the related printing ﬁelds of books, newspapers, journals, magazines, and sheet music.
Today, the Holy Word of God has now been read by more people and published in more languages than any other book in world history. Thus, Gutenberg’s concern and prayer for the souls of people around the world was answered far greater than he could have ever imagined as he brought forth the Christmas story: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
A great influence to celebrate this Christmas!