Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West: Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872. On October 31, 1517, Reformer Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, igniting the Protestant Reformation

Before the founding of the United States, “Ruler’s Law,” not Rule of Law, was prevalent throughout the world.  Ruler’s Law meant that all power and decision-making rested in one central, authoritarian person or group.  In other words, the ruler was the law.  Whatever the ruler wanted or decided arbitrarily became the law.  This practice stemmed from the widely held belief in the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that rulers are directly appointed by and only accountable to God.  For about 5,000 years, nations of the world were ruled by Ruler’s Law through monarchs, dictators, or oligarchs.  The people had no rights to property or the fruits of their labor since rulers could simply take them away at will.  Power was exercised over the people by compulsion or force.

Ruler’s Law left the common man with excessive taxation, perpetual poverty and hunger, and no chance to improve his life.  Freedom of the people was unheard of, and domination/suppression of the people by their ruler(s) was a permanent way of life.  Slavery of people of all races and creeds was widespread and ongoing.

Ruler’s Law dominated until three major events occurred between 1440 and 1620:

1) the invention of the printing press around 1440

2) the igniting of the Protestant Reformation of the church in 1517

3) the settlement of the Pilgrims in North America in 1620

The Protestant Reformation in Europe notably led to translations of the Bible into the people’s common languages so that ordinary people, not just clergymen, could read and understand it.  Further, with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany around 1440 just prior to the Reformation, Bibles could be affordably mass printed.  The Reformation and the printing press modernized the Western world by making the Bible and books readable and available to the broader masses of people in Europe, America, and the world.  These events, in turn, led to a more widely literate and enlightened population who read and knew the Bible.  With such knowledge, the people could discern Biblical teaching and truths for themselves.

The increasingly literate people of that time began to study and learn principles for civil and religious life from the Bible—for example, that all humans are created by and made in the image of God, equal in God’s eyes, and equally subject to God’s moral law.  Subsequently, many denounced Ruler’s Law in society and began to assert popular sovereignty, or the people’s rule, and the “Rule of Law,” the principle that non-arbitrary civil law governs over all in civil society and that all (including rulers) are subject to this law.

This new, revolutionary thinking ultimately led the Pilgrims to voyage to the continent of North America in 1620 for religious freedom.  On this trip, the Pilgrims wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact of 1620—the first contractual agreement among free, equal people to form a civil self-government with just laws and sanctioned by God as witness.  The Pilgrims’ supreme ruler was not an earthly king but the impartial, just, and loving God.  With this agreement, the Pilgrims set up Rule of Law and provided freedom from the oppression of man’s arbitrary rule.

Thus these three historical “P” events—printing press, Protestant Reformation, and Pilgrims— influenced the Western and American values of man’s natural rights, equality, and freedom.  They set the course for the American governing principles of popular sovereignty, Rule of Law, and self-government under God.  The Declaration of Independence, written by the Founding Fathers of the United States, affirms “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These divinely-inspired values and principles are among the most important in Western and American life.

Contributed by AHEF and Jack Kamrath.

Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related Articles/Videos:
1.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
2.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
3.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
4.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation era
5.  The Reformation Led to the Translation and Printing of the Bible Into People’s Common Languages
6.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation
7.  When the People Rule:  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
8.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
9.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America

Activity:  Student Essay Question:  How did Ruler’s Law and enslavement of the masses begin to change?


Reading:  *Check out the essay, From Oppression to Freedom, in the Introduction of America’s Heritage: An Adventure in Liberty (starting on page 9).  (*Sign up as an AHEF Member (it’s free) to read the essay.)

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