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  • A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation by Craig Harline
  • Susan Mobley
A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation. By Craig Harline. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 300 pp.

As the title suggests, this book covers the initial years of Luther's Reformation, starting just before the appearance of the (in)famous 95 Theses in 1517 and ending with Luther's return to Wittenberg in 1522 after his ten-month stay at the Wartburg. While books on Luther proliferated in the anniversary year of 2017, Harline presents a novel perspective on the beginnings of Luther's Reformation by focusing on details often omitted from more general accounts of the Protestant Reformation and by presenting a perspective different from most Luther biographies.

The novelty of the approach is seen in the opening pages, which sketch an encounter that occurred in 1522 at a tavern in Jena between a couple of Swiss students bound for Wittenberg and a man dressed as a knight. The scene could come straight out of a work of historical fiction, but Harline uses it to set the tone for his book and to introduce its main character—Martin Luther. As Harline clearly states, the intent of the book is to introduce Luther and the tumultuous start of the Reformation to a general readership who might have heard of Luther but who have no idea who he was and who perhaps accept the Reformation as an inevitable event in history, rather than the totally improbable thing that it actually was.

Harline does an excellent job of sketching the historical context and drawing the reader into it, encountering various historical figures, even Luther himself, as real people, revealing them as very much like people today. Harline tries to bring the reader into the minds of the historical figures: "Brother Martin was stunned" (86) and "unsettled" (249); Johann Eck was "thrilled" and "frustrated" (155); Aleandro "feared" (210); and "Frederick wasn't fooled for a [End Page 213] second" (252). Harline attempts to present the characters of his story in a multi-dimensional way, bringing in not only their written words and actions, but also their inner thoughts and priorities. Therein lies the book's greatest strength, and at the same time its greatest weakness.

Although Harline relies upon a wide assortment of primary documents as the foundation for his "peculiar telling of [Luther's] story," they give only a limited view into the minds and motivations of the chief actors (1). The rest of the details must be filled in based upon conjecture and educated guesswork. Moreover, it is not always clear to the reader when Harline is basing his narrative on specific evidence, or when he is extrapolating based upon the source materials. For example, the attentive reader does not discover until page 247 that the opening scene of the book involving Knight George in a tavern was based upon an account written years later by one of the Swiss students.

As a way of introducing a general audience to the wildly improbable Reformation and the even more improbable instigator of it, Martin Luther, the book succeeds on every level. However, before the book could be used effectively to develop historical understanding—in, for example, an academic setting, Bible study, or book club—additional information must be provided. Historical notes specific to each chapter, particularly to highlight the sources used to construct Harline's version of events, would be helpful in delineating more clearly what we do and do not know. The more inquisitive reader would appreciate a chronology or timeline of events as well as a glossary or catalogue of persons and terms to help keep the multitudinous details straight. A list of Luther's works mentioned or referenced in the book with a brief descriptor could perhaps serve as a reference for those who want to delve more deeply into Luther's thought.

Harline's book should be appreciated by those who labor on a daily basis to get people (students) to take some interest, any interest, in history and by those who struggle to view historical figures as real...


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pp. 213-214
Launched on MUSE
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