It was, in part, Martin Lutherâ€™s love of words that made him so attractive to me as a subject for biography. That, and the looming 500th anniversary of his issuing, on 31 October 1517, of the 95 Theses that kickstarted the Protestant Reformation. The quincentenary has been marked around Europe with celebrations jointly organised by the Lutheran World Federation and (remarkably) the Vatican.
The two are now evidently the best of friends, but five centuries ago Lutherâ€™s determination to give the word of God to the people by translating the Bible into German â€“ rather than leaving it locked away in Latin and the sole preserve of â€œexpertâ€ Roman cardinals and theologians â€“ was a defining moment in humankindâ€™s love affair with the printed word. Read the gospels for yourself, Luther urged, and make your own mind up about what they mean.
We have been doing it ever since, often in works of fiction that have given us some memorable Protestant characters.
1. The Reverend John Ames in Marilynne Robinsonâ€™s Gilead (2004)
A 74-year-old Congregationalist pastor in a small Iowa town, Ames looks back over his life and faith in this Pulitzer prize-winning novel. His account of his father and grandfather â€“ both called John and both pastors, but radically different in how they live out that commitment to God â€“ sees the Calvinist Robinson explore the many faces of Protestantism. Amesâ€™s own inability to forgive the wayward son of his pastor friend, meanwhile, offers moving insight into the struggle of faith.
2. Harry Angstrom in John Updikeâ€™s quartet of Rabbit novels (1960-90)
While not perhaps a churchgoing Protestant himself â€“ â€œwithout a little of it, youâ€™ll sinkâ€ is his verdict on religion â€“ â€œRabbitâ€ Angstrom is a peerless observer of guilt-ridden, hypocritical Protestant middle America, caught between an instinctive self-righteousness and the appeal of the strip joint in the shopping mall. But his creator, John Updike, was a Protestant to his bones, first a Lutheran, then a Congregationalist and finally an Episcopalian (Anglican). Likening Ronald Reagan to God, Updike once remarked: â€œYou never know how much he knows, everything or nothing.â€
3. Christian in John Bunyanâ€™s The Pilgrimâ€™s Progress (1678)
In this Puritan preacherâ€™s celebrated allegorical account of a journey from the earthly â€œCity of Destructionâ€ to the heavenly â€œCelestial Cityâ€, the impressionable but impulsive Christian takes the occasional wrong turn, burdened as he is by the weight of sin that he carries with him. Unable to persuade his wife and children to accompany him, he survives the â€œSlough of Despondâ€ and crosses the â€œriver of Deathâ€ before finally reaching a happily-ever-after ending with God.
4. Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantelâ€™s Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012)
Mantel has won much acclaim for her rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmithâ€™s son who rose to be Earl of Essex and, as Henry VIIIâ€™s right-hand man, gave the English version of the Reformation a much more Protestant shape than it might otherwise have taken. But her Cromwell, many historians insist, is a work of fiction, her emphasis on his humanity (his grief for his dead wife and daughters, even his loyalty to his one-time patron Cardinal Wolsey) distorting the reality of religious zeal and ruthless ambition that ultimately saw him meet the same fate on the scaffold as those he had mercilessly sacrificed in his climb to high office.
5. Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoeâ€™s Robinson Crusoe (1719)
This fictional autobiography of a castaway, who passes his time on a deserted island reading the Bible, and converting his prisoner, Man Friday, to Christianity, has been taken as many things. It has been read as a prototype of European colonialism; a pilgrim journey; a tale of spiritual deliverance; and the story of the development of the Protestant work ethic â€“ this last via Crusoeâ€™s ceaseless, Bible-fuelled determination to unquestioningly embrace what comes his way as â€œthe will of the Lordâ€. In other writings, Defoe was well-known as a Puritan moralist.
6. Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorneâ€™s The Scarlet Letter (1850)
His congregation in Boston regards Dimmesdale as the personification of holiness, but he knows that he better exemplifies human frailty, having secretly fathered a child out of wedlock with Hester Prynne. The more he tortures himself (mentally and physically) because he cannot confess his sin, the better his sermons become and the more he is revered. The â€œgood worksâ€ that he does, though, have no value in getting him into heaven, according to the Protestant canon established by Luther, so Dimmesdale is condemned by his own moral rigidity.
7. Joseph in Emily BrontÃ«â€™s Wuthering Heights (1847)
Though his heavy Yorkshire dialect can make the utterances of this long-standing servant at Wuthering Heights challenging to follow, his espousal of a rigid, unbending Protestantism is plain enough. Self-righteous, judgemental, Sabbath-watching and forever warning those around them that their immoral ways will lead them â€œstraight to the devilâ€, Joseph is without a kind or Christian thought, or a redeeming feature, to such a degree that he can seem an absurd caricature. His hell-fire version of religion, though, offsets the appeal of a different sort of supernatural pull felt by Catherine and Heathcliff.
8. Silas Marner in George Eliotâ€™s Silas Marner (1861)
A tale of redemption, the Silas Marner of the novelâ€™s title is a God-fearing weaver in a northern town, and a member of a tight-knit Calvinist congregation. His faith in others and his Lord is destroyed, though, when he is falsely accused of theft (actually carried out by his best friend). He is convicted when those who know him best draw lots to determine his guilt. He becomes a hermit and outcast, driven only by love of gold, but an act of kindness in rescuing Eppie, an infant whose mother has died, brings him happiness, new respectability and restores him to God.
9. Mother in Jeanette Wintersonâ€™s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
In her semi-autobiographical novel about a girl growing up in a fierce, inward-looking Pentecostal community in northern England, Winterson refers to the woman who adopts young Jeanette only as Mother. She is a terrifying creation (memorably captured in a TV adaption by Geraldine McEwan), fixed on raising her daughter as â€œone of Godâ€™s electâ€. Her love, though, is as conditional as the take on Christianity she embraces is narrow, and it is withdrawn when Jeanette falls for another girl. Motherâ€™s is a dualistic world: â€œShe had never heard of mixed feelings,â€ we are told. â€œThere were friends and there were enemiesâ€.
10. The Reverend Frank Fenwick in Anthony Trollopeâ€™s The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870)
The Church of England has always been a hybrid of Protestant and Catholic, usually referred to as its Low and High wings. While many of the vicars in Trollopeâ€™s Barsetshire Chronicles could hardly be labeled Protestant, in The Vicar of Bullhampton he gives us Frank Fenwick, who travels between the more Protestant inclinations of his youth towards Anglo-Catholicism. In what has been called Trollopeâ€™s most religious novel, Fenwickâ€™s struggles with a Low Church patron in the local landowner, and a Primitive Methodist minister next door, mirror the wider 19th-century fight for the soul of Anglicanism.
â€¢ Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident by Peter Stanford is published in paperback by Hodder & Stoughton, priced Â£10.99. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for Â£9.34.