Interview with Andrew Wilson
PTS alumnus and author of Here I Walk
Where did the idea for the pilgrimage come from?
It was while my wife Sarah and I were PhD candidates at PTS, and in particular while I was teaching Church History 101, that I read how Luther went on a pilgrimage to Rome. I’d known that fact for years, but for some reason it struck me at the time that Luther was a hiker. I grew up hiking in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest; after college I even hiked 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through Oregon and Washington. I’d always been looking for similar adventures, but I never knew how to marry long distance walking with my career as a scholar—which consists mostly of sitting and reading. When I realized that the 500th anniversary of Luther’s pilgrimage was coming soon, I said to Sarah that we should try and do it. It wasn’t until we moved to Strasbourg, France, that the idea became a real possibility. Sarah’s work there at the Institute for Ecumenical Research gave our proposed trek a purpose: to bring attention to Luther not as the later Reformer, but as a teacher for the whole church. Following his pre-Reformation steps to Rome seemed like a powerful symbolic gesture. And we’d use the trip to find out more about Luther’s world in general.
Where did you walk? How did you find your way?
It was not at all as straightforward as we had imagined. The later Luther had a lot to say about Rome, but very little about his journey there, and almost nothing to indicate his route. We finally drew up our itinerary based on hundred-year old German scholarship, but that still didn’t tell us where to place our feet precisely. Many of those late medieval roads are now buried under modern highways, so we borrowed the pleasant walking trails pieced together by the modern pilgrim movement. In Germany we mostly followed sections of the Jakobsweg (German for Camino de Santiago); from Pavia in Italy, we walked along the Via Francigena. It was not Luther’s route precisely, but close enough, and more importantly, pleasant and safe for pedestrians.
What were some highlights of your trip?
The most stunning scenery we found in the Val de Chiavenna, just up the valley from Lake Como, where the toothy Bregaglian Alps loom above terraces of chestnut trees. Germany was full of picturesque villages, ornately decorated churches, and prosperous farmland. I was particularly moved by the open, arid, volcanic landscape just south of Siena—it reminded me of my home in eastern Washington. Our most touching moments involved being invited into peoples’ homes. In Oettingen the church organist gave us a pleasant room to sleep in and a blaring Bach awakening; in Chiavenna a boisterous Catholic family was overjoyed to discover that Luther, whom they loved, had been in their town, and proclaimed their hope for renewed ecumenical reconciliation.
What did you learn that you had not expected beforehand?
I was expecting to find much, much more that Luther would have seen. Sure, there are a few churches, monasteries, and fortresses that Luther saw and even stayed in, but most of these have been rebuilt or altered significantly since he walked by. Between the old city centers there’s almost nothing. The crops are almost completely different, too: corn, soybeans, sunflowers, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco. Even rivers’ courses have changed. Five hundred years is a very long time. By contrast, so much of what Luther wrote is as clear today as when he put it down on paper. Ideas are much more durable than stone.
How did your studies at PTS contribute to your trip?
One of the greatest things about my PhD studies at PTS was the freedom to explore—and the time to do it in. It was my job, in a sense, to be curious. When we first thought of recreating Luther’s pilgrimage to Rome, I went to the Seminary Library (and the Firestone Library at Princeton University, across the way) and looked up every article and book that I could find about that episode of Luther's life. Having lived in various places—including Strasbourg with its Bibliothèque Nationale Universitaire—I can assure you that there is no better place than Princeton to do research in church history; there’s simply very little that is published that cannot be readily found there. When I found the literature I needed, it took a fair amount of time to read it in German—but again, I had the time and freedom as a grad student to do that. And all of this was for what was a very extracurricular activity, not even a real possibility at the time. There was simply no way I could have prepared for this unforeseen adventure without first having had the resources and time given me by PTS. In a world obsessed with productivity, it is a true luxury simply to follow a rabbit trail. And all this is to say nothing of all the coursework, reading, comps, conversation, and connections that make up the intellectual life at PTS, which one can never quantify or exhaust.
Your wife Sarah, also a PTS grad, was integral to the project. Tell us more about how she was involved.
The walk itself was only the framework for what we hoped would become a much larger conversation. We built a website (hereiwalk.org) and prepared a whole selection of historical and theological posts and excerpts from ecumenical documents. We encouraged readers of our daily blog to accompany us in thought and prayer. All of this was the fruit of Sarah's work at the Institute, which was itself the result of her work on an Orthodox theologian at PTS, as well as her teaching and reading Luther (and of course countless other theologians) there. Again, there is simply no way that the richness of the whole experience would have been possible without the connections and conversations that matured at PTS.
How did the walk become a book?
Not long after we finished, Sarah and I did some speaking in various places, including the Founders Day Lectures at Augsburg College. Our presentations were well received, but we didn’t really know how to approach a publisher with a book that would mix up so many genres: travelogue, Reformation history, theology, and memoir, among others. Luckily, David Nelson at Baker Academic had read our blog and approached us directly. In writing the book I discovered that the travelogue is, alongside the epic and the tragedy, perhaps the oldest and most versatile form of literature. If one reads Rebecca West, Robert Byron, or Patric Leigh Fermor, one quickly realizes that a journey becomes a gateway into an even richer imaginative world. Writing this book was my second—and, I would claim, my more significant and profound—pilgrimage. It was much more arduous than the first.
Here I Walk doesn't sound like a typical scholarly production. Tell us a bit more about it.
There’s a lot of scholarship under the hood, and I draw deeply from my PTS teacher Scott Hendrix, who has been supportive all along. But I hope above all that the book delights and edifies. In outline, the book simply recounts, stage by stage, our thousand-mile walk from Erfurt to Rome. The people that we meet, the natural wonders and architectural highlights that we experience along the way, provide occasion for historical and theological side trips. The reflection is focused on Luther, the Reformation, and its aftermath, but walking across Europe unearths many more and broader themes. The title, as many will recognize, plays on Luther’s own defiant words while on heresy trial at Worms—and by extension on Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, arguably the most popular Luther biography ever. I don't take issue with Bainton’s classic work at all; I only suggest we look to Luther less for what he changed—important issues though they are—than for what he maintained and passed on. There’s some wonderful evidence of this that I hope to bring attention to. But that’s all very much in the background.
Who is the book for?
It’s for laypeople and pastors and anyone who wants a gentle introduction to the issues of the Reformation and its aftermath, or who even just wants to walk across Europe in the company of a couple of theologians. With 2017 around the bend, the five hundredth anniversary commemorations have already begun. I hope that Protestants and Catholics and interested observers can approach it in the proper spirit, less beholden to flinty polemics of the past, more in the spirit of confession and forgiveness. It was over this doctrine of repentance and forgiveness that Luther posted his 95 Theses, and it would be appropriate for us to make it the center of our reflections.
Where can we find out more?
By reading the book, of course! Which you can find wherever you usually get your books. You can also find out more at the website, hereiwalk.org, which still has the original posts from 2010 and a few other things. Drop by!